The Manchester Board of School Committee met last night and it was one that you almost had to see to believe. One of the highlights of the night came when School Superintendent Debra Livingston presented a redistricting plan that had no redistricting. Livingston said that because past proposals had encountered public push back or board disapproval, she decided against presenting any sort of grade reconfiguration to better utilize available space or boundary realignment to move kids from one school to another. Instead, she proposed a five million dollar addition to Jewett Street School to house the district’s pre-kindergarten program which she said would free up about twenty classrooms across the city. Only then, she said, could the city contemplate redrawing district lines. She also proposed building a new elementary school, but dismissed that proposal as too costly build and too difficult to locate.
The discussion generated by Livingston’s proposal brought to light a number of questions. For example, if the district had nearly eighteen thousand kids in two thousand and three, and now has only fourteen thousand six hundred thirty three, yet another student enrollment number (two weeks ago there were over fifteen thousand students), how could the schools be overcrowded? The answer, it turns out, is that there is surplus capacity at the middle and high schools and that the expansion of full day kindergarten and the addition of various other programs has sopped up available space in the elementary schools.
From there, the conversation turned to grade realignment. Ward Seven Committeeman Ross Terrio voiced what many thought, saying that, while the superintendent’s plan would be nice, the district can’t afford to pay for it. By the way, bonding the five million dollars will cost about four hundred thousand dollars a year for the next twenty years. Mayor Ted Gatsas echoed the concerns noting the district’s already looking at an eight hundred thousand dollar deficit thanks to the teacher’s contract. He tasked those in support of the plan to say how they would pay for it.
Terrio also brought up the oft repeated suggestion of at-Large Committeeman-elect Rich Girard to realign the grades of the schools on the West Side so that the three elementary schools would host grades pre-K through 3, thus solving the district’s pre-k problem at no cost, convert Parkside to an upper elementary school containing grades four through six and moving grades seven and eight into West, which will have fewer than nine hundred students next year, a dramatically smaller number than the twenty three hundred it used to house.
Terrio asked West Side school board members to weigh in and Ward Ten Committeeman John Avard did just that, saying he regularly visits West and that the idea the building is half empty is a misnomer. While he agreed the building and its classrooms are under utilized by virtue of fewer kids being in them, he said the classes they’re taking still need to be taught. He doubted the school could take even one grade from Parkside, never mind two.
Gatsas, who expressed concerns about moving sixth graders into a high school setting, suggested realigning the whole so city so that elementary schools were grades pre-K through four, middle schools were grades five through seven and the high schools were grades eight through twelve. He didn’t see a problem with eighth graders in high schools and said removing them would ease the disciplinary problems caused by them at the middle schools because they would no longer be kings of the hill. Ward Eight School Committeewoman Erika Connors asked Gatsas to provide research showing that having eighth graders in a high school setting would be beneficial. Seriously.
Gatsas also said he would review the numbers and provide the administration with his own redistricting plan, clearly fed up with the inability to get redistricting done. The board not only voted to proceed with Gatsas’ proposed realignment, but also one that added fifth grade to the middle schools and tasked Livingston with redrawing districts as if she’d received the shiny new building she asked for so they could compare all three options. A special meeting to review the plans was called for February twenty ninth. Guess it’s going to be an interesting Leap Year.
Also last night, the board heard from Livingston about the state’s PACE Assessment program and the district’s participation. Ward Nine Committeeman Arthur Beaudry hit the nail on the head after Avard motioned to allow the administration to continue with its involvement when he said quote “it seems like we make motions to get the administration out of trouble.” Frankly, he’s right. Anyway, the bedazzled board was all but falling over itself to sing the praises of the program, despite administrators’ inability to answer several operational questions.
In a surreal moment, Gatsas’ question about what happens if the waivers the state is operating under for its current testing regime came back to haunt everybody as Livingston announced the waivers were going away as of August first. Gatsas and Beaudry in particular were critical of the administration for undertaking any role in PACE without first coming to the board.
While Connors tried to turn the administration’s actions back on the discussion Gatsas raised about why Manchester wasn’t in the pilot after seeing a press release from Governor Margaret Wood Hassan in March, both Gatsas and Beaudry said there was a difference between having a discussion and receiving the kind of presentation they received last night and making a determination as to whether or not the district, as a policy matter, should be involved.
Gatsas said he wanted to see any minutes of any meeting where the district provided any information about PACE or the district’s participation in it and noted the only minutes he’d seen was from a recent Curriculum and Instruction Committee meeting, chaired by Connors, where a reference to the district’s participation was made in passing without being on the agenda. (He’s right.) Anyway, the board voted to continue the district’s participation but also to refer the matter to the Curriculum and Instruction Committee to be thoroughly vetted in the next term.
That’s news from our own backyard, Girard at large hour ___ is next.