Sep. 21—Manchester residents will be able to vote this fall on whether to allow the city's school board to set its own budget for the school district — and override the city's tax cap — without input or approval by aldermen, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge David Anderson ruled the city may move ahead with including the proposed amendment on the ballot for the November 2021 election, finding that the proposed change to the city charter, "while substantial, does not result in a change in the city's form of government," and constitutes an amendment, not a revision.
"The state argues that Manchester currently has a grandfathered hybrid form of government as opposed to a pure mayor-alderman plan," Anderson writes in his ruling. "The state maintains that removing the school district from the Board of Mayor and Aldermen's control would result in the city shifting to a pure mayor-aldermen plan, constituting a revision under RSA 49-B:4-d. In contrast, the city argues that it currently has a mayor-aldermen plan and will continue to do so after the school district becomes independent. The court agrees with the city."
Alderman At Large Joe Kelly Levasseur, who opposes the idea of the school board having its own authority, was upset with Tuesday's ruling.
"The school district has never proven it is capable of being responsible spending taxpayer money," said Levasseur. "Giving them autonomy, especially in the middle of the property revaluation, would be like giving a bank robber the keys to the safe. Taxpayers are suffering enough and this will push them over the edge."
Alderman Bill Barry of Ward 10 said he applauded Anderson's ruling.
"I'm happy the residents of the city will have the chance to vote on whether to separate the school board from the city when it comes to budget issues," said Barry. "I applaud the efforts of the city solicitor's office, and I believe we have the best group of attorneys representing our city."
A possible November vote on the ballot questions had been in limbo for weeks, after the Attorney General's Office refused to sign off on the proposed charter amendments. Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Chong Yen told the city in August that state officials were unable to review the proposed amendments as required under Chapter 49-B because they were not "properly presented for consideration."
"The process approved by the voters during the November 3, 2020, regular election to revise, amend, or replace the Manchester school district charter has not been followed," Yen wrote in a memo after city aldermen voted to give final approval to the proposed amendments.
Yen cited a portion of RSA 49-B:15 that specifies that to amend provisions of the charter relating to the school district, "it is the school district, and not the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, that must propose and submit revisions and/or amendments."
On Monday, Assistant Attorney General Myles Matteson argued in court that the change was a substantial revision, thereby triggering a provision in the law that requires a lengthy procedure including election of a charter commission, hearings on proposed changes and a vote on any commission recommendations.
Following Anderson's ruling, Matteson issued a statement saying the state's role in such cases is to ensure that any town or city charter proposal "follows the law's procedural requirements" and protects the rights of voters.
"Even though Judge Anderson's order recognizes that the city's proposal is a substantial change to the city charter, we accept that his narrow interpretation of the procedural requirements does not require that the proposal go before a voter-elected charter commission," said Matteson.
Last November, Manchester voters overwhelmingly approved ballot Question 1, authorizing aldermen to propose charter amendments to voters in the November 2021 city election via a school charter commission without going through the state Legislature.
The School Charter Commission started meeting in early January 2020
and initially proposed a long list of amendments to the charter, but the Attorney General's Office eventually ruled last year they were beyond the scope of the School Charter Commission process.
The original list of recommendations included removing the mayor from the school board and limiting the role of aldermen in the school budget process to approving or denying a tax cap override request.
This past July, Alderman Pat Long proposed four amendments to the charter covering the above recommendations, with one major change — giving the school board "fiscal autonomy and responsibility for proposing, approving, adopting, appropriating, and overseeing the administration of the School District's annual budget and capital budget."
Long's amendments would give school board members the authority to override the city's tax cap with the same two-thirds supermajority of its membership as required for aldermen to approve an override for the city budget.
Reporter Mark Hayward contributed to this article.