Next year, Hooksett parents will be free to withdraw their children from Manchester high schools and send them elsewhere. Will they? That depends on how responsive Manchester's school system is to their complaints.
Last week the Manchester Board of School Committee voted unanimously to end Hooksett's current tuition contract in 2014, four years before it was due to expire. Hooksett had sued the city, claiming breach of contract. The schools were out of compliance with state standards, a contract violation, Hooksett officials and parents have claimed. Rather than fight this in court, the school board made the decision to settle with Hooksett. It was the right call, even though it will mean a loss of revenue and could mean a swifter exodus of most Hooksett students.
The city could have gone to court, but losing would have been a real possibility, and it would have been a terrible outcome. It was better to reach a deal, end the antagonism, and begin the process of regaining Hooksett's trust.
Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas and many school board members believe that most Hooksett students who are in the city schools will stay there for now.
The challenge will be to win the trust of town officials and the parents of Hooksett middle-schoolers. That can be done in two ways.
The first is to improve communications. A longstanding Hooksett complaint is that Manchester officials were unresponsive to their concerns.
This deal takes the first step toward addressing that issue. The next will be to adopt the attitude that these are customers, not beneficiaries of a public service. "We want to win them over," at-large Manchester School Board member Dave Wihby told us last week. "They basically wanted us to open our eyes as to what was going on."
Ward 3 School Board member Chris Stewart made the same point. "We're going to sell ourselves," he said.
The second step is to improve the product. Many Hooksett (and Manchester) parents believe that the quality of Manchester's schools is sub-par. Again, if the school board considers these people customers, the solution is obvious: improve the product. If the school board and the administration does not make this the No. 1 priority in the next two years, Hooksett parents will withdraw their students en masse. The school board finally seems to get this.
"Two or three years from now, I tell ya, if we're not doing the job we're supposed to be doing, maybe they ought to go somewhere else," Wihby said. It is up to the school board to prevent that from happening - if it is not already too late.