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Hooksett continues to discuss high school plans

HOOKSETT — The seven member Hooksett School Board met for the first time Tuesday night, and while there are five fresh faces at the table, the primary focus of the group remained establishing a high school solution for the district.

The board, following the electorate's rejection of the district's 10-year contract with Pinkerton Academy, voted unanimously to support Superintendent Charles Littlefield reaching out to Pinkerton Academy to discuss the potential for extending the current enrollment agreement to Hooksett seventh graders.

All parties agreed a long-term plan is a priority, and officials from both Pinkerton and Manchester said Wednesday they're eager to work with Hooksett if the opportunity presents itself.

"We look forward to hearing formally from the Hooksett School District about its high school plans," said Mary Anderson, headmaster at Pinkerton Academy. "The Board of Trustees will discuss options when they've been presented to us."

Manchester Superintendent of Schools Debra Livingston said she's excited for the chance to rekindle the longstanding alliance between her district and Hooksett.

"I am delighted and honored to work with them in any way shape or form to rebuild our relationship," she said. "I think we can have outstanding discussion for the benefit of the Hooksett children, who have really always been our children as well."

Livingston said Manchester's curriculum committee voted Tuesday night to welcome a representative from both Hooksett and Candia.

"My hope is that Hooksett and Candia can feel that Manchester is their school district," she said. "We're a district on the move and we are really working to build children's aspirations, and I'm very hopeful we can do this together."

Residents at Tuesday's school board meeting were split on a preferred high school.

Former Hooksett School District Moderator Dave Hess, a state representative, was first in a long stream of resident who stepped to the microphone for public comment. He asked that board members disabuse Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas' sentiment that the March 11 vote was a nod of support to Queen City high schools.

Hess noted the two primary concerns he heard from residents on election day pertained to the travel time for students to reach Derry and the uncertain course for Hooksett students should they not meet the requirement that 90-percent attend Pinkerton.

He suggested the board check the pulse of voters by establishing a number of professional focus groups to eliminate any actual or perceived bias. Hess said he was on a district high school study committee in the 1970s and further nudged the board to revisit the idea of building a high school in Hooksett.

"I'm not suggesting that's the conclusion one should draw today, certainly (studying the possibility) is a way to go and an option that should be on the table," he said.

Kara Salvas agreed with Hess' focus group idea and also suggested the district poll current fifth, sixth and seventh graders as to their high school preference. In addition, she encouraged the school board to work to extend the Pinkerton enrollment agreement for current seventh graders.

"All these things can be done simultaneously," she said.

While several others echoed that sentiment, others, like Tom Coty and Jason Hyde, preached patience and due diligence.

"Take your time to figure it out ... it's important you don't rush into these things again," said Coty. "What you've been doing the last year and a half brought us to this point. You've put us into a lot of money situations the town shouldn't be in right now. You've raised taxes $2 million this year, and you can't keep doing things like that and expecting Hooksett to pay for it. You are accountable to the taxpayer."

"Please take your time and don't do anything rash," said Hyde, a former school board candidate. "I know it's an emotional subject, and yes, it's our kids, but there are ways everyone can win, and I suggest working with the superintendent, working with other school districts, and exploring options outside of a long-term contract ... that can put us in future financial trouble."

In addition to supporting a discussion with Pinkerton on an extension to the current enrollment agreement, school board members voted to keep lines of communication open with Manchester, to arrange a meeting with Livingston and to schedule a briefing with legal council on the district's current standing with the Queen City following last year's settlement agreement that allowed Hooksett to exit its 20-year contract five years early.

Each of the seven members also agreed to begin shaping the district's high school plan at the their next meeting, which is scheduled for Tuesday, April 1. They further agreed to add the topic as a regular agenda item going forward."The issue is extremely complex issue," said Littlefield, "and I think it would be a wonderful idea if the board scheduled a special meeting sooner rather than later and started with a blank state and identified all the elements of the high school issue that need to be addressed so we can establish a more global view of where we're going and then chunk out all the individual issues from there."

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