As the Candia School District ramps up its efforts to end the contract that sends its high school students to Manchester, the two communities quarrel over capital payments.
The road out
During a meeting in August, the Candia school board will vote on whether the district will pursue a new sending contract with Pinkerton Academy in Derry. If it decides to no longer send its students to Manchester’s Central High School, it will be the fourth and last community to do so in the past six years. Three of them — Auburn, Hooksett and Candia — are part of School Administrative Unit 15, which shares a superintendent.
Candia’s school board chair, Nicole LaFlamme, recalls this process began for her back in 2012, when she and other board members met with the Manchester Board of School Committee to share concerns they had about large class sizes and tattered textbooks. But they weren’t the only sending community with those concerns. Hooksett had already filed a notice of breach with Manchester, so the city lawyered up, and Manchester board members wouldn’t address any problems directly for fear it would admit liability. The meeting concluded without a resolution.
“The relationship continued to be a bit challenging,” LaFlamme said. “Families in Candia continued to be quite concerned about the educational health within the community in Manchester.”
By then, Auburn had already found a way out of its contract with Manchester, which included paying the city a large sum in a settlement. Hooksett was well on its way out, claiming the classes with more than 30 students were a material breach of the deal that promises to adhere to state standards. Candia decided to take a quieter approach.
Rather than get wrapped up in a potentially expensive lawsuit, Candia asked its voters. In March 2014 a warrant article posed the question of whether Candia should research options outside of Manchester. The final tally was 568 to 182 in favor.
“Overwhelmingly, the vote came back that, yes, the voters of Candia wanted the Candia school district to look for a partner other than Manchester,” LaFlamme said. “That was a strong indicator that ... we do want to look elsewhere. A very strong indicator.”
A committee was set up, charged with the task of researching all the options during the year that followed. The committee visited and compiled data from Central High, Londonderry High School, Raymond High School, Pembroke High School and Pinkerton. The final report recommended Pinkerton, Raymond and Londonderry. By LaFlamme’s estimation, Pinkerton was the clear frontrunner.
“Essentially, that research project brought it home to say, really, Pinkerton is most likely the best option for Candia,” LaFlamme said.
At the same time, another committee was busy researching the roots of declining enrollment in Candia’s K-8 school, the Henry W. Moore School. LaFlamme said that while aging demographics played a role, a significant factor was the contract with Manchester.
“Families were not moving into Candia because they didn’t want to go to school in Manchester, and conversely, families were moving out of Candia before their kids got to the 7th- or 8th-grade level so their kids wouldn’t have to go to high school in Manchester,” LaFlamme said.
She said the enrollment in Candia was declining faster than the state or regional rates, leading her to believe it was the Manchester school deal tipping the scales.
Town officials from various departments got together in a sort of summit to review all this information and LaFlamme says they all agreed on that diagnosis. To LaFlamme, the fact that nearly half of the town’s 54 high school students were being sent to private schools was also telling.
On the evening of June 3, more than 130 residents from Candia piled into a school bus that took them to Pinkerton for a tour.
“For Candia, that’s a pretty large number,” LaFlamme said.
Later that month, a group of parents shared their thoughts at a public hearing.
“It was essentially 98 percent, I’d say, of community members were very positive to instruct the school board to vote ... to pursue a contract with Pinkerton,” LaFlamme said.
But not everyone’s so sanguine about such a move.
According to Stephen Berwick, the coordinator of disputes and constituent complaints at the state Department of Education, Manchester and Candia are currently embroiled in a dispute over the capital costs Candia pays Manchester. While Berwick didn’t know the exact amount in dispute, it’s likely in the tens of thousands of dollars. Documents provided by LaFlamme showing Manchester’s annual tuition rates, including capital maintenance payments, don’t include capital cost numbers from the 2013-2014 school year and beyond because the funds are held in escrow.
The complaint was issued to the DOE on June 15, about 10 days before the public hearing where parents pushed for switching to Pinkerton. It’s currently being handled by a hearing officer who began proceedings with a conference on July 21. Berwick says the hearing officer’s job will be to collect facts provided in testimony during hearings likely to take place this fall and then report his findings and recommendation to the State Board of Education, which has the final say. So far, since this is being conducted through the administrative law process rather than the courts, it’s gone largely under the radar.
Superintendent Debra Livingston of the Manchester School District declined to speak to the Hippo for this story, and LaFlamme declined to comment on the dispute while it’s ongoing.
For Candia, the move to exit the deal with Manchester would be a less adversarial process than what happened between Hooksett and Manchester. Candia never claimed Manchester was in breach of contract. Instead, it’s considering using the last of three windows written into the contract for early release.
Assuming the Candia school board votes to pursue an agreement with Pinkerton, the board will begin drafting such an agreement. LaFlamme thinks existing arrangements with nearby towns serve as a useful template for a future deal.
“Auburn did a great job a few years ago with their contract with Pinkerton,” LaFlamme said. “There’s really no reason to reinvent the wheel.”
From there, residents will vote on the deal in March 2016 and if they vote in favor, the board must notify Manchester of its intent by the following June. That gives Manchester a two-year notice. So the soonest Candia students would start going to Pinkerton will be the fall of 2018. Otherwise, the current contract is set to expire in 2023.
The Candia board vote will take place on Aug. 6. While LaFlamme wouldn’t speculate on how her fellow board members are leaning, she already knows how she’ll vote.
“I will be voting to pursue a contract with Pinkerton,” LaFlamme said. “I think it’s time to see some changes here in Candia and I think this will be a very positive change for our community.”
As seen in the July 30th 2015 issue of the Hippo.