by Rich Girard
Published in the Union Leader on May 28, 2021
BACKED BY Mayor Joyce Craig, Manchester school Superintendent Dr. John Goldhardt has “gone big” in an attempt to “restart high school” in the Queen City. To be sure, Manchester’s schools are struggling but Goldhardt and Craig would have us believe that the way to turn things around is to launch a massive building program that dwarfs what the city spent some 20 years ago, when it was also said that a massive building program was what the city needed to keep students, notably those from the now former tuition towns, in the system.
The premise of their argument is that our school buildings are just too old to bring up to modern day standards; just too out of date to meet modern educational needs. That, they say, is why the city needs to eliminate West, Central and Memorial and build a “state of the art” school that can “comfortably” hold 3,500 students.
If it’s true that our buildings are just too old to update and make useful in these times, why are they proposing to renovate the Classical Building at Central to house the district’s offices and a variety of other educational programs? Why are they proposing to overhaul the Practical Arts Building at Central to turn it into a “modern,” 800-student school for the arts? And, why are they proposing to completely remodel Memorial and make it the “new” MST that can hold 1,000 students?
For those keeping count, that’s providing room for 5,300 high school students in a city that barely has 3,800.
This is just the tip of the spending spear, too.
Goldhardt proposed brand new schools where Gossler Park, McDonough and Wilson now stand and “remodeling” five elementary schools, some of them “extensively.”
At the same time, he said he couldn’t justify an addition to Bakersville because the boundary lines could be changed to send its excess students to nearby schools. Yet, one of the stated reasons for building a bigger, better Gossler Park is to relieve overcrowding at Northwest. Both Gossler and Parker Varney have ample space to relieve the pressure on Northwest. Why not just redraw those lines? Is it a way to make it up to the West Side for closing the high school that’s been there for 100 years?
All of this spending on buildings, which includes turning MST into the district’s pre-school, oddly increases the amount of space in Manchester’s schools at a time when the district is projecting that student enrollment will decrease by 12% over the next decade. Once again, we find ourselves continuing the trend of spending more money for fewer students.
How much more money? Using the information provided in the documents presented to the school board, and consulting with an architect or two about renovation costs (not identified in the facilities study), I estimate the total cost of these building projects at over $500 million dollars. Yup! You read that right; more than half a billion dollars!
Since Manchester borrowed $105 million to fund the “big and bold” plan to upgrade its middle and high school buildings, it has cost the taxpayers $7.5 million per year in debt payments, which continue until 2028. Doing the math on the current proposal, one can project annual debt payments of about $35 million per year to pay for it. Even if shiny new buildings led to better educational outcomes than targeted changes to existing ones, it has to be asked how the city would be able to fund anything other than this massive increase in annual debt payments.
It is absolutely true that Manchester’s schools desperately need a “restart,” and not just in its high schools. Dr. Goldhardt was right when he wrote: “What goes on inside a school regarding teacher quality, student learning, and a positive climate are the most important.”
I have put forward a plan that actually focuses on what happens inside the buildings. It enables our educators, parents, businesses, universities and other community groups and institutions to create the options Manchester families want and our students deserve to improve the quality of education. You can find it at www.girardformayor.com
In closing, I’d like to leave you with this thought. I remember all too well a time when people said the buildings in the Millyard were just too old for modern times. Thankfully, we had leadership with vision that saw the possibilities and did the necessary work. Manchester’s schools simply need new leadership, not new buildings.