Manchester school board approves pair of budget proposals for FY'22

Paul Feely, The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
·3 min read

Feb. 18—Manchester school board members voted Wednesday to send two fiscal-year 2022 budgets to city aldermen for consideration — a level-funded version that comes in at approximately $180 million, and a tax cap-compliant budget of approximately $173 million.

Both proposals include the closure of Hallsville Elementary School

The vote was 11-4, with school board members Kathleen Kelley Arnold, Jeremy Dobson, Nicole Leapley, and Jim O'Connell opposed.

In his budget address, Superintendent John Goldhardt said the district is losing more than $5 million in funding related to declines in student enrollment and aid tied to families qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. At the same time, it faces a $2.6 million increase in costs associated with the state retirement system.

Wednesday's vote was preceded by a public hearing on the budget, though no members of the public submitted any comments on the proposal.

Goldhardt's proposed budget includes the closure of Hallsville and an overall reduction in force of the equivalent of 15.8 full-time district staff.

"Our budget picture would undoubtedly be worse if not for COVID-19 relief funds earmarked for the school district totaling $37 million," Goldhardt said in a statement. "The first allotments of $6.7 million and $4.3 million allowed for one-time expenditures, including health and safety upgrades to allow us to safely return to school buildings, and technology upgrades to improve the remote learning environment.

"The allotment of $26 million will enable one-time expenditures that will, among other priorities, fill gaps in our operating budget, continue needed investments in technology, and fund programs and resources to respond to learning loss during the pandemic."

School officials plan to ask the school board to request that aldermen forgive approximately $400,000 on a $2.8 million loan for textbooks, and close underused wings of local public high schools to generate another $250,000 in savings.

In response to questions on whether wings would be closed at Manchester High School Central — one of five schools recommended for closure on a facilities study prepared by MGT Consulting Group — Goldhardt said every building will be looked at.

"We will look at space that's not being utilized," said Goldhardt. "It's just that Central has much more space not being used."

Goldhardt proposes about $5.2 million in salary cuts, health insurance and benefit reductions for staff, cuts in special education costs and other reductions.

"I appreciate the fact that we're discussing making these cuts," said Joe Lachance. "I'm just concerned we haven't done enough."

Board member Nicole Leapley said the budget shows the inequity Manchester students are saddled with in terms of per-pupil-spending costs. Currently, Manchester spends $12,434 per pupil, the lowest in the state. The state average is $16,824 per student per year, while Waterville Valley checks in with the highest amount at $57,058.

"I have a hard time when I hear we haven't cut enough," said Leapley. "I do not think it's OK that if you're born in Manchester that you're entitled to less education than if you're born in Waterville Valley or Portsmouth or Amherst."

Lachance asked when the deadline would be to inform staff of any reductions-in-force, or RIFs. Goldhardt said May is the district's deadline.

Goldhardt is hopeful that reductions can be achieved by not replacing some of the 50 staff members expected to retire this summer.

Board member Jeremy Dobson looked to have a motion to approve the budget amended to include language delaying the closure of Hallsville by 12 months, in case enrollment numbers in the city go up and the space is needed.

The request was denied by the maker of the initial motion, Art Beaudry, who argued several facilities studies conducted over the years have all recommended Hallsville for closure.

Mayor Joyce Craig must present her tax cap-compliant budget to the aldermen by the end of March. Aldermen will then begin their own budget deliberations, a process that often stretches into late May or early June.