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Redistricting Manchester
Schools launch study into demographics and facilities

05/11/17
By Ryan Lessard news@hippopress.com



 The Manchester school district is asking for bidders who would audit the district and submit a report on demographics and facilities so officials can move forward with a plan for redistricting. 

Superintendent Bolgen Vargas said in a phone interview that he released the request for proposal May 8, and he hopes the process will move quickly now. He would like to select a third-party reviewer right away and obtain a final report later this year with proposals workshopped and voted on by the school board by the end of the year.
“My hope is we can finish this entire project by December,” Vargas said.
The Board of School Committee debated various strategies for redistricting last year, but according to committee member Leslie Want, it wasn’t going anywhere.
“There were so many opinions and we were a mile wide and an inch deep,” Want said.
Then, last spring, the board created a special committee on redistricting, of which Want is the chair, but it also failed to arrive at a solid plan.
“There were 12 different plans, we got it down to four different plans. Of those plans, three of them had to do with changing grade configurations, which seemed to be very unfavorable when we listened to the principals,” Want said.
While some plans dealt with moving fifth-graders to middle schools and eighth-graders to high schools, other plans would have closed school buildings.
Ultimately, Want said, the work done by the five-member subcommittee proved fruitless because they didn’t have enough information upon which to base a strategy. So they agreed to have Vargas hire an auditor to get the much-needed data and defer somewhat to the superintendent’s broader vision.
While some on the school board, as well as former city aldermen, have floated the closure of Central High School, Vargas said he thinks that can be avoided.
“Everything should be [on] the table, but my vision is larger than that,” Vargas said.
While everything hinges on the findings of the audit, most expect the reviewers to find a surplus of space in the high schools, despite some class sizes’ being too big. Vargas said that surplus space could be used in more innovative ways that would serve as an alternative to closing facilities.
One idea is having a local business or higher ed or community education institution lease space in the buildings. A bank or a biotech lab could open a branch in a school and students might benefit from learning about the business by observing or even working there, Vargas said.
He said this is a spinoff of his proposal to locate the central district offices at West High so they can sell the millyard offices.
The district is in a time of consolidation as it deals with the loss of students from multiple sending communities — compounding a statewide trend of declining enrollment — and a budget deficit. 
Vargas said some solutions might be figured out on a case-by-case basis and may not even require the redrawing of district lines.
“We have 22 [buildings] but we don’t have an issue with every building,” Vargas said.
But if the goal is to reduce class sizes and overcrowding, Vargas said, there’s no way to do that without spending more.
“It’s useless to get into an effort if you want to reduce class size and you don’t discuss investing or where the money is going to come from to do so,” Vargas said.
Want agrees that the district will have to hire more teachers and the board will need to come to terms with the cost of that.
“We estimate every classroom teacher costs the district about $50,000. So if you add 20 teachers when you redistrict, that’s $1 million,” Want said. “To me, that’s the biggest issue with redistricting.”
The board already approved the first step in this redistricting process by changing the feeder system for students in certain grade schools to know more predictably which middle and high schools they will end up in. Want said that was the low-hanging fruit.
Vargas thinks the success of getting that system changed was due largely to robust community engagement, and he said any redistricting plan needs to go through the same process.
As for how the larger board will stand on any strategies moving forward, Want thinks it will depend on what the community says at a series of public meetings that will be held around them.
“So the board by that time will have a pretty good idea about how the community feels about it. And then, whether or not it gains support from the board I think will largely depend on those community meetings,” Want said. 





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