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November 26. 2013 9:54PM

Committee seeks end to Manchester’s open elementary school classrooms

MANCHESTER — A key school board committee has placed sealing up open classrooms at two elementary schools at the top of its wish list for capital projects.

The Building and Sites Committee voted on Tuesday to make enclosing the classrooms at the Beech Street and Webster schools the highest priorities in its Capital Improvements Plan (CIP). The list will be sent to the full board and then on to the aldermen, who will ultimately determine what items on the list, if any, will be funded.

Committee Chairman John Avard, Ward 10, said eliminating the open-concept classrooms, which were part of a trend 30 years ago, was long overdue. “With recent events in other communities, where we had tragedies in the schools, I would think not having walls and doors should rise to the level of protecting students,” he said.

Both Superintendent Debra Livingston and Mayor Ted Gatsas have said the open classrooms, which can contain up to 80 students, are not conducive to learning.

The classrooms are most prevalent at Beech, and rebuilding the walls is estimated to cost $3.4 million. At Webster, where there are fewer such rooms, the project estimate is $750,000.

The subcommittee on Tuesday made a couple changes to the CIP plan, moving up a list of more than a dozen “life-safety issues,” as identified by principals, to the number four priority. The list includes a number of items, such as making window coverings at Central High fire retardant.

The committee also voted to alter the costliest item on the CIP list, $5.4 million for a new preschool facility, to remove the word “new.” The change was made to allow any preschool funds to go toward retrofitting an existing school, rather than erecting a new building.

Given the budgetary climate, it is unlikely that the aldermen will be willing to fund a significant share of the projects, and because of a looming shortfall in the district’s budget this year, there will likely be little money to cover new bonds.

Avard acknowledged as much. “Between the tuition rate,” he said, referring to a drop in revenue from the sending towns, “and where the tax rate ended up, I don’t think it’s likely we’ll get much more money.”

But Ward 9 board member Art Beaudry said the board had to make its case to the aldermen.

“If we can only get one project, it should be Beech Street School. To me, that is the most vulnerable school in the district,” he said.

tsiefer@unionleader.com


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