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July 28. 2013 9:18PM

Manchester, Hooksett school boards to meet on mediation

MANCHESTER — Another session with a court-appointed mediator lies ahead this week, as the Manchester and Hooksett school boards try to settle a suit filed by the city district aimed at stanching the exodus of tuition-paying Hooksett students from city high schools.

The Board of School Committee holds what is expected to be a private meeting Tuesday to discuss the mediation, which resumes Wednesday.

A marathon session was conducted by the mediator, former Judge Robert Morrill, earlier this month. The presiding judge in the case ordered two mediation sessions before the litigants return to her courtroom.

Participants in the mediation reported progress was made during the first session, which consumed some 10 hours.

The case is in superior court as the result of a suit filed by the Manchester School District, seeking to end Hooksett’s current practice of letting just about any family that wants to leave Manchester High School Central go to high school in other districts and pay for it with tuition money that had been going to Manchester.

The issue stems from a dispute between Hooksett and Manchester over whether the city district has defaulted on the so-called maintenance agreement under which Hooksett and Candia send their high school students to Manchester high schools.

Last December, Hooksett sent formal notice to the city that it considered Manchester to be in violation of the contract on a variety of grounds, most related to cutbacks in teaching staff that some blame for crowded classrooms and cutbacks in course offerings.

However, along with declaring Manchester in breach of the agreement, the Hooksett board also adopted a liberalized policy for students to transfer out of Manchester to another high school.

The contract says that the sending districts must send all of their high school students to Manchester with the exception of students granted an exemption by the sending town’s school board “on a case-by-case basis.”

Hooksett officials interpreted the requirement for case-by-case approval to mean a separate vote by its school board on each student and started granting exceptions, leading to Manchester’s lawsuit. In its suit, the city district sought temporary and permanent injunctions to stop implementation of the policy allowing easier transfers out of Manchester. The judge in the case ordered mediation in an effort to get the parties to agree to a settlement.

The contract makes the state Board of Education the arbiter of whether Manchester has failed to live up to its obligations in the contract between the two districts.The court case can decide only whether Hooksett broke the contract by allowing an easier way for parents to pull their children from city schools before the state board holds hearings on the issue of whether Manchester defaulted.

City leaders have expressed optimism that the talks will lead to a settlement of the issues separating the two districts, and the two sides have the option of seeking a resolution to the entire dispute through the mediation process.

Morrill, the court-apponted mediator, was a superior court judge for a quarter-century and has been a professional mediator for the past half-dozen years.billsmith@unionleader.com


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