In the decade that I have been advocating for school improvement,  the debate has raged over whether Manchester is spending too much or too little for education. Some people are of the opinion that we spend too much already and that most of what is spent is consumed by waste, fraud, and abuse or that there is no reason to spend more than we did in 1972. Others believe that we are not spending enough and we will never have a decent school system unless we spend more. Everything is relative. When you compare Manchester to other communities in NH using available data from the NH DOE and the NH Department of Revenue Administration, it is pretty clear that we are not just spending much less, but as a community we are investing much less.

For the last few weeks we have been debating the NH DOE per pupil expenditures.  As of 2010-2011, Manchester was second from the bottom at $9, 826. Only Hudson which spent $9, 574 was lower. The average school district spends $12,775 per student. The formula the state uses includes all federal, state, and local revenue in its calculations. It does not include debt service, transportation, and  some other expenses. The same formula is used for every school district. The Mayor argued that all inclusive Manchester spends $11,844 per pupil. Of course, when everything is included the average NH school district spends $15,585. Our schools are still underfunded by comparison, only more so.

perpupilgraph2

Manchester receives the largest State adequacy grant ($56 million). We also get more federal money ($26 Million) than any other school district in the state. And yet, in spite of all that extra money from outside the city we are still spend less money on our students than almost any other community in the state.

How does that happen? Well, the average town contributes about 56% of the cost of educating their kids through local property taxes. This is just town administered taxes. The SWEPT tax is set by the state and local elected officials have no say as to how much to that will be.

Dover, which is close on our heels in terms of low funding , gets 50.4% of the $9,846 they spend on their kids from local property taxes, and the town of Hudson contributes 52.3% of their school costs.  Nashua, which spends $11,022 per pupil, contributes 49.2% of the cost through local property taxes.  Manchester local school property taxes account for 29% of the cost of educating our children.

Now you might argue that Manchester has a small tax base compared to the number of children we have to educate. That would make our taxes on our homes high but we still wouldn’t be able to raise much money. Manchester has a tax base of $8.2 Billion. It was $9.8 Billion before the recent revaluation. From that we raised $53,047,469 toward educating our 15,732 students.  Nashua with a tax base of $8.4 Billion, raised $76,202,321 for their 12,613 students.  They will be undergoing a revaluation this year. I am interested to see if Nashua loses more or less than the 15% we declined on its tax base.

When you compare the tax bills for a home valued at $200K, a Manchester resident would pay $1344 in local property taxes for schools, a Nashua resident would pay $1832, a Dover Resident would pay $2052 and our friends in Hudson would pay $1670. You might argue that Manchester is a poorer city. Our income is lower, so we can’t expect our homeowners to pay as much as people in other wealthier communities.

However, we don’t seem to make that argument when it comes to municipal taxes.  The same $200K house in Manchester comes with a $2324 bill for city services, while the folks in Nashua pay $1660 and the folks in Dover pay $1902. I didn’t include Hudson because they don’t have a lot of the services that cities have.

And of course now that we have the tax cap, we are stuck in this low orbit of underfunding and it will require a lot of energy to break out of it.

I just returned from the school board’s budget hearing.

Dr. Brennan presented his thoughts on meeting the tax cap budget. His solutions include:

  • Closing the Greater Manchester Professional Development Center
  • Reducing the number of Assistant Principals (9) At the elementary level these would be replaced with teaching assistants. Another possibility is having shared principals at Jewett/Hallsville, Smyth Rd/Webster, Wilson/Bakersville.
  • Reduce Guidance Counselors, 2 Middle School and 3 High School, Sharing elementary guidance staff.
  • Reduce Administrative Assistants, 1 Elementary, 5 High School
  • Eliminate the Read 180 Program (6 elem. 4 middle school)
  • Reduction of teaching staff at all levels (46.5) This would mean elementary class sizes of 28 and upper level classes on 32+, Classes with fewer than 13 students would be cancelled.
  • Eliminate the teacher mentor program.
  • Eliminate full day kindergarten
  • Middle school language arts 1 teacher for both reading and writing
  • Reduce graduation requirement to 20 credits.
  • Reduce the supply allocation
  • Share reading specialists
  • Reduce substitute pay from $75 to $70
  • Reduce Co-curricular stipends by 1/3
  • Reducing other staff by 8.5 positions

The Superintendent made it clear that none of this is acceptable, but under the circumstances he could see no other choice.

The room was full and that was good. It would have been even better if more parents had testified. The teachers and staff presented good thoughtful testimony, but it always means more coming from parents and ordinary citizens.

Which brings me to your next opportunity to testify. The Mayor has decided that the hearing for his budget will take place on Mon., April 2 in the Aldermanic Chambers. This is the big hearing that normally takes place at Memorial. Please come and bring friends. The following night on Tues., April 3, the Superintendent will present the school district budget to the Aldermen. Not the usual process.

When the Mayor presented his budget it called for a 1.41% increase in taxes. The tax cap is 1.47%. There is some room there to get some additional revenue for the schools. Please call your aldermen. Someone will likely present an alternative budget and we want it to be favorable to the schools.

Sarah Ambrogi said it best, working together will give us the best outcome. And then let’s see what we can do so we are not back here again next year.

The Mayor made his budget presentation last night and has level funded the schools at $150.2 Million. This will be problematic for the school district as we are looking at cost increases in City services, transportation and health insurance, and the contract with teachers includes step increases and COLA’s. At the same time people’s school taxes will increase 27 cents because we will lose revenue next year for a number of reasons, including the exit of Auburn students.

The Superintendent will make a presentation on March 26 at 6PM in City Hall which will explain what we will need to do to cope with this budget. This will be followed by a public hearing at 7 PM.

There was one part of the Mayor’s presentation last night that I wanted to comment on was his assertion that the idea that Manchester is one of the lowest spending school districts in the state is a “myth”.

He then went on to add up the local appropriation( $150.2 M , the ARRA money ($5.334 M, which is disappearing), and the amount of our federal grants($27.226M) to get a total of $182.76 Million. Then he divided by the average daily membership for students (15,431) and came up with a new number for per pupil spending which was $11,844. He did not offer any other school districts for comparison.

Meanwhile, the state DOE has released their per pupil spending reports for the 2012 year. The average per pupil cost in NH was $12,775.15. Manchester continues to make its way downward in the rankings with a $9,826 per pupil spending rate. As of 2012 only Hudson, with $9,574 stands between us and winning our race to the bottom. Next year will likely be our year.

Add to that the fact that unlike the Mayor’s calculations, the state of NH DOE calculates the cost per pupil by subtracting tuition and transportation from K-12 current operating expenditures, and then dividing by the average daily membership in attendance (ADM-A). When that is not done the per pupil amount of all expenditures - operating, tuition, transportation, equipment, construction, interest and non-K-12 expenditures is $15,585.02 This means that even when we include our Federal money we are still spending nearly $ 4,000 less per student.

You can look at the list here

Today was one of those bad news good news days.

The bad news was that I got my tax bill.

The good news was that my taxes actually went down about $100.

Of course, the bad news was that his occurred because my house lost about 20% of its value during the last revaluation. Fortunately we’ve lived here for 30 years and we don’t have a mortgage. I pity people who bought their homes in the last 5 years and may find themselves under water.

The good news was that commercial properties only declined by about 9%. During the last revaluation in 2005 residential properties went up in value a lot more than commercial properties.  This caused a shift in the tax burden away from commercial property owners and toward homeowners. Now some of that has evened out a little.

According to the Department of Revenue Administration Manchester’s tax base shrank from 9.8 Billion to 8.2 Billion and that is bad news because homeowners in Manchester saw their home values decline by 15-20%. You might just say that this is just a correction, that homes were overpriced.  Other surrounding communities reported declines in property values as well, but not nearly as much. I read articles in the paper that Goffstown and Bow saw declines in the 6% range.

Why the discrepancy? The new way they do revals is based on sales of comparables. If people are willing to take less for their homes in order to get out of the city then that drives down property values and erodes the tax base.

While the decline in property values maybe a good thing in the short term it is not something we want to continue. At some point the people who remain will end up paying more and more for less and less in the way of services.

In order to stabilize property values we need to create a city where people want to buy homes and live. And what is the first question  a family asks when looking to buy a home? “How are the schools?”

I wouldn’t have minded spending that $100 on a school system that would protect my  property values.

Election day is just a few days away. It is important that you get out and vote. There are several wards where candidates are running unopposed, so that is likely to reduce turnout. Make sure YOU get out and vote and encourage your friends and neighbors to get out as well. We have same day registration so if you or your friend or your recently turned 18 child is not currently registered, bring a driver’s license or other proof of residency to the polls. It would be great if everyone who gets this email could bring one new voter to the polls.

In addition to the election for Mayor, aldermen, school board, and welfare commissioner there are two questions on the ballot. One is to approve the redistricting of ward boundaries that were required to even out population based on the 2010 census. This is the reason I will be a resident of Ward 5 come January.

The second question amends the tax cap. I provided a description of the tax cap and its consequences on my blog two years ago. The original tax cap amendment limited the increase of both the amount of the budget and the tax rate to the rate of inflation as determined by the consumer price index for the previous year which for this budget season is predicted to be 1.1%.

At the same time the city and school district are responsible for funding the employee contracts which were renegotiated a couple of years ago as a short-sighted, oops, I mean short-term solution to balancing the budget. The contract raises were back loaded and they come due this year. It may be that they were counting on an increase in state education revenue under the new distribution formula. We were supposed to get an additional $30 mil a year but then the election of 2010 happened.

Add to this the fact that in the last revaluation our tax base plummeted 15-20%. (By comparison Goffstown’s declined by 6%. Families deserting the city gotta move somewhere.) It all adds up to a big problem. Maybe that is why so few people wanted to run for office this time.

Anyway, the referendum would make it only a spending cap and not a tax rate cap. Personally, I don’t know how they got away with this in the first place because the state Department of Revenue Administration holds the authority to set tax rates. They are putting them up now. Ours is usually one of the last ones they calculate. It almost always shows up after the election.

In years when the tax base declines, the referendum would limit increases in the budget to zero. (which will lead more people who can afford it to abandon the city, which will lead to lower property values, which will lead to a smaller tax base, which will lead to less money, fewer services, and more people leaving, and so on, until the entire population of the city is limited to four people living under an overhang in Rock Rimmon Park, or maybe Derryfield.)

The referendum also uses a three year average on the consumer price index, which in this case would mean an average of 2009-.1%, 2010-2.7% and predicted 2011-1.1% = 1.3% , or not much of an improvement.

Nashua has had a tax cap since 1993. It was often overridden, but a new state law affecting tax caps now requires a 2/3 majority. In today’s paper many of the aldermen said they would only override the tax cap in a dire situation. This year may qualify.

Get out and vote on NOVEMBER 8!

Last week when Chris Herbert challenged Mayor Ted Gatsas’ record on public safety at the Chamber of Commerce debate, Gatsas responded that things in Manchester are better than they are in Flint, Michigan. I took little comfort in that.

Flint, Michigan, is the birthplace of General Motors. It has been on hard times since the OPEC embargo of the 1970’s. The city, made famous by Michael Moore’s film Roger and Me, has lost half of its population and according to Wikipedia, is the process of tearing down thousands of abandoned homes in order to curb crime and reduce city services to a level where the population can sustain it. As of June 2009, approximately 1100 homes have been demolished in Flint, with one official estimating another 3000 more will have to be torn down. Yes, things aren’t as bad in Manchester-at least not yet.

Between 1999 and 2007 the number of children living in poverty in Manchester  increased from 15 to 25 percent. According to the NH Department of Education, the number of children in our school system who are eligible for free and reduced lunch has increased in the last 5 years from 33% to 46%. In contrast, Nashua has seen their rate increase from 30% to 38%. Part of the reason is the economy, but the other part is the decline in middle income families who are remaining in the city or choosing to move here. So what is the plan to reverse these trends and turn the city around?

I am an optimist and I believe that the economy will turn around and luckily Manchester is not located in the rust belt. Our city is the regional center of one of the most prosperous regions of one of the most prosperous states in the US.  I also think that Manchester is positioned well to take advantage of a growing trend among young adults to dismiss suburban life and head for more urban areas. They like the convenience of city living, are concerned about the cost of commuting both in terms of gas prices and the hours of their lives that are lost sitting in a car, and they like to get out engage in social and cultural activities.

In order for Manchester to fully realize its potential we must create a vision for our city’s future. Do we want to attract good paying high technology jobs? Then we need a good school system to prepare the workforce. Do we want the people who get those jobs to stay in Manchester, buy homes, pay taxes, and raise their families here? Then we need a good school system.

Over the last 5 years we have witnessed a serious decline in the quality of public education in the city. While teachers and staff struggle to transform our school system into the modern 21st Century institution that it should be, they are being asked to teach more students and more classes, and go without basic resources. During the same time the tax bill for a $200,000 home has increased $10. This lack of commitment on the part of the city to improve or simply maintain an adequate public education system has led parents to believe that Manchester has no interest in supporting the educational needs of their children. Those who can afford it are leaving the city or shelling out big money for private schools to insure that their kids will have a bright future. This needs to change.

Where do we start? We need to build our skills to understand what the issues are in our school system and what the potential solutions are. Then we need to develop a strategic plan. Once we have that in hand we can invest in the things that will result in permanent improvement and will give us the best return on our investment. A good plan will also enable us to seek outside funding from government programs and foundations.

This is all within our grasp, but we need to be focused, organized, and committed.

Two things happened to me this morning.

The first thing was that, against my better judgment, I checked the online comments of yesterday’s City Hall column, because my name was mentioned in it. To my surprise I found the following comment:

“Staub’s answer for everything is throw more money at it.”

Now this surprised me because of the second thing that happened to me this morning. When I went to use my Sharp Carousel II microwave oven that I purchased for $99 in 1989 there was a funny smell and a strange glow emanating from the inside. It still works but it is likely to catch fire and burn my house down. So, after 22 years and a couple of replacement turntables, the time has come to invest in a new microwave oven.

If our online commenter was correct in his assessment of how I solve problems, I probably would have run out and bought a new microwave years ago when the defroster function ceased to work or when the turntable busted the first time, but I did not. My little microwave oven still met my needs, so I made  do.

Now, however, given the prospect of an electrical fire or exposure to microwave radiation, I will head to the mall to replace it because a microwave oven is a useful thing to have. Our online commenter probably thinks I’m going to go out and buy the most expensive microwave I can find, but I’m not going to. First, I’m going to look a Consumer Reports and see which brands are most reliable. I don’t want to have to buy another one in a just a couple of years. I am so fed up with cheap appliances that don’t last.

I also don’t need all the bells and whistles, so I don’t plan on paying extra for them, but I would like one that will fit in the same small area under the cabinet where the current one is installed.

I won’t be buying the most expensive microwave oven, but I also probably won’t be buying the cheapest one either. I’ll be looking for the one that will give me the greatest return on my investment.

That is also my plan if I am elected to the school board, to make decisions that will result in the greatest return on our educational investment.

The commenter also said something else.

“If the schools need more money fine but I for one am not convinced that they are good stewards of the money we have given them so far!”

I agree that the school board could educate itself and become more effective in the decisions it makes. One of my goals is to learn as much as I can about what it takes to be an effective school board member. I also think that the board should do a better job of educating the public about the challenges that our school district faces and demonstrate to the public that they are being good stewards. That would be another one of my goals.

One thing is certain though. Things will never improve as long as the conversation is limited to one dimensional political rhetoric.

Luckily I still have plenty of campaign signs left

Luckily I still have plenty of campaign signs left

It is hard to believe that it has been two years since my unsuccessful campaign for school board at-large. I learned a lot during that campaign and in the intervening two years I have learned a lot more. This time around I was planning to run for the Ward 4 seat being vacated by Chris Herbert, who is running for Mayor. However, because of the 2010 census I am being redistricted into Ward 5  and ineligible to run for either seat.

Why would I want to run for school board? I have a number of reasons.

1.) The first reason  is my sense of civic duty.

I was born and brought up here and I feel a sense of responsibility to leave the place as good as or better than I found it. Besides, if decent, committed people aren’t willing to run for and serve in these offices, the government can’t run. Sadly, there are people who work really hard to keep public service an unattractive proposition. I think these people want to keep ordinary citizens away so they can have the field to themselves.  While I wouldn’t describe myself as a person who is exhilarated by politics, I’m not afraid of it either. And this issue is so important to me that I am beyond being intimidated.

2.) The second reason is my experience.

I have been a consumer of the Manchester Public School System for 17 years. I have had two children go through the system. My daughter graduated in 2007 and my son will be a senior at Central this year. In those 17 years I have served as a PTA officer at McDonough School and PTO officer at Hillside. I have been on the District In Need of Improvement Committees since the beginning. I helped found Manchester Coalition for Quality Education, a citywide group of parents and community members that advocates for better schools. I have been involved in two superintendent searches. And recently, I helped found a local education foundation committed to identifying new resources that can be applied to improving our public schools.  Between that and the work I have done to educate myself and others about promising practices in school reform I think I have a good idea of what we need to do.

3.)The third reason is that I am worried.

In many ways Manchester is the perfect place to raise a family. It is big enough that there is every convenience and every opportunity that a family would want and small enough that you don’t feel lost or threatened.  Young working families, many of whom aren’t interested in a sterile life in the suburbs, should be flocking to Manchester, but the school system is a deal breaker.

This report by Ken Johnson at the Carsey Institute shows that the middle class is leaving Manchester. People who can afford to move out of the city are buying houses in the suburbs. The median price of a home in Manchester has declined by 15% and the recent property tax revaluation by the city confirms that home values in Manchester have gone down between 15% and 20%. Commercial property values will likely also decline because when the people with money to buy things leave town, retailers follow them. This is the usual pattern of urban decline.

The Carsey study also states that the number of children living in poverty in Manchester has doubled over the last 10 years to more than 20%. Unless our teachers have the best training and resources, they cannot meet the challenges posed by children of the poor.  Without a good education they will never be able to secure decent jobs and will never know life without poverty.

Concerns about the quality of education in Manchester are not unfounded. The U.S. Department of education announced last year that Federal School Improvement Grants would be used to turn around the 500 worst performing schools in the country. Each state was asked to identify the 10 worst performing schools in their state. In New Hampshire 5 of the identified schools were in Manchester.

It is well past the time for us to take our heads out of the sand.

4.) The fourth reason is the potential

A city like Manchester is in a great position to take advantage of the growing trend of people moving back to urban areas. I also think that the community would support improvements to our school system if we engage and educate them.

We have a lot of talented and dedicated people working in our school system who could do amazing things with the right leadership and support in place. Manchester is a diverse city with businesses, colleges, and cultural institutions. By engaging these resources our school system would be able to  offer students unique learning experiences that they could never get in the suburbs.

Re-energizing our school system is within our grasp but we need to have vision, leadership, and a plan.

First, I got a note from somebody from Red River Threatres letting me know that she recorded the panel discussion after the screening of Waiting for Superman on Monday night and posted it on-line. Here is a link to the discussion.

http://www.youtube.com/user/RedRiverTheatres?feature=mhum#p/u

 The Nov. 9 discussion is also available. If it doesn’t appear, click on the ‘uploads’ tab. She actually posted a comment here on the blog  which has many links to their site.

 Now onto the budget,

The superintendent will be presenting his budget to the school board tonight at 7 PM at City Hall.

 You have probably heard that it is going to be a very difficult year. The $4+ million of Federal stimulus money, that the district used to pay for kindergarten teachers and assistant principals, is going away this year.

 In addition to the loss of revenue, the costs of salary and benefits are expected to increase significantly. Yesterday Stacey and I stopped by to talk to the Mayor about the Education Foundation and he told us that there will likely be a $10-$11 Million funding gap. In the paper he was quoted as saying that as many as 150 positions may be cut from the school district.

 Last week the Mayor’s office issued a press release stating that the tax rate had gone down from $17.85 in 2009 to $17.84 in 2010.

 Here is what the tax rates have looked like over the past three years

                            Muni                     County                 Local Ed                State Ed.              Total

2010                $9.28                    $ .96                      $5.41                    $2.16                    $17.84

2009                $9.27                    $1.02                    $5.34                    $2.22                    $17.85

2008                $8.05                    $1.04                    $5.98                    $2.28                    $17.35

 

One piece of good news is that the NH Supreme Court overturned the Tax Cap saying that it interferes with state laws that grant the power to set the budget with the aldermen.  Eventually someone will pass a law in Concord saying that this is OK. In the meantime, it can’t be enforced.  And that is good news because the tax cap limits budget and tax increases to the rate of the Consumer Price Index for the previous year. In 2009 the CPI was -.04% There is a provision to override it with a 2/3 vote but that won’t matter this year.

 About 1/3 of our education funding comes from the state in the form of an adequacy grant . Last year we got $49 Million. That was less than we were supposed to get under the transition plan for the new formula, but given the state of the economy the amount was frozen. They only way the state was able to pay us that much was by using stimulus money.  This year they have $21 Million of that money left to put toward state adequacy grants.

The Mayor wants the teachers’ union to open their contract again this year and renegotiate their health insurance contribution. The MEA leadership has said they have no intention of doing that. I have been told that teachers currently contribute 5%. If that is not accurate, please let me know.

 In 2009 the tax base was about $9.75 Billion. I am waiting for the tax rate to be posted on the NH DRA site so I can compare apples to apples, but I think the tax base remained fairly stable between 2009-2010. Hopefully it will remain stable going forward. If it does, the aldermen would need to raise the tax rate on schools by about $1.00 to make up the shortfall.  Based on ten years of watching this process, I will tell you that that would be politically risky, but not impossible. I think it would be wise for us to start saying that an increase in the tax rate, given the circumstances, is reasonable.

 I have been doing this for ten years now so I leave out a lot of details. Please feel free to respond to this e-mail if you need clarification about something. This is a closed newsletter so the reply goes to me alone. I am going to post this whole thing on the blog.

 On Sunday, Nov. 7  there was an item in the Sunday News’ City Hall column saying that the superintendent is preparing an RFP to hire an outside consulting firm to create a redistricting proposal. There has been a lot of talk about overcrowding at Weston and Northwest  Elementary Schools in particular. 

 In 2004 the school district hired NESDEC to do an elementary enrollment study and develop some options for dealing with overcrowding. I think this was done mostly because very little consideration was given to the elementary schools space needs in the  big design build project.

At the same time, the Aldermen are struggling with whether to sell a 39 acre property off Wellington Rd to a developer or to save it for a school building. Weston School is located on Hanover Street right next to the exit from Route 101. Recently there has been a lot of development in that area which has included a lot of drive-thru restaurants and gas stations. The planned  reconstruction of Brennan’s restaurant was rejected because the drive-thru establishments they wanted to include would have such a negative impact on school safety. If more classroom seats are needed in that section of town there is no room to build on to Weston without taking homes by eminent domain.

The next year is a really good time to look at enrollments and do some long range planning because the data from the 2010 census is due out soon. Last month I saw a presentation by the Carsey Institute’s demographer Ken Johnson. He said that the preliminary reports will be out in January and the detailed reports are due out in April. This will give us detailed information about birthrates, where the little kids are located, and how many of them there are. If you overlay this information with planning department information about development and  you get a good idea of what long-term trends look like.

Neighborhoods tend to be cyclical. In a new development lots of young families move in and you need a lot of school capacity. Then the kids grow up and move on and the parents remain in the homes for another 20 to 30 years. Often entire neighborhoods turn over within a couple of years as older people sell out and young families repopulate the area.

Dr. Brennan was in Manchester the last time we redistricted. He said that it is time-consuming and very emotional. Having an outside entity might be a good idea, as long as they don’t just tell the board what they want to hear.

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