Most schools around the state begin classes this week. The state’s largest district in Manchester begins classes Wednesday. The district has more than 15,00 students at 22 schools. But they begin the school year after a year of suffering some of the state’s most severe budget cuts.
When the first school bells ring, Wednesday morning, students in Manchester will come back to school with fewer teachers.
About 160 school employees, most of them teachers, got pink slips at the end of last school year. More than 60 have been hired back. But the high schools are still looking at class sizes around 30 to 40 students.
Many parents have been worried about the start of this school year for months.
“We’re decimating our schools, we’re ruining the future of a generation, and we’re doing it to save 178 dollars per house.”
That’s Jim O’Connell back at a rally in May. He’s the father of four kids and heads the Hillside Middle School Parent Teacher Organization. He worries about the district’s budget stresses.
Manchester School District Superintendent Thomas Brennan says the teacher layoffs and program cuts came because Manchester schools faced the worst budget shortfall in recent memory.
“This year we’re talking about an 8 million dollar gap. And there’s no way that we’re going to make up 8 million dollars. In the past it might have been 1 or 2 million. It sounds a lot in some cases, it doesn’t sound a lot in others. So we always made it work. We’re not going to make it work this year.”
Because of that, O’Connell and other parents have created a group called Citizens for Manchester Schools in an effort to push for more money in the school district.
“Our schools are drastically underfunded, and the budget process is broken and needs to be fixed… We wanted the debate to be broadened into how do we adequately fund our schools.”
The debate over the budget began back in May, when Superintendent Brennan requested at least 162 million dollars from the city. Brennan says that amount would maintain the same levels as the previous year, but didn’t take into account sorely needed technology upgrades.
Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas came back with proposal of about 150 million. That would have been a 12 million dollar difference.
Then the talk of layoffs began.
The teachers’ union rejected the mayor’s proposal to cut healthcare benefits in order to keep their jobs.
Then the Aldermen and School Board added another four million to the budget. But the money was a one-time infusion and that didn’t sit well with everyone.
Mayor Gatsas cautioned against using money that can’t be used again next year. School Board committee member Chris Stewart agreed.
“We’ve spent the last 6 months in this chamber working really hard to do everything we possibly could right to crash land the airplane. And that’s what we’ve done. We’ve crash landed the airplane. And it’s been ugly and it’s been terrible, but this money is not real. And if we use it now, we’re gonna regret it tomorrow. We need a long term plan.”
Manchester got in this situation for a number of reasons. For starters, Manchester was already the second to lowest community in the state in per student spending. And Manchester’s school district gets up to 20% less tax money than other communities on average.
There were also a few things that made a bad situation worse. Automatic contract raises took effect for teachers. And federal stimulus money that had been used to keep teachers employed ran out.
Plus, Gatsas had expected another 20 million dollars from the state that never came through. That’s because, last year, lawmakers tinkered with the education funding formula. And some communities, like Manchester, got less money from state adequacy grants.
Moreover, this was the first school budget since the city’s tax cap had taken effect, further limiting what the city could contribute. Gatsas supports the cap and says just increasing taxes wouldn’t ultimately solve school funding problems.
“Well it really comes down to how much can the tax payer afford. At some point, someone has to keep them in mind… Increasing taxes does not resolve the problem.”
Parent Jim O’Connell says the debate between raising taxes and giving in to teacher benefit concessions is a false dichotomy. What he really wants to see is fundamental reform. And he may have that chance.
This summer the aldermen agreed to place a question on the ballot during this year’s primary vote in September, of whether or not to elect a city charter commission. If this vote passes, O’Connell says, Citizens for Manchester Schools will be actively looking for representation on that commission.
Talk has already begun over renegotiating teacher contracts and how to fix the budget process for next year. But for students and teachers who show up to class this week, they will do their best to work with the resources they still have.