The Prediction Game

Some good advice I received a few years back about covering politics was that people never hold political journalists accountable for their predictions. If you call the race for one candidate and the other wins, well then you get to write about the upset. If you pick the correct horse, then you’re deemed a savvy political mind for properly crunching the data.

Another way to get in some “analysis” without taking on the prediction yourself is to get others to predict what happened. This week I tried just that by asking all the aldermen I could whether a tax cap override is possible.

 

Aldermen flirt with tax cap override, but refuse to commit

THE ALDERMEN INDICATED on Tuesday there may be enough votes for a tax cap override. They also made clear they don’t want to vote on it right now.

Alderman At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur made a motion at the end of Tuesday’s lengthy school budget discussion to stay within the tax cap as “a test vote.”

“I’m calling our bluff,” he said.

After a quick moment of protest, Alderman Tom Katsiantonis moved to table the item. The tabling motion passed, 10-4, with Aldermen Levasseur, Phil Greazzo, Jim Roy and Bill Shea voting no.

Later that meeting — at 12:30 a.m. — Alderman Patrick Long made a motion to override the tax cap by 1 percent. The aldermen shot each other surprised looks until Alderman Russ Ouellette made a motion to table that proposal, too. It passed, 11-3, with Long, Roy and Levasseur voting no.

The two motions will appear on the board’s agenda again this month.

THIS TAX CAP TALK came before the aldermen saw the letter sent last month by the Manchester Education Association to the Board of School Committee after the board’s vote on staffing cuts.

In it, the teacher union argues that eliminating reading specialists and “building-level instructional leaders,” known as BLILs, could be a violation of the contract. If the positions were cut, the district could end up paying the stipends for these jobs anyway if the matter went to arbitration, the letter said.

The letter also went to Superintendent of Schools Thomas Brennan and Mayor Ted Gatsas, who decided it was something the aldermen should see and forwarded it to them. On Tuesday, some of the aldermen said they’d be willing to give schools more money if the unions showed willingness to make concessions. This letter seems to indicate the unions are not so inclined.

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IN THE FIGHT for more school funding, one of the most discussed side issues has been spending per pupil. Proponents of a larger school budget have argued that state statistics put Manchester second from bottom in that category, with the district paying $9,826 per student in fiscal 2011.

But Gatsas has argued that the state’s per-pupil figures don’t factor in major expenses such as debt, transportation or food costs, all of which go to serve students. Alderman Garth Corriveau asked school officials on Tuesday for a list of figures in hopes of putting this debate to bed.

When all school spending was included, Manchester spent $12,079 per student in 2011, according to district Finance Director Karen DeFrancis. In 2012, the district expects to spend about $9,635 per student under the state formula and $11,844 when all funding is included. If the school district gets the $152 million it has asked for from the city, next year’s spending per pupil would be $9,487 under the state formula and $11,662 with all spending included.

When all expenses are factored in, Manchester’s spending is more in line with state averages, Gatsas said in his budget address last month. In that same speech, he said the claim Manchester underfunds education is “a myth.”

But according to the state Department of Education, the average cost per pupil in New Hampshire, if all spending is included, is $15,585. Kathy Staub, at-large member of the school board, pointed out this in an email to school supporters after Gatsas’ budget address.

The figures provided Tuesday also posed a new question: If school spending went up last year, why did spending per pupil go down?

DeFrancis said an increase in student population, though small, was the reason. In 2011, Manchester schools had 15,291 students;this year, they have 15,431. Next year, schools expect 15,392 students. Long-term projections show an end to population declines and the district holding steady around 15,000 students.

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DESPITE THE DREADFUL budget talks, the school district celebrated a minor victory when the New England Common Assessment Program test results came in. (See related story, Page A1.)

Although in its seventh year as a “district in need of improvement,” there were advances in reading and math scores at individual schools. For the first time in three years, Smyth Road Elementary School made annual yearly progress in reading, the only school in Manchester to do so this year.

The district said other schools came close, missing the AYP mark by one subgroup: in reading, Gossler Park Elementary School and McLaughlin Middle School, and in mathematics, Bakersville Elementary School and Green Acres Elementary School.

Normally, this wouldn’t seem like much cause to celebrate, but evidence of improvement means the special reading and math programs that help struggling students appear to be working. School officials didn’t neglect to point out this during last week’s public hearing on the school budget cuts.

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