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Only minor changes proposed for Manchester school redistricting

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 29. 2013 11:14PM

MANCHESTER - Superintendent Thomas Brennan wants to focus his redistricting plan on establishing a central preschool, which will likely mean only minor changes will be made to school attendance zones in the fall.

Brennan made the proposal to the Board of School Committee at its meeting Monday, after public forums earlier this month at which he presented plans that could have resulted in nearly 400 students being shifted to different schools in September. The reassignments were to be the first phase of a long-range plan that included proposals for a central preschool and the conversion of Manchester High School West into a multi-use school facility.

The largest component of the fall reassignment plan - moving 138 students at Weston Elementary - is "off the table," Brennan told the board, who said he's still evaluating other street-by-street changes.

"The preschool is a big nut to crack," he said. "When you have 138 students on two streets, where are you going to put them, if not to a place where a preschool is? So I take full responsibility for this. I tried to make it work, and I was wrong."

Brennan said a plan for a central preschool was too complex to be put in place in the fall, and would have to wait until 2014.

The proposal to focus on a central preschool is the latest shift since Brennan was given unprecedented authority last fall to implement a redistricting plan.

Mayor Ted Gatsas, who has been a strong proponent of redistricting since he took office, was clearly upset by the pace of the process.

"I think this board sent you on a mission ... and are you telling me there are going to be no moves in September? How many are we talking about - 5, 6, 20 students? That's not redistricting, that's not what this board sent you to do," Gatsas said.

Gatsas was an early supporter of a plan proposed by Ward 8 board member Erika Connors, which Brennan had indicated was the most promising proposal for a central preschool.

Under the plan, Jewett Street Elementary School would house the central preschool facility, freeing up space at the three other elementary schools where preschool classes are held. Southside Middle School could be converted into an elementary school to take the Jewett students, and the remaining three middle schools could absorb the former Southside students.

Brennan said he was also focusing his effort on identifying some of the nearly 1,300 students who are not attending their assigned schools - a priority for parents at the public forums earlier this month.

"It's a lot of work," Brennan said.

Amid the debate over the direction of the redistricting plan, Ward 10 board member John Avard made a suggestion to eliminate the concept of attendance zones and look at school choice.

"Maybe it's time to look at allowing parents to choose their own schools," he said. "If we open it up to school choice, if parents could send their kids to where they went, where they would have less competition at West (High), where if they try out for sports they're actually going to be able to play, I think we might resolve some of these issues."

Common Core standards

In other business Monday, the school board approved spending $83,900 on a contract to bring the district's elementary and middle schools into compliance with the Common Core State Standards for math and English.

The board voted 11-2 to award the contract, which will be funded with federal Title 1 District Professional Development Set-Aside funds, to the Public Consulting Group.

There were two other bids for the contract, one for $270,000 and the other for $31,600. The Curriculum and Instruction Committee determined that the low bidder was not qualified for the job.

The consultant will work with teachers over the spring and summer to adjust the curriculum and train teachers in line with the state standards.

Ward 9 board member Art Beaudry cast one of the two votes against the contract. Quoting concerns raised by an opponent of the Common Core curriculum, he said it "replaces the classics with government propaganda."

Brennan and Gatsas responded that such concerns were unfounded.

Ward 1 board member Sarah Ambrogi, the chair of the C&I Committee, said Common Core would be further discussed by the panel.

$20,000 more for legal tab

The board also authorized the negotiations subcommittee to spend up to another $20,000 for legal services, as it continues contract talks with the unions representing teachers and other district employees.

Avard, who chairs the subcommittee, said it was making progress in the talks, but that more work needed to be done. The committee had spent $23,000 on legal bills, $3,000 more than had been budgeted, he said.

Mayor Gatsas, who raised concerns about costs when the board first opted to hire the negotiator, pressed Avard on how much more money would be needed. This resulted in the $20,000 estimate.

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