As a guest host on the Girard at Large Radio Show, Manchester Alderman Nick Pappas, R-Ward 6, agreed with the suggestion of co-host Andrew Provencher, that the city close Central High School. The ten minutes that shook the city are here. Despite saying he would be in favor of closing either Central or West, Pappas has taken a pounding on social media for the suggestion that Central be closed. We won’t paraphrase or otherwise report on the comments of Pappas and Provencher. They can, and should, be heard by taking ten minutes to listen to the discussion. If you do, you’ll likely conclude the comments are not deserving of what can only be described as the intentionally inflammatory rhetoric that has been used to fan the flames of discontent in the community via social media. The social media post that started the furor didn’t contain a link to the discussion, which allowed the poster’s characterization of what was said to go unchallenged.
That said, given the furor the comments have caused on Facebook, I decided to write this article to simply provide facts on the city’s school population in the hopes they, the facts, will matter in the discussion. In doing so, I am neither supporting nor opposing the closure of any high school in the city. As a school board member, I will reserve comment or conclusion until all the facts are known and discussions are had.
There has, for some time, been discussion about closing a high school in the city. As student populations continue to decline throughout the school system, expenses continue to mount and budgets become brighter red, this talk of closure has not only persisted, it’s intensified and become more serious. The discussion between Provencher and Pappas simply brought it out in the open a little bit earlier than it otherwise would have come forward. Note well, it’s not the first time someone has publicly suggested closing a high school. Board of School Committee Vice Chair Arthur Beaudry, D-Ward 9, has, on several occasions over the years suggested closing a high school, usually taking aim at West High because if it’s sadly small student census.
Some who have posted on social media have said that the high schools are practically bursting at the seams, having more students than they have space. That’s simply not true. According to numbers on file with the NH Department of Education, in the 2006-2007 school year, the last year West had all of Bedford’s students, the student census by school was as follows:
- Central had 2,254
- Memorial had 2,245
- West had 2,289
- Total enrollment was 6,788
According to the most recent enrollment numbers released by the Manchester School District on December 1, 2016:
- Central has 1,549, down 705 students, or 31%
- Memorial has 1,522, down 723, students, or 32%
- West has 847, down 1,422 students or 62%
- Total enrollment: 3,918, down 2,870 students or 42%
The enrollment decline is larger than any of the high schools have ever been. On the numbers, does Manchester need its three traditional high schools? The question is being begged.
Some have written that there are increased enrollments in the middle and elementary schools that will absorb the excess capacity in the high schools over time. According to data on file with the state, that’s not true either.
- Total middle school enrollment in the 2006-2007 school year was 3,469. As of December 1, 2016, it’s 2,961, down by 508 students or just under 15%.
- In 2006-2007, the total elementary school enrollment was 5,777. As of 10/1/2015, it was 5,513, down 264 students or just over 4.5%. (NB: Because of how the district currently includes pre-school enrollments, it’s not possible to come up with an apt comparison based on district enrollment reports.)
With declining native enrollments at all levels, the continued departure of tuition students from surrounding towns and the growth of the four year high school program at the Manchester School of Technology, which currently has 334 students, it doesn’t appear as if the the surplus space at the high schools will be needed anytime soon. It should be noted that declining enrollment isn’t a Manchester phenomenon. The state of New Hampshire has seen a drop of about 100,000 students over the same period of time. Many school districts are wrestling with the same issues. Most of them, however, only have one high school.
I’ll close with this. One of the primary reasons I have pushed so hard for the 2007 Future of West Redistricting Plan, written to address the departure of Bedford’s students from West and solve a number of space issues in the elementary schools across the city, was specifically to head off the building discussion over closing a high school. I wasn’t the first to resurrect it. Superintendent Dr. Tom Brennan did back in 2013. Here’s the interview we did on the topic.
The proposal’s framework was well researched, well thought out and involved all the necessary players, including parents and other members of the community. It solves a number of issues in an educationally sound way and, in doing so, improves the utilization of space in multiple schools, not the least of which is West, and forecloses upon the need to discuss maintaining Central, West and Memorial when doing so is not only statistically unnecessary, but also damaging to the district’s ability to provide educational options for all of its students. Remember, money spent on unnecessary overhead is money that can’t be spent on restoring course offerings at the middle and high schools, improving elementary literacy rates, maintaining and expanding sports and extracurricular offerings or otherwise offering students what they need and want in today’s day and age.
I, for one, hope the school board addresses how it can better serve its students by using the abundantly available space it currently has in the high schools to avoid having to consider closing one of them to otherwise meet the needs of the city’s students.