Chris Kehas: In Manchester schools, we see the results of failing to plan
In Manchester, there has always been a tension between the funding authority and the Board of School Committee, regarding support for the public schools. The reasons have varied through the years, but the tension has always existed.
Some will remember that up until the 1960s there was another player in the mix. A City Finance Commission appointed by the governor had final control of the purse strings; the Board of Mayor and Aldermen did not. Many were glad to see that commission disappear and Manchester's elected officials take control of the city finances. But that change did not result in any great changes for the public schools. The tension remained, only it shifted so that it was between the Board of School Committee and the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
This tension can and must be used in a positive, productive way. Both boards have to come together and develop some master plan for supporting the public schools. In the words of the famous Yogi Berra, "If you don't know where you are going, you'll never get there." There is much wisdom there. We have been basically reactive; we must become proactive.
Let's look briefly at some costly results of not having a master plan.
In the 1970s, Central High was allowed to become overcrowded, but we got "lucky" then. We were offered and bought the Girls Catholic High School-Immaculata, and we used it for 10 years. What to do after that? We made it an elementary school and closed some others. One was Straw Elementary, which had just been extensively remodeled and renovated. We closed it and sold it. Money well spent?
To fill the new Beech Street Elementary School, we closed some schools. Franklin was one. A bond issue had been floated, and Franklin was extensively renovated (including the installation of an elevator) to house citywide school administrative offices. Shortly thereafter it was demolished to make room for the Center of New Hampshire. Money well spent?
In 2001, as a reaction to overcrowding, a Citizens' Task Force on Public School Facilities was established. The task force included representatives from all of the sending towns. That committee unanimously recommended that facilities be built to accommodate only the projected Manchester city students, and to phase out the contracts with sending towns. The recommendation was not accepted, and a $105 million bond was floated, which has resulted in an excess of facilities such that the closing of West High is being considered by some. Within a short time, Bedford was gone. Auburn has left, and the citizens of Hooksett and Candia are restless. Money well spent?
For both boards, the main goal should be to improve the quality of life for the citizens of Manchester. To decide first what the needs of the city are, and then to pursue the funding necessary to serve and meet those needs. Strong, bold leadership is essential to accomplishing that.
As long as the Board of School Committee is perceived, and perceives itself, as caring only for the schools and not the entire city, and as long as the Board of Mayor and Aldermen is perceived, and perceives itself, as elected primarily to keep taxes down, and not do what is in the best interests of the city, then little if any progress will be made.
All too often, elected representatives say "what my constituents want..." or "my constituents would never support such and such." But here both boards have the same constituents. The alderman from a ward and the school board member from that same ward share the same constituents. They should not be in conflict with each other. They represent the same people and should be on the same page. And as long as one group controls the finances, it is essential for progress to be made that both boards act in concert.
There is another tension at play here. The boards are not simply a collection of individual wards. Board members represent a ward and they also represent the interests of the entire city. It would do well for all board members never to forget that.
Chris D. Kehas of Manchester is a former school board member from Ward 3.