Tomorrow morning on NHPR, we’ll hear from Jillian Corey, a high school English teacher recently laid off from the Manchester school district. Jillian’s story is Part Five of our series “Getting By, Getting Ahead,” examining how people across New Hampshire’s seven regions are navigating a recovering economy.
As unemployment across the country has slowly abated, one sector has been a consistent drag: state and local government. Unlike the federal government, states and cities can’t borrow their way out of a fiscal crisis. So when the recession battered state and local revenues, many agencies had no choice but to lay off workers.
It’s a familiar story in New Hampshire, nowhere more so than in the Merrimack Valley. The region is home to Concord, the seat of state government, as well as Manchester and Nashua, the state’s largest cities. When the recession hit and the legislature began cutting the state budget, dozens of state workers at agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Corrections received pink slips. Municipalities saw state contributions to their coffers shrink. And these communities, in turn, found themselves having to trim their budgets and cut public jobs.
Teachers and other jobs tied to K-12 education have been among the hardest hit. The situation in Manchester, where the local school district laid off 161 employees, including 137 teachers in May, is especially interesting.Manchester was built around textile mills. Although those are closed now, Manchester still has a strong working class character. At the same time, the city is also one of the places where the US State Department settles refugees, so the school district is burdened with educating large numbers of students who don’t speak English as a first language.
While Manchester maintains New Hampshire’s largest school district, there isn’t an affluent tax base to support it. Manchester’s per pupil rate of spending is the second-lowest in the state, after the town of Hudson. For the 2010-11 school year, the state Department of Education reports Manchester spent an average of $9,826 per student. By contrast, Bedford, the next town over, spends $11,300 per student.
But that’s the story of any number of American cities. When you look at Manchester specifically, there is a lot more at play.
What Makes Manchester Different?
Decisions over school funding in Manchester are very fragmented. The school board, the schools superintendent, the mayor and the aldermen all have a say over the matter at different points in the process, and to varying degrees. The school board passes along the superintendent’s budget to the aldermen, while the mayor produces his own budget. The aldermen can choose between them and add or subtract funds as they see fit. The mayor has veto power, although the aldermen can overturn it.
This year, a new dynamic made it even trickier. The FY 2013 school budget was the first to be subject to a new, voter-approved cap on city spending and property taxes. (Increases in either are tied to inflation.) Like other New Hampshire localities, Manchester depends heavily on the property tax to help fund its school system. This year, the caps allowed Manchester to spend only $152 million on its schools. Superintendent Thomas Brennan’s original budget called for spending more than that: $162 million. The mayor asked for $150 million.
Meanwhile, federal stimulus funding for schools had run out. And teachers’ union contract obligations called for cost-of-living increases and continued health care coverage at a set rate. There was little room for anyone — the school board, the aldermen, or the mayor — to maneuver.
After drawn out negotiations with the Manchester Education Association failed, 161 school district employees got pink slips. When you factor in open positions the district closed, retirements, and the workers whose contracts were not renewed, the number of full-time jobs eliminated goes up to 196.
“Someone said that our school district has been decimated, and that’s about right,” says Board of School Committee Member At-Large Kathy Staub. “Because we lost about a tenth of our employees.”
The Long View On Education Funding
As Staub sees it, the root of Manchester’s problem is that it has no long-term, strategic plan for funding education, let alone monitoring student achievement and enhancing the curriculum.
“I’ve been on the school board since January,” Staub says. “Since I got on the school board, all we’ve talked about is the budget. We have never talked about the results of the NECAP exams, we have never had any kind of presentation of anything that’s going on academically in our schools. It’s all been about the budget or insurance or police. None of it has had anything to do with academics.”
This year, Manchester leaders have spent a lot of time looking for one-time fiscal patches to hold the education system together. They were able to come up with about $4 million in one-time funding, about half of which came from trusts set up for expenses such as health care. This move helped to mitigate the number of layoffs. Staub says the district will be able to bring back 80 school district employees, including 62 teachers. “The superintendent is calling people back on a regular basis,” Staub says. “Some of them have already found jobs in other school districts. And I’m grateful for that, because as bad as it is for us, these people need to get on with their careers and they need to pay their bills.”
Mayor Ted Gatsas, a well-known budget hawk in New Hampshire politics, objected to the latest round of one-time, patchwork funding for school district positions. He notes the layoffs weren’t unique to Manchester, and that a number of school districts across the country are dealing with tight budgets since the federal government turned off the stimulus spigot. The layoffs this past spring, he says, stem from the schools’ high personnel costs.
“The concessions that were made by the other units on the city’s side saved positions in their departments,” Gatsas says. “Firefighters knew if they did not make concessions, there would be more firefighters going home. Police officers knew if they did not make concessions, there would be more police officers going home. We could have saved in the vicinity of 80 or 90 teachers, with the concessions, and that didn’t happen.”
Like Staub, Gatsas wants budget stability. For him, that means not relying on one-time funding for continuing costs, and sticking with the budget dictated by the tax cap. “I believe Manchester schools are in great shape,” Gatsas says. “I think that there are people that think if you put money to the problem, the problem is solved. There’s no study that you can show me that says if you give the system more money, the system gets better.”
Staub, on the other hand, believes more education funding will ultimately bolster the city’s economy. “If it all devolves into the politics of the tax rate, we’re not going to be able to improve our school system,” Staub says. “And we’re going to continue to lose middle class and working families, because you know, when people decide where they’re going to live the first thing they ask is ‘How are the schools?’ If we don’t have a good answer to that question, then we’re going to lose working families, and that’s who we need to be living in Manchester if we’re going to keep our economy going.”
City Of Manchester School District Appropriations
Source: Manchester School District