MANCHESTER, N.H. – For months, and indeed years, the Manchester Board of School Committee (BOSC) has been awaiting a long-term facilities plan. On Monday night an outline of that plan was presented to the BOSC on what is expected to be their final meeting until August.
Manchester School District Superintendent Dr. Jenn Gillis told the BOSC that the components of the plan will not be given with time frames, but rather with three phases that are expected to be approached in a dynamic fashion. Some components of the phases may take less time than others, may be undertaken simultaneously, and may be impacted by external factors that could impact their completion time frame.
In the first phase of the plan, a project manager will be assigned to oversee the district’s overall facilities renovation and potentially construction or demolition needs. This phase will also seek to secure funding for those efforts as well as synthesizing earlier efforts undertaken over the past four years.
The second phase of the plan will focus on renovation of current schools based on community feedback sessions that have taken place over the past year. Twelve of the city’s 13 elementary schools will potentially and likely receive some sort of initial renovation, with only Weston Elementary not on the list. Henry Wilson Elementary is expected to have the most in-depth renovations, with a potential complete rebuilding of the school.
This phase will also complete the transformation of the city’s four public middle schools into grade 5 to 8 model-type middle schools, completing a gradual four-year transformation that saw the city’s fifth grade classes move out of the elementary schools. Plans for the city’s public high schools will also be assessed. During public feedback, Manchester residents did not support merging the city’s public high schools into one super high school, but did support potential renovation or even rebuilding of the city’s current high schools.
In the final phase, each of the elementary schools will be assessed to determine long-term viability and any potential additional renovation, re-construction or mergers with other elementary schools. The final status of the city’s high schools is also expected to be announced at this time, also along with possible renovation, re-construction or mergers.
All three phases are expected during the 2022-’23 school year. A projected cost could not be provided, as ongoing changes in the city’s housing stock make the exact numbers required to meet school enrollment needs a moving target.
Reactions from BOSC members vacillated between appreciation that potential action is being taken to finally catch up with nearby municipalities like Nashua, and frustration that specific timelines are not being given.
Ward 4 BOSC member Leslie Want believed if a deadline was not given, a comprehensive approach addressing the city’s facility needs would never take place. She urged Gillis provide a deadline comparable to President John F. Kennedy’s national challenge of sending men to the moon by the end of the 1960s.
“We’ve been talking about things for a long time,” said Want. “Six years ago, there was a sense of urgency too, and yet here we are.”
At-Large BOSC member James O’Connell echoed those sentiments, saying action is needed and the lack of action in recent years has become an embarrassment to the city.
“It is the urgency of where we are today. What we’re doing is not right by our students, and everybody in this room knows it or most people do,” he said. “It has to change and we don’t have the luxury of time.”
Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig urged O’Connell to provide specifics that Gillis should adopt within the framework she presented during the meeting, with O’Connell saying that he respected the fact that Gillis has only been on the job for five weeks and trusts that she will work with alacrity despite the lack of a timeline.
In response to the frustration over a lack of concrete benchmarks, Gillis said the district is moving forward and it is part of her duty to provide a responsible path toward the district’s facilities needs.
Since the board is likely not meeting again until August, in response to Craig’s question over whether Gillis needed anything until that point, the BOSC approved $50,000 toward the hiring of a project manager with the use of Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds given to the city by the federal government or general funds from the district’s budget.
A proposed amendment by Ward 6 BOSC Member Ken Tassey to only allow ESSER funds did not find traction after Gillis said that the expected project manager needs may not meet ESSER requirements, which are tied to addressing the impact of U.S. schools by COVID-19.
The final approval of the funding did specify however, that ESSER money would be used toward the $50,000 amount unless it would not be permittable under ESSER guidelines, in which case general fund money could be used.
An update is expected in August and future joint facilities committee of the BOSC and the Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BMA) are also expected. In regard to those committees, O’Connell urged collaboration with the BMA but also urged the BOSC to take responsibility for spearheading the facilities initiative.