FY’22 School Budget heads to mayor and BMA despite BOSC misgivings

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Handwriting on the wall inside the Manchester School District offices. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, N.H. –  On Wednesday night, the Manchester Board of School Committee (BOSC) approved a recommended budget for Fiscal Year 2022 to send to the mayor and then the Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BMA), but not without several notes of concern first.

In order to come within the city’s spending and revenue cap, better known as the tax cap, the proposed FY’ 22 budget came in at $173,111,686. This reflected a one-time budget deficit of just over $7.3 million in unexpected aid revenue shortfalls from lower-than-expected enrollment figures and free-and-reduced lunch voucher applications as well as unexpected new expenditures for staff retirement funding once paid for by the state.

In order to meet this figure of just over $173 million, a variety of cuts were highlighted by the proposed closure of Hallsville Elementary School, which requires significant infrastructure improvements according to a recent study brought before the BOSC. Approximately $2 million in CARES Act funding is also being put toward healthcare costs.

Manchester School District Chief Financial Officer Karen DeFrancis advised that it would not normally be advisable to put one-time funds toward continuing costs like healthcare expenditures, the unique nature of the COVID-19 impacted revenue fluctuations provided an appropriate exception to that rule.

Jeremy Dobson (Ward 5) also noted the unique nature of the pandemic and asked if the closure of Hallsville could be delayed by 12 months in case enrollment does indeed rebound in Manchester once the pandemic ends and the space at Hallsville becomes badly needed.

Dobson added that one of the key reasons district administration sought to transfer fifth-grade students from elementary schools like Hallsville into the city’s public middle schools is due to large class sizes at the city’s elementary schools. He also said that the fluidity of revenue projections in the near future on the enrollment and free-and-reduced lunch aid as well as other factors may make the short-term infrastructure savings from closing Hallsville a minor benefit compared to trying to make up the space lost there.

“Once we close Hallsville, we aren’t opening it back up,” he said.

Members of the BOSC also voiced concerns over a lack of clarity regarding closing unused portions of Manchester’s public high schools, with precise information over which portions of which high schools being not immediately available during the hearing.

Joseph Lachance (At-Large) said that overall, the cuts to the school budget did not go far enough. In contrast, Dr. Nicole Leapley (Ward 11) took the opposite approach stating that the budget reflected a burden of inequity Manchester students face in per-pupil-spending costs, which are currently the lowest in the state.

“I have a hard time when I hear we haven’t cut enough,” she said. “I do not think it’s okay that if you’re born in Manchester that you’re entitled to less education that if you’re born in Waterville Valley or Portsmouth or Amherst.”

Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig agreed that the proposed tax cap budget is not ideal, but noted that as mayor she has a sworn obligation to bring in a budget within the tax cap and that the rest of the city is also facing budget challenges due to reduced municipal revenues and other increased responsibilities downshifted from the state.

That resignation toward making the most of a hard situation was the closest anyone on the BOSC got toward optimism on the evening.

“As a school district, we have to face reality and the budget that was prepared by Karen (DeFrancis) and others was as good and sound a budget as possible,” said William Shea (Ward 7).

Some on the board, such as Leapley and James Porter (Ward 1) also said that addressing structural roadblocks within the city’s tax cap that led in part to this budget and the inability to accept state revenue assistance during last year’s budget, may also have to be addressed in the future.

Along with the $173 million tax cap budget, the board also approved a level-funded budget for BMA consideration ($180,467,932), separate capital improvement projects requests ($4,775,000), and reimbursement for the FY’ 21 School Food and Nutrition Budget ($5,692,516) as well as a request for $400,000 in forgiveness from the BMA toward a $2.8 million loan for textbooks.

The motion passed 10-4, with Kathleen Kelly-Arnold (Ward 2), James O’Connell (At-Large), Leapley and Dobson opposing.

Prior to the meeting in what was a rarity for the board, no members of the public registered comments in the public forum regarding the budget hearing.