Why education still matters

Several recent events point out the contradictions facing education in the state’s largest city

The educational system of the state’s largest city may not be on the radar screen of many debating New Hampshire’s critical needs and public policy issues. It should be, because the needs of education, especially in urban areas, is critical to the future of the state and country.

Several recent events point out contradictions in Manchester’s education system.

First, the current year’s budget cycle and the fact that Manchester’s ill-advised adoption of a “tax cap” provision have boxed in the budget drafters, the school board and board of mayor and aldermen.

While the superintendent of schools has submitted a “needs budget,” Mayor Ted Gatsas, while running for governor, has proposed a budget substantially smaller than the one requested. His budget fits under the tax cap, and he claims it is adequate to the needs of Manchester’s schools, while the school district points out that it will result in staff layoffs and the inability to provide needed improvements. 

At the same time, the school district faces the thorny issue of redistricting, with increased numbers of students in the elementary and middle schools and decreased numbers in the high schools. 

On the positive side, recent fundraising events for City Year New Hampshire and Breakthrough Manchester highlight creative, not-for-profit efforts to help those in Manchester schools.

Breakthrough Manchester, formerly Summerbridge, an effort sponsored by Derryfield School, has announced a new, expanded program in cooperation with Southern NH University.

Becky Berk, Breakthrough’s talented executive director, hosted an April 20 breakfast at SNHU that reminded those in attendance of the program’s efforts, which for 25 years have helped students in the 7th-9th grades who show great promise attend a program for six weeks each summer and a year-round program to keep them interested in and prepared for college. They are usually the first members of their families to do so.

The expanded program will make it a six-year model with SNHU sponsoring the extension into high school. 

There is no cost to the families or the Manchester School District, although, as pointed out at the breakfast, the program is not “free,” as students and families commit to working hard, foregoing summer vacations during the six-week session in the summer for the three years – a substantial investment by them. The program is led by college and high school students as teachers and has about eight per class. 

City Year New Hampshire held its gala in New Castle the night before Easter. City Year volunteers, taking a year off, all work in Manchester schools, mentoring and helping elementary school students stay on track and achieve where they otherwise might not. This provides tremendous help to the Manchester School District by providing resources not covered in the budget. 

At the City Year event, Harvard professor Robert Putnam, a New Hampshire resident, spoke on the theme of his most recent book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.”

Putnam described his hometown in Ohio, where students from all social strata previously had gone to school together and now live in enclaves, with the wealthy having tremendous educational opportunities and the others lacking those opportunities in substandard public schools, which charge for extracurricular activities, music, arts, sports and other things previously taken for granted. 

Following Putnam’s remarks, retired National Guard Adjutant Gen. Kenneth Clark, one of the state’s true leaders spoke. He startled many when he said, in essence, that those in the room who live in Bedford should reflect on Putnam’s words as they consider what has happened to their community and its students who now attend the rather homogeneous Bedford High School and not Manchester High School West, where they added so much to the student body and received so much by the opportunity to go to school with those from the West Manchester community.

The Bedford/West issue and the withdrawal from Manchester schools of other tuition students from Hooksett, Auburn and Candia is not a simple matter. While a tuition agreement benefiting everyone was negotiated under the administration of former Mayor Bob Baines, subsequent city administrations and the presence of the tax cap, along with the failure of the sending districts to enforce the terms of the contract, meant that it and its promise were abandoned, seemingly by all the parties, resulting in a lost opportunity.

The failure to fund Manchester schools also points out the issue raised in the 1990s by the Supreme Court’s Claremont decisions, which said that the New Hampshire funding system creates significant disparities in New Hampshire. The failure of the state to abide by the Claremont decisions and remedy the problem adds complexity to the issue and should bring issues of state funding methodology into question.

We should require those running for governor to address these educational issues.

Brad Cook, a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green, heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

Categories: Cook on Concord