MANCHESTER, N.H. – For just under two-and-a-half hours, 45 separate individuals came before the Manchester Board of School Committee (BOSC) on Monday, primarily to express their concerns on adding fifth grade to Manchester’s middle schools.
In the last board’s final meeting in December, just over $775,000 was approved to bring fifth grade to Southside Middle School in September 2021, paring back from a $2.2 million bond reassignment proposal shot down by the Aldermen that would have made Southside, McLaughlin and Hillside Middle Schools into Grade 5-8 schools along with Parkside Middle School, which became a Grade 5-8 school this school year.
The Grade 5-8 middle school plan is a key component of the district’s redistricting strategy, which seeks to reallocate space between overutilized and underutilized schools to reduce class sizes and create a more compartmentalized and organized feeder structure between different schools.
Most of the people speaking in the public forum spoke in opposition to the concept of adding fifth grade to middle schools. Some felt it was developmentally inappropriate to put fifth graders in the same school as eight graders, fearing a rise in bullying. Others felt that the district’s proposals were either not clearly communicated or communicated in a manner that seemed insincere, such as videos of students talking about the fifth-grade rollout at Parkside. Some others feared that Manchester’s middle schools were not properly equipped to handle the new school populations, particularly Hillside.
Many of the speakers were teachers and/or life-long Manchester residents and another frequently discussed point of opposition to the fifth-grade proposal was a feeling that other priorities should be addressed first, most notably a new contract with the Manchester Education Association, which had been without a contract for 562 days as of Monday.
Some of the speakers focused solely on this need, such as Craig Lessieur, an educator at Memorial High School.
Lessieur says he vowed in June not to shave until the teachers got a new contract, discovering new beard maintenance routines and jokingly began questioning whether his friends who tried to encourage him are truly his friends.
“I thought having a visual representation of the (then) 562 days without a contract might be a little more memorable than another number that might be forgotten. I did not think this through,” he said. “My wife asked me when I planned on shaving a couple of days before the school year. She was not happy and is not happy and told me if I ever wanted a kiss from her again that I need to remove this protest from my face. So I plead to all of you (on the BOSC) to save my marriage.”
“This beard is only seven months old and I fear it will reach my knees by the time we get a new contract,” he said.
All four of Manchester’s middle school principals also spoke during the public forum as well. Hillside Principal Brendan McCafferty spoke in opposition to the fifth-grade plan, McLaughlin Principal William Krantz said it could work at his school and others, but not without proper resources.
In contrast, Southside Principal Jessica Milligan supported the fifth grade proposal and acting Parkside Principal Keith Puglisi and other Parkside educators openly welcomed anyone to come to their school and see the new model firsthand.
“I think we need to start looking at things differently, and I’d ask the board to do that. What we’ve done in the past hasn’t worked, and that’s why we are where we are,” he said. “I want to publicly apologize to my teachers and students for the picture painted tonight of Parkside Middle School. For the past two months I’ve been there, that’s not what I’ve seen.”
The cavalcade of public response came in part due to a request by BOSC Member James O’Connell (At-Large) to table the funding proposal made in December, believing additional planning and public input is needed before a decision can be made.
O’Connell cited that Parkside is projected to be at capacity within two years and also voiced concerns with using a portion of West High School for the School District Offices and possibly using a portion of Memorial High School for kindergarten and preschool.
BOSC Member Arthur Beaudry (Ward 9) voiced concerns on O’Connell’s request to discuss tabling the proposal, citing that O’Connell’s request to discuss this matter on the agenda came after the deadline stated in the BOSC’s rules.
Mayor Joyce Craig replied to Beaudry that the BOSC was in session with its organizational meeting during the last deadline, also noting O’Connell is a new member of the board and she is within her right to place any item on the agenda. She also hoped that this discussion could end debate once and for all.
A vote to table O’Connell’s discussion failed by a vote of 10-3, with Beaudry joined by William Shea (Ward 7) and Joseph LaChance (At-Large).
Several members of the board voiced support for the fifth-grade move. Shea praised efforts he had seen firsthand at Parkside, and Peter Perich (Ward 8) spoke in favor of the idea stemming from his experience as a vice principal at a Grade 5-8 middle school. Others praised the feedback given during the night, with James Porter (Ward 1) asking all those who sought more resources for teachers to head to Aldermanic meetings and express their views, since the Board of Aldermen set the district’s budget.
BOSC Vice Chair Leslie Want (Ward 4) referenced former Manchester School Department Superintendent Vargas in support of the transition, stating his belief that certainty is vital and decisions must be made in a timely manner and supported once they are made.
“Vargas said that you have to have urgency because kids only get to be in first grade once, they only get to be in fifth grade once,” she said. “We need to be constant and send a clear message and make clear decisions.”
Superintendent John Goldhardt cited the diversity of opinions on the past board when noting their general support of putting Grade 5 in middle schools. He also took umbrage with people calling Parkside an “experiment” and that the primary reason for the move was anything other than improving the quality of Manchester’s schools.
“Without being disrespectful, I think it’s time to stop beating a dead horse. It’s time to move forward with this issue,” he said. “The more we go over it, and over it, and question it and question it, the more the community will be worried about it.”
No action was taken following O’Connell’s agenda item.
The Manchester School District is holding listening sessions for the new Middle School model over the next few weeks at Highland Elementary School (Jan. 21, 6:30-7:30 p.m.), Bakersville Elementary School (Jan. 27, 6:30-7:30 p.m.) and Hallsville Elementary School (Feb. 4, 6:30-7:30 p.m.)