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For Manchester schools, budget pressures build

New Hampshire Union Leader

March 18. 2013 11:41PM

MANCHESTER - Superintendent Thomas Brennan laid out a stark choice for aldermen on Monday: override the tax cap or pass a budget that will lead to larger class sizes next year and risk the mass exodus of students from sending towns.

Brennan was called before the Board of Mayor and Aldermen to present two proposed budgets for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins July 1: a tax cap budget of $155.7 million and a "school approval" budget of $159.5 million.

Several of the aldermen expressed support for the larger spending plan advocated by Brennan, but stopped short of backing an override of the tax cap, which limits the growth in the school district budget to 2.17 percent over last year. An override must be approved by a 10-vote majority of the 14-member board. The larger budget would be a 4.67 percent increase over last year.

Ward 1 Alderman Joyce Craig indicated that the board consider sending surplus funds from this year's budget to the school district, as it did last year. This also resulted in district officials not knowing what they're final budget allocation would be until near the end of the school year, a prospect criticized by Brennan.

"If we have to wait to see how many parking tickets we get - what we're losing is established staff," he said. "We can talk about about this or that... But without an override, I just don't see how it could be done any other way."

Other aldermen expressed skepticism that the tax cap budget, together with a $2.8 million technology bond, wouldn't be sufficient.

"I think we're always talking doom and gloom," said at-large Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur. "Last year was really tough. I think this is a heck of a lot different. We were talking losing 200 positions. With this tax cap budget we're only talking about losing positions through retirement, so there won't be any layoffs. There won't be any pink-slipping."

Brennan replied, "I don't see it that way."

The $159.5 million budget would allow the district to hire 41 additional teachers, and it would fill the positions of the 23 teachers leaving or retiring this year. The tax cap budget would allow the district to fill nine of those vacancies, with no new teacher hires.

Under Brennan's plan, 19 of the new teachers would be placed in the high schools, 15 in the middle schools and seven in the elementary schools.

Other aldermen questioned the technology bond, which would go toward purchasing 5,000 new computers and tablets, building a WiFi network, training teachers, and upgrading intercom and telephone systems at all schools, which is considered a high-priority security measure.

"We should be fighting our hardest to meet minimum standards for adequate education, as set fourth by the state. That to me is what we should be focused on like a laser," Aldermen Garth Corriveau said.

"What concerns me isn't the merit of the technology bond; it's that we may taking eye off the ball."

Brennan conceded that the district was unlikely to see any short-term savings from the technology investment, and that even long-term savings were questionable. The would bond would be "foundation for the future," he said.

Mayor Gatsas, who has proposed a tax cap budget of $157.5 million similar to the one laid out by Brennan, has expressed more enthusiasm for the technology bond.

"Whatever it does, this board needs to understand that in 2015, the state will be giving its tests on computer. So if you don't do it now, you're going to have to do it then. It's got to be done," Gatsas said.

Figuring prominently in the debate over the budget numbers was the prospect of losing high schools students from the sending towns of Hooksett and Candia.

The school boards in those two towns have taken steps to pull their high school students from the district, largely on the grounds that the state's class size standard of 30 students per teacher is being violated.

Brennan said that if the sending towns did pull their students it would result in a loss of more than $7 million in annual revenue for the district. "This would absolutely lead to higher class size, and it would be across the board, K though 12," he said.

But Gatsas questioned how likely it was that the communities, who have a contract with the district to send their students to city schools for another decade, would be able to remove their students en masse from the district.

"Is there another high school that could take 700 students?" he asked Brennan.

"No, there isn't," Brennan replied.

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