The Manchester Board of School Committee met in a marathon session last night and things got off to a rocky start as board members expressed their displeasure with the management of the district’s Driver’s Education program,which has gone one hundred eighty thousand dollars in the red over the past four years. Program Director Mike Dubisz blamed the shortfall on sagging enrollments he said were a result of the poor economy. He came forward to discuss the plan already adopted by the board which reduced his own hours as administrator from twenty per week to eleven and increase the tuition from five hundred twenty five dollars to five hundred seventy five. He projected about twenty thousand dollars in new revenue from the fee hike and said the reduction of his hours would save roughly twelve thousand dollars, producing a more than thirty thousand dollar surplus that could be used to start paying down the program’s deficit.
That didn’t go over too well with Ward Ten Committeeman John Avard who said he was opposed to increasing fees on incoming students to correct financial problems they didn’t create and asked why, if there’d be a surplus without the fee increase, the fees should be increased. Dubisz said the fees had been too low in previous years and the deficit needed to be eliminated over time. He also said that the despite the new fees, registration for the coming Drivers Ed classes had been strong and that classes were filling up. Ward Nine Committeeman Arthur Beaudry criticized everything from the twenty five dollars an hour the instructors are paid, an amount dictated by the teachers union contract, to the program’s payment of city and state retirement benefits for the teachers and teachers aides who teach in the program. Beaudry told Dubisz he was hiking fees on students to make up for his incompetence and said that the program charging about the same as other drivers ed programs wasn’t benefiting students in the manner he believed the program should.
Dubisz also came under fire for the scheduling of instructors. Mayor Ted Gatsas took issue with some driving instructors having fourteen students, while others only had five and kept questioning student teacher ratios. Dubisz said it’s not a traditional classroom and that comparisons can’t be made. While each class can have up to thirty kids, it can have multiple instructors, and often does. Kids are required to be in class for thirty one hours and on the road for another ten. Dubisz said several of the teachers in the program only teach kids to drive in the car and because of legal and contractual restrictions, some of them have the number of hours they can teach each week limited, so they have fewer students assigned to them.
The bottom line is that every kid represents forty one total hours of instruction, regardless of how many instructors they have, which, given that they all make twenty five dollars an hour plus benefits per their contract, means the cost of the program is determined by the number of students. He also said that classes, which are run from the city’s three high schools, vary in size. West, he said might have eighteen kids in a class, while Memorial might have thirty. Anyway, after an hour of discussion, the board voted to reverse course and eliminate the fee hike and directed Assistant Superintendent David Ryan, who is responsible for the program, to come forward with changes. Ryan, proving he’s an astute political weather vane, said he wanted an opportunity to make the program work for the students, not the teachers who taught it.
News from our own backyard continues after this.
In other news from last night’s school board meeting in Manchester, the board rejected the opportunity to apply for a new federal program that would provide free breakfast and lunch to all students in any school or grouping of schools where more than forty percent of the kids would qualify for the free or reduced hot lunch program. Eligibility would not be determined by those who’ve actually applied for the program. In fact, it would abolish applications. If I heard them correctly, demographic information about children and their families on file with the district would be coupled with information from state welfare agencies to see, as of April first of any given year, what percentage of kids would qualify for free and reduced hot lunch; if more than forty percent, voila! Free lunch for everyone!
The only problem is that doing that could force the program into the red. Ward Three School Committeeman Christopher Stewart said he’d be in favor of the program if the administration could guarantee it would feed kids that are now going hungry, a guarantee the administration could not give. Mayor Ted Gatsas, who backed the application, said there are kids going hungry now who don’t qualify for the free and reduced hot lunch program. Ward Six Committeewoman Robyn Dunphy, fed up with everybody saying it was free, said it was not free, that the program created another entitlement that everybody paid for. Ward Ten Committeeman John Avard railed against the federal machine saying he wanted to go in the direction of less federal involvement, not more. While a motion to receive and file the proposal failed on an eight to seven vote, a motion to table the application until next year passed with Ward Seven’s Ross Terrio changing his vote.
There were also an important presentation over the Junior STEAM Ahead program for fourth graders and discussion over Hooksett’s request for a guarantee that students who start their high school careers in Manchester can, by right finish them in Manchester, but since the board spent most of its time on Drivers Ed. and new free lunch entitlement programs, we figured we’d do the same, though we will be taking all of these items up during the show. We’ve linked to our live blog of the meeting from this newscast at Girard at Large dot com.
We have one non school board note before we close out this morning’s news. The Bedford Police Department announced that Public Service Company of New Hanpshire will be conducting low flying aerial patrols of transmission lines for vegetation issues today and tomorrow. So, if you see a blue and yellow helicopter hanging around power lines in town, holster your stinger missiles, don’t lock down the schools or call the cops. They’re just checking to see where they might need to do some clearing or trimming work around the power lines.
That’s news from our own backyard, Girard at Large hour ___ is next!