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N.H. Schools Use Redistricting Bond for Remote Learning Cost

The Manchester, N.H., school superintendent has told the school board it’s time to “pivot” their focus from issuing bonds for middle school reconfiguration work to improving the district’s remote learning technology.

by Paul Feely, The New Hampshire Union Leader / July 27, 2020
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(TNS) — For a bit longer than planned, whether a student in Manchester, N.H., attends fifth grade at a middle or elementary school could be determined by which side of the city they live on.

In April 2018 school board members approved a redistricting plan brought forward by former Superintendent of Schools Bolgen Vargas. It adjusted student feeder patterns across the city and moved fifth-graders into the district’s four middle schools.

Though the plan was approved more than two years ago, some parents and city officials continue to express frustration with the shifting of students.

In September 2019, Parkside Middle School on the city’s West Side transitioned to a grade 5-8 school, the first of Manchester’s four middle schools to do so. Earlier this year school board members approved using money from its general fund to begin construction at Southside Middle School ahead of a similar transition.

In response to those concerns, current Superintendent of Schools John Goldhardt drew up a redistricting “reboot” of sorts, delaying some of the changes. The new timetable called for Southside Middle School to include grades 5 through 8 beginning in September 2021, while Hillside and McLaughlin middle schools would welcome fifth-graders beginning in September 2022.

But last week, Goldhardt told the school board he thinks it’s time to “pivot” their focus from issuing bonds for middle school reconfiguration work to improving the district’s remote learning technology, citing a lack of support from city aldermen for the redistricting plan.

A $1.3 million bond for construction to transform Hillside and McLaughlin into grade 5-8 schools received just seven votes of support from the aldermen. Those were enough to send the bond to a second and final vote at the next board meeting in August, but 10 votes are needed to pass the measure.

“Quite frankly, I don’t see that we have the votes on the aldermanic board, for that bond to pass right now,” said Goldhardt. “I am a fan of the 5-8 model, I’m not saying this is a ‘throw it away and be done.’ I’m just looking at the reality of what I’m seeing, what the votes are right now. I just don’t see it passing.”

Goldhardt said the district would also need to add “at least $1 million more” to the budget for staffing and other needs at each of the remaining middle schools for the 5-8 model to succeed.

“Do we have the capability to get the staffing as well,” said Goldhardt. “Otherwise, it doesn’t work.”

If a student entering 5th grade — and was looking forward to moving up to middle school — were to move from an area of the city served by the grade 5-8 model to a neighborhood without it, Goldhardt said the district wouldn’t have any choice but to have the child spend another year at the elementary level.

“We don’t really have another option, because we don’t have those other schools set up in that same model,” said Goldhardt. “It’s unfortunate, because you want things to be consistent, and it’s just not on the table right now with that other side.”

School board members are frustrated with the situation.

“To have one group of individuals stifle a whole project that’s been going on now for two years,” said Ward 9’s Art Beaudry. “I think we just need to keep moving on. We can’t let a group of individuals stop the whole district.”

“To me this is tremendously disappointing — we’ve already begun this process in two schools,” said school board vice chairwoman Leslie Want. “I’m extremely disappointed in my colleagues on the BMA side, that they’re not leaving decisions that have to do with education to the elected body that was elected to deal with those decisions.”

“It’s too bad we’ve gone halfway and can’t finish this off,” said Ward 8’s Peter Perich. “I just hope the money we put into Southside this year wasn’t a waste.”

“It seems like we work really hard in this district as a board of school committee, trying to do what’s right, and time and time again we fail to be able to make strides in this district because of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen controlling us by our purse strings,” said Ward 2’s Kathleen Kelley Arnold. “It is very disheartening to be here, put the effort in, and not be supported by them.”

“What we’re doing is we’re succumbing to the minority of the aldermanic board that didn’t want this to happen, and we’re not going to make it happen,” said Beaudry.

“I respectfully disagree — given that we’re doing a facilities audit, and this wasn’t happening for two years, we have an opportunity to ask for this funding next fiscal year,” said Craig.

Board members voted to send a request to the aldermen urging them to support issuing bonds for the schools. The motion passed 9 to 5, with Beaudry, James Porter, Karen Soule, Want, William Shea, Jane Beaulieu, Nicole Leapley, Kelly Thomas and Joe Lachance in favor.

Opposed were Craig, Arnold, Jeremy Dobson, Perich and Jim O’Connell. Dan Bergeron was absent from the meeting.

School board members also voted to ask the aldermen to fund a bond for increased remote learning technology if they didn’t support the middle school bond. The motion passed 13-1, with only Beaudry opposed.

“We’re negotiating against ourselves,” said Beaudry.

©2020 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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