The ball appears to really be rolling now. How far it ultimately rolls? Stay tuned.
The Hooksett School Board has authorized the town counsel and Superintendent Dr. Charles Littlefield to enter into negotiations with school officials in Manchester for an early exit from the high school contract. Hooksett sends most of its high school students to Manchester Central High School, but parents and school officials have become increasingly concerned with overcrowding issues in Manchester.
At the beginning of the school year, controversy raged in Manchester and Hooksett, as some high school classrooms were exceeding 40 students. Manchester Superintendent Thomas Brennan has been able to hire enough teachers and juggle enough classes to get numbers under 40 at the high school level, but it appears somewhat unlikely administration will be able to get sizes under 30 this year. There were also issues with the number of textbooks and desks, though those have been addressed.
That has led many in Hooksett to consider claiming a breach of contract. To do that, Hooksett officials would need to send Manchester a letter claiming the breach. Then, Manchester would have 180 days to comply with the contract. If they were to comply, great. If not, Hooksett could pull out of the contract without penalty. It’s only that simple in theory, though. The state Board of Education would have to rule that Manchester was in breach, and there would be an appeals process. The school board did sent Manchester a letter earlier this year, but it didn’t officially claim breach; it only cited concerns.
“We wanted to make an attempt to negotiate in good faith with Manchester to bring the contract to an end in a way that’s beneficial to all parties,” said Hooksett school board member David Pearl. “We wanted to resist sending a letter declaring a breach. ... This action, however, does not mean that we don’t think they are in breach. But we thought it might be better to sit down and talk about it and to come to some kind of an agreement.”
Hooksett still owes Manchester millions of dollars in capital money as part of the contract agreement, which is tied to school renovations in Manchester several years ago. When Bedford built its own high school and pulled its students out of Manchester West High School, the community paid about $10 million to Manchester to clear its debt pertaining to those same renovations.With a tuition rate of $8,300 per student, the Manchester school district would lose nearly $4.6 million if Hooksett pulled all its students out.
If an agreement is reached, the agreement would be added to the Hooksett town warrant to be voted on in March by residents. In that way, whether the town goes forward with pulling out would be up to residents, not the school board, Pearl said.
“There are advantages to us to have this end earlier rather than later,” Pearl said.
If Hooksett were to claim breach, even if the ultimate decision went Hooksett’s way, it might not be until May, which would be too late to make the change for the coming fall. By entering into negotiations now, Pearl is hoping residents can make the call to continue with Manchester or to pull out in March. To do that, an agreement would have to be reached in mid-January, which is when the community would file warrant articles. If the call is made to pull out, that timeline would potentially allow for Hooksett to have its students ready to go to another district by the beginning of the next school year.
The school board authorized the attorney and the superintendent to negotiate an agreement, but they haven’t put any terms on that agreement. Pearl said the attorney and the superintendent understand citizens’ concerns in Hooksett and they understand any decision needs to be made in the best interest of the students. Pinkerton Academy keeps coming up as a potential landing spot for Hooksett’s roughly 550 students, but the Hooksett district hasn’t begun any official talks with Pinkerton.
If an agreement can’t be reached, the school board would be ready to exercise its right to file for a breach and to continue that process.
Pearl acknowledged that while many people who speak at school board meetings are in favor of pulling out of Manchester, there are a lot of other folks in the community who have supported Manchester schools for a long time who aren’t so sure about the decision.
The Hooksett School Board is expected to meet with the Manchester School Committee on Thursday, Nov. 15, though the location hasn’t been finalized yet.