MANCHESTER, N.H. – On Tuesday, representatives from the Manchester School District came to the Board of Aldermen recommending that “rebooting” $2.1 million approved in bonding for preschools be placed toward proposed middle school redistricting efforts, only to find a mixed response.
After discovering that space projections at Manchester Memorial High School and Manchester School of Technology was less than what was needed, Manchester School District Superintendent John Goldhardt and several other officials provided the Aldermen with a request to reallocate that bond funding toward renovating Manchester’s middle schools as part of a plan to maximize space utilization.
In September, Parkside Middle School transitioned from a Grade 6 to Grade 8 school to also include fifth-graders as well, the first of Manchester’s four middle schools to transition to into a four-grade school.
In Goldhardt’s request, which passed the Board of School Committee by 14-1 vote in November, he asked to reword the original bond to allow that funding to be put toward several initiatives that would facilitate the transition of Manchester’s other three middle schools into following Parkside as Grade 5-8 schools that would compartmentalize students into “mini-schools” within the schools.
Supporters of the proposal such as Ward 9 Alderman Barbara Shaw noted the increased opportunity for extra-curricular activities now at Parkside compared to Manchester’s other public schools.
Shaw, a former fifth-grade teacher, has been supportive of transforming the middle schools into Grade 5-8 schools since planning for the transition began under the tenure of former Superintendent Bolgen Vargas.
While he was initially skeptical, Goldhardt began to support the Grade 5-8 model after talking to other superintendents, although he noted that specific guidelines needed to be in place for it to be successful.
Echoing comments shared by Ward 7 Alderman William Shea, she urged the board to act now, citing the need for the transition and the added cost of delaying the process until later.
“Schools within a school is a concept that’s widespread, not just New Hampshire, but nationwide,” she said. “I would love parents who are skeptical to go and see how this operates at Parkside.”
She also challenged skeptics concerned that segregation of fifth graders from other middle school students was not stringent enough.
“As a teacher, I might be prejudiced, but I don’t understand the fear surrounding this whole thing,” she said.
Other Aldermen were more skeptical.
Alderman At-Large Joseph Kelly Levasseur voiced concerns that parents with children currently in fifth grade at Parkside may think twice about moving to other parts of the city before the transition is complete.
Alderman At-Large Dan O’Neil had criticism toward a lack of recent communication provided to parents over the transition, saying that constituents who had never voiced concerns about anything before shared fears about this transition.
And Ward 5 Alderman Anthony Sapienza voiced frustration at the sudden change of direction from what he saw as deliberate and thoughtful planning laid out by Vargas, believing the transition would negatively impact class sizes in Manchester’s middle schools.
“I’ve been here four-and-a-half years and I’ve done my best to support the school board and I think I’ve been a big supporter of the schools since I’ve been in this seat. This almost came up last meeting and it didn’t, so I did some research and I’ve now seen the presentation three times,” said Sapienza. “With all due respect to the (school district’s) architect who says there is plenty of room, when I talk to the teachers on the front lines, they say there’s no room there.”
Manchester School District Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Gillis replied to class size concerns by stating that underutilized high school teaching positions will be moved throughout the district. She cited 12 teachers that recently were placed at Parkside and 4.5 positions hired at Northwest Elementary, one of the feeder schools for Parkside, paid for in appropriations not related to the bond.
Board of School Committee Vice Chairman Arthur Beaudry reminded the Aldermen whether they decide to adjust the bond or not, the middle school transition has been approved and the money for the infrastructural improvements would be found from other parts of the budget if needed.
A motion to have a required second hearing on the measure passed by a vote of 9-5, with Sapienza and Levasseur joining Ward 1 Alderman Kevin Cavanaugh, Ward 2 Alderman Will Stewart and Ward 10 Alderman Bill Barry in opposition.
The second hearing will take place at the next Aldermanic hearing in two weeks, and will require 10 votes to pass due to a provision in the city charter address votes on bond measures.