June 26. 2013 10:36PM

Manchester school audit points finger at school committee itself

New Hampshire Union Leader

MANCHESTER — The city school system and the board that oversees it are unique — and not in a good way.

This was the broad conclusion, expressed in more precise and academic terms in a nearly 280-page report, of an audit of the Manchester School District conducted over the past school year.

Judy Birmingham, the lead auditor for Curriculum Management Systems, an Iowa-based education consulting company, presented the findings at a meeting of the Curriculum and Instruction Committee Wednesday.

"The theme is Manchester needs to work toward functioning as a unified school system, rather than a system of 23 schools," she said. "The way to do that is to provide a common foundation, written, where everybody knows specific policies and procedures."

Birmingham also pointed a finger squarely at the school board itself.

"Overall, we found the school committee members well-intentioned. But sometimes you need people with no ties to the district to say this is different than average," she said, singling out the board's tendency "to blur governance and administrative functions."

The report states, "Board of School Committee disharmony has compromised the board's ability to provide clear direction and focus for the management and operation of the district."

The overarching problem facing the district, Birmingham said, is a lack of curriculum alignment and assessment across the schools. State Department of Education reviews have found similar problems.

Birmingham recalled one interview with a teacher who told her, "We need a simple mission everyone understands and works toward. Now we're all sort of private contractors," she said

Birmingham led a team of four auditors, who visited every classroom in the district, reviewed many documents and conducted more than 90 interviews with teachers, administrators, parents and other "stakeholders," she said.

With charts and graphs, the report confirms that city schools lag well behind the state average in test scores and have a considerably higher dropout rate, and that the district has made little or no improvement over the past four years by these measures.

The report also confirms that performance varies widely from school to school and between white and minority students, including EL, or English Learner, students.

Birmingham said there appeared to be a willingness to accept the wide achievement gap between white and minority students — and she also noted that there very few teachers of color, whereas 34 percent of the district's students are minority.

"Your kids are basically taught by white females," she said. "We'd like to see an aggressive plan to do something about it. Are you going to be able to make it completely reflect the student body? No, but we'd like to see progress."

Ward 3 board member Chris Stewart praised the audit as "terrific," and he asked what a good next step would be.

"I think this should be used for the strategic plan," Birmingham said. "This is tremendous a gift to your new superintendent."