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Apr 14, 2017 4:34 PM

Manchester school official: 'Drastic' changes on the horizon for district, students


MANCHESTER — A battle over school borders will be up for vote next week.

The question is, with the steady decline of student enrollment in the whole district, which Manchester elementary schools will feed to which middle and highs schools, and it seems no one can agree. Arthur Beaudry is the vice-chairman of the Manchester School Board and said they've been dealing with the issue of redistricting the Queen City for the past decade, and he's pessimistic about the latest plans.

"What was presented to us is really superficial," Beaudry said. "It's just aligning the elementary schools to what middle schools and what highs schools these students are going to go to. There's a problem no matter what alignment you use."

Beaudry said the issue is much more complex than just changing the feeder pattern.

The solution, according to Beaudry, is repurposing or merging some of the school buildings, especially in the high schools.

"We have about 3,100 less students in our high schools than we had a decade ago," Beaudry said.

According to the New Hampshire Department of Education numbers released in November 2016, West High School in Manchester is operating at 43 percent capacity with a 2017 budget of more than $11.3 million, Memorial at 66 percent with a 2017 budget of more than $14.3 million and Central High School at 58 percent with a 2017 budget of more than $15.6 million.

Part of the reason for low enrollment, tuition towns have left the Queen City. Bedford, who used to pay for their students to attend West High School, left in 2007 when Bedford High School was built, leaving a vacancy of 800 students at West that hasn't been filled.

Also in 2012, the alternative high school, Manchester School of Technology opened with an enrollment capacity of 600 students. Currently attendance is 338 students with a operating cost of more than $7 million annually.

But Beaudry said there is also another fundamental reason enrollment numbers are down.

"I believe families are moving out of the city," Beaudry said. "Parents are looking at our school district and want to move somewhere else."

Its a massive job for the new Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Bolgen Vargas, who is no stranger to challenging school districts. Vargas previously worked in Rochester, N.Y.; a city with one of the highest child-poverty rates in the nation. Beaudry said Vargas understands the difficult situation because he had to close several Rochester schools due to enrollment.

Beaudry recommends closing Manchester Central High School and splitting the students between Manchester Memorial and West. Beaudry said the oldest high school in the state is in disrepair, needing more than $1 million to repair one of the buildings. An idea that isn't very popular with those who "bleed green."

In a redistricting survey by the Manchester School District in June 2016, the majority of parents surveyed did not support closing a high school.

At one of the redistricting meeting at Southside Middle School, Amanda Mudgett spoke out about one of the proposed flow charts, saying that doesn't work for her or her four children.

"We live where we live because of the schools they were going to go to and we built relationships," Mudgett said. "The West Side makes me nervous, which is why I didn't chose to live on the West Side. I chose to live in the South End. It's just nerve wracking because safety is a big issue because of how the West Side is perceived and is."

The next step is a full facility study on all Manchester school district buildings. Beaudry said he hopes some tough decision can be made based on the findings. He said the city is already slated to cut 42 teacher positions at the end of this school year, and it could be more.

Three different feeder charts will be presented to the school board at the April 19 meeting. But Beaudry said he thinks the redistricting plan will be tabled.

"I'm very pessimistic we will have eight votes for any plan," he said. "We have to do something outside the box."

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