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Manchester takes legal action to stop Hooksett school exodus

Union Leader Correspondent

May 10. 2013 1:07AM

HOOKSETT - The Manchester School District is seeking an injunction in the Hillsborough County Superior Court to halt Hooksett School District from reassigning students to other schools.

Hooksett has approved reassigning more than 60 students for reassignment, mostly to Pinkerton Academy and Londonderry High School.

However, Hooksett school board members said they are confident that they are complying with the contract and the law.

"I'm sorry that we came to this point," said Hooksett School Board Vice Chairman David Pearl. "We made every effort to sit down and talk to them. We're comfortable that we're (reassigning students) on a one-to-one basis. We're comfortable that we're operating within the contract."

The key allegation of the May 8 letter, signed by James O'Shaughnessy of Upton and Hatfield law firm and Manchester Superintendent Thomas Brennan, is that Hooksett's student reassignment policy is "without a bona fide case-by-case review," and as such constitutes an "intentional" breach of contract.

A part of the city's case is the October 2012 revision of Hooksett's "change in school assignment" policy, removing the requirement that a parent prove "hardship" before a child could be approved for reassignment. The new policy is actually a more lenient policy that had been in effect previously.

"The policy significantly liberalized the assignment procedure to allow any students' request for reassignment to be accepted by the Hooksett school board, subject only to conditions the Hooksett board deemed appropriate (and) no longer required parents to demonstrate a manifest educational hardship," states Manchester's letter.

The contract between Hooksett and Manchester, while noting that reassigned students have to be "approved for such attendance on a case-by-case basis," does not entail what that process should be or specify any requirements for reassignment.

Under the new policy, Hooksett requires parents or guardians to prove that they can provide transportation, meet extra tuition costs and that the student has been accepted to the alternate school. Then the board votes on the assignment.

The contract also does not limit the number of students who can be reassigned.

Members of the Hooksett school board said that Manchester has never expressed a "perceived limit."

The city says that language can be found in state law. RSA:193.3 states that parents "may" apply to a school board for relief in the case of manifest hardship, and that parents must "demonstrate the detrimental or negative effect on the pupil if the pupil continues to attend the school to which he/she is assigned."

The district goes on to say, that Hooksett's reassignment policy, given its lack of a hardship requirement, is an act outside of the board's specified powers.

Beyond the contract issue, however, the big issue is money.

Hooksett pays the Manchester district $8,500 per student in tuition. With a little over 60 eighth-grade students reassigned out of the city - more than 40 percent of the class, Manchester stands to lose about $500,000. Over the course of four years, Manchester would lose more than $2 million.

Manchester says that loss would "cause irreparable harm to all students attending school in Manchester, as it equates to losing between 10 to 15 full-time teachers in the district."

Manchester's letter calls for a hearing on an injunction no later than mid-July.

According to superior court officials, the hearing has not yet been scheduled.

Hooksett declared the city to be in breach of contract with the town in December 2012, largely over chronic classroom overcrowding, violating state standards. While Manchester has acknowledged the class size issue and has been working to address it with the state Department of Education, the city's official response to Hooksett denied that they were in breach and raised the issue of student reassignments.

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