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The Biggest Challenges Facing Our Public Schools

Board of Education Chairman Chris Pattacini shares his opinion on the biggest challenges facing the Manchester School System.

One of the biggest challenges facing Manchester’s school system is balancing the increased needs of our students against our community’s desire and ability to fund those needs. As Chairman of the Board of Education, the most common question I hear today is, “why is spending rising, when enrollments are declining?” 

The logic that would directly tie spending levels to district enrollment is flawed because it ignores the underlying changes occurring in our schools. Increased attendance at magnet schools by some students, and a broad change in the makeup of the student population, has resulted in added costs just as pressures to decrease spending have peaked. 

Since 2000, Manchester has seen an enrollment reduction of approximately 900 students, but most of that reduction (close to 700 students) is due to students attending magnet schools. Magnet schools are a great alternative for some, but that choice comes with a cost. Each year, Manchester must allocate a greater share of its education budget to magnet school tuition. In 2000, Manchester spent less than $2 million on students attending out-of-district magnet schools; in 2009, we spent close to $7 million – and that number continues to climb. The difference between in-district savings in per pupil expenditures (approximately $200 per student) versus the tuition for a magnet school (as much as $5,000 per student) has placed an undue burden on public school budgets across the state. In Manchester, every dollar that goes to magnet school tuition is one less dollar we can spend on students who remain in the district.

Another factor contributing to increasing education costs is that a Manchester student today is more likely to be economically disadvantaged and to require special education services. Many of these additional support services are government mandated, and often unfunded. 

In 2000, less than 26% of Manchester students were identified as economically disadvantaged (by qualifying for free or reduced lunch).  In 2009, that number had risen to 43%, and continues to climb.  (For comparison, during that same period the state average climbed from 24% to just 30%.)  In less than a decade, the number of Manchester’s economically disadvantaged students doubled, and by next year, the majority of students in the Manchester Public Schools will qualify for free or reduced lunch. 

This is an alarming trend, and one that underscores the dedication and commitment of our school staff. We owe them a debt of gratitude. Despite these increased demands, as well as cuts to staff development funding and an increasing focus on testing strategies, they have worked tirelessly – and successfully – to narrow the achievement gap. They stepped up to the challenge of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and worked to improve education outcomes, so as to achieve Safe Harbor status under NCLB two out of the last three years. Is more work required? Absolutely.   

Equally concerning is the more recent increase in special education needs. Since 2005, the percentage of students requiring special education services has almost doubled, up from 13% to 25%, resulting in a commensurate increase in costs.  Manchester now spends $10 million more on special education services today than it did in 2005. This increase alone accounts for 60% of the total increase in Manchester’s education budget since 2005. These costs are not optional.  Manchester must be committed to creating a supportive environment where all children have the opportunity to learn.

Manchester has never shied away from its responsibility to educate our children. Our community is more than equal to the task of building the kind of school system we want to educate our children in. But let me be clear, this will take time, planning, and money. As the Boards of education and directors work to balance the concerns of the public within the context of the economic realities our town is facing, we all need to work together to ensure the success of all our students, our school system and our community. 

Greg April 05, 2011 at 12:11 PM
Part A As always, Mr. Pattacini offeres a realistic look at our public school system in Manchester. While I agree with the majority of what is being said, I believe there are proactive approaches to the financial situation that the board can advocate for. For years the cry from public schools has been to reduce the burden special education needs place on the financial wellbeing of the system. The legislature has formed a committee to study this and I encourage the Manchester board to seek representation on this study committee. Also, the fact that students are leaving the mainstream public schools for magnet and charter schools must be explored. It is interesting that many residents and the BOE in the past were willing to go to the mat for neighborhood schools and now so many students are now leaving the neighborhood school for magnets and charter. Is it time to restructure our system and possibly offer or go back to offering special focus schools. Competition in this case could be good.
Greg April 05, 2011 at 12:12 PM
Part B I also thought that even though the tuition for magnet schools is around $5000 the system is getting more than that for each student residing in the district and in fact is still receiving dollars for that student even if they are attending a magnet or charter. If that is not correct I stand corrected. If true the system is getting dollars to educate a student that is no longer being educated by the system. In the past Manchester has been caught flatfooted when legislation passed that impacted school spending or the budget was not funded as presented and that lead to scrambling to balance the allocation to the spending. While it did bring out all the special interest folks who did not want their specific program cut it also lead to a look of the BOE did not now what they were doing or at best were ill prepared for the realities of local funding. In a recent article I read about the education committee, the different town government organizations etc. overwhelmingly supporting a change in the current law to allow towns to reduce funding for their education system if enrollments decline. Less students less money--is the BOE ready with a plan B if this were to happen. I believe the number I saw was up to $3000 reduction per student. All the above said, I think we have the best BOE leadership in place and also think, while the challenges are great, Mr. Pattacini and company are up to the task.
Lisa Kidder April 05, 2011 at 02:12 PM
Our schools face enormous challenges. Thank you to Chris Pattacini and the BOE for their leadership in tackling these issues in a pragmatic way that respects students, teachers & taxpayers. Lisa Kidder

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