MANCHESTER — School board members are expressing both concern and optimism in response to the news that Hooksett will be entering talks to send all its high school students to Pinkerton Academy next year.
The Hooksett School Board this week gave the go-ahead for Superintendent Charles Littlefield to pursue a contract with Pinkerton to send its 600 high school students to the school. The move comes after Hooksett and Manchester reached a settlement late last month that ended the city's lawsuit against the town and the town's effort to have the city declared in breach of its tuition contract.
Under the settlement, Manchester agreed that this school year would be Hooksett's last in the 20-year contract the two parties entered into in 2003. Hooksett students would be allowed to continue to attend city high schools through 2018, when incoming freshmen this year would graduate. At the same time, Hooksett would pay a higher tuition rate for these years, starting at $10,200 in 2014 and rising to $10,824 for 2017. The town currently pays $8,500 per student. The town would also continue to pay capital costs totaling $792,000 through 2018, and it would pay the city an additional $200,000 through 2015.
The Manchester school board approved the agreement unanimously, while the agreement was only narrowly approved by the Hooksett board, and it continues to generate dissension among its members.
The Manchester board approved the agreement partly out of the recognition that a large number of Hooksett parents had already sought to pull their kids from the district. An estimated 60 to 70 students had sought alternative placements this year, close to half the incoming class. It's not clear at this point how many Hooksett students will be part of the freshmen class at Manchester high schools.
"We can only do so much. They're going to do what they do," said at-large school board member Kathy Staub. "We wanted to let them know their high school education is not going to be interrupted, and we'd love for it to continue .... In five years, we're planing to have the best high schools in the state."
Staub added that some Hooksett parents may have doubts about Pinkerton, which is in Derry. "They may not have an idea what it's like to send a kid so far away," she said.
Other board members echoed the view of Mayor Ted Gatsas, that many parents in the town feel a loyalty to Manchester.
Ward 10 board member John Avard questioned how much support there was in Hooksett for a switch to Pinkerton. If all the students go to Pinkerton, Avard said, "that's going to be a school that would be in the range of 3,600 students. That's a huge difference. To me, that takes opportunities away — athletics, clubs, student council. You're going to be competing with so many other students."
The issue is particularly important to Avard, who represents the West Side and whose children have attended Manchester High School West, where most of the Hooksett students go. Even without the departure of Hooksett, there has been discussion of closing or converting West High because it is under-capacity. But Avard said he was confident West would stay open.
"Even if Hooksett left, you'd be losing 500 of their students. There will still be 1,000 West Side kids. You're not going to be able to make that room available in the other schools," he said.
Other board members, however, have raised concerns about the impact of Hooksett leaving, particularly the lost revenue. If all of Hooksett's students leave, it could cost the district $500,000 to a $1 million a year in tuition.
"The more I read this, and see nobody coming out to push them to stay in Manchester, I'm very pessimistic," said Ward 9 board member Art Beaudry. "We're going to need to start looking at future revenues."
Beaudry added that he thought keeping West High open would be a challenge. "I can't see how we're going to do it," he said. "We still got to teach the kids and heat the building and keep the lights on."
Still, Beaudry conceded that "hindsight is 20/20."
"To try to force (Hooksett) to stay, I don't know what good that would've been," he said. "We would've been spending hundreds of thousands on attorneys fees. At this point, I'd rather spend the money on the schools."