School board approves $306M proposal, including Wilson School closure in next phase of facilities study

MANCHESTER, NH – It’s clear that Manchester’s public schools have aged beyond their expected lifespan and Manchester’s Board of School Committee agrees that something must be done about that fact, even though there was plenty of discussion over the next steps that need to be taken toward addressing that issue.

The Manchester Board of School Committee (BOSC) heard proposed next steps from Manchester School District (MSD) Superintendent Dr. Jenn Chmiel Gillis on Monday night with representatives from SMMA, the architectural firm assisting with the facilities planning process, beginning with an overview presentation.

In Gillis’ recommendations to the board, she proposed the closure of Henry Wilson Elementary School in the Fall of 2024, with Wilson students transferred to McDonough and Beech Elementary Schools. The recommendations also included the construction of an expansion to McDonough located across Lowell Street from the current school, renovations to the city’s middle schools that would finalize the transfer of all remaining fifth-grade students in elementary schools into middle schools while transforming internal architecture at Hillside, Parkside and Southside Middle Schools from their current “junior high school” models.

Additionally, these recommendations would also require the placement of modular classrooms at Beech, McDonough and the four middle schools in June of 2024 as well as funding for site planning of three high schools. Four sites were determined for further study for the three high schools: the current sites of Manchester West, Central and Memorial High Schools as well as the Gill Stadium complex. Gillis’ proposal indicated two of the high schools would hold approximately 2,000 students while an arts-focused high school would have enrollment of approximately 400 students, although additional details on the high schools are not expected until October at the earliest.

On top of this, Gillis recommended appropriating up to $306 million for this set of proposals, which is expected to cost anywhere from $278 to $306 million to achieve.

While the board voted 12-1-0 to approve Gillis’ proposals minus the requirement of an expanded McDonough, that approval did not come without significant apprehension.

Ward 5 school board member Jason Bonilla on Aug. 28, 2023. Photo/Andrew Sylvia

Ward 5 BOSC Member Jason Bonilla and Ward 4 BOSC Member Leslie Want expressed concerns that Wilson would not be replaced with another elementary school within walking distance of the city’s urban core, given that the nearby Hallsville Elementary School, also considered to be within the city’s center, was also recently closed.

Bonilla hoped that the expanded elementary school could be Beech rather than McDonough, as Beech is only approximately two blocks west of the current Wilson site. Although Want was thrilled at the idea of an improved McDonough, which is in her ward, she felt that McDonough was already one of the best schools in the city with other schools in more need of renovation.

Ward 9 BOSC Member Ben Dion asked if the closure of Wilson could be delayed to prevent Wilson teachers and students from being relocated multiple times, and At-Large BOSC Member Peter Argeropoulos expressed concern with moving students out of Wilson without a definitive plan on their permanent home.

However, there was unanimity that Wilson must be closed, with several Wilson staff members sharing stories about the structural deficiencies of the school and Gillis not recommending students remaining within Wilson for any extended period of time.

“I think there’s no question that Wilson needs to close,” said Bonilla. “Our students deserve better, it’s time to give them a better place.”

In response to Bonilla’s concern, SMMA Representative Lorraine Finnegan presented three options on expansion for Beech, but noted that McDonough was chosen due to the flexibility needed for the possibility considering the Gill Stadium Complex for the high schools, with an expanded Beech limiting the room available for that high school option.

There was also concern from Ward 1 BOSC Member Julie Turner and Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig regarding possible overcrowding at McDonough and Beech after the closure of Wilson, with Gillis responding that post-Wilson enrollment numbers at both schools are estimates and there will be overcrowding at several elementary schools nearby until the grade-five students are transitioned out of those schools, making Beech and McDonough the best option.

There was also discussion over parks being used for the expansion of Beech, with Want asking if Sheehan Basquil Park could be used and Ward 7 BOSC Member Chris Potter asking if Sheridan Emmet Park could be used.

Craig and Ward 10 BOSC Member Gary Hamer also expressed concern over funding for the $300 million, given that funding is expected to come from $20 million out of an expected $35 million per year over the next two years in reformulated state adequacy funding and possible adjustment of the district’s debt structure, both of which require approval from the Manchester Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

The Mayor believed that funding expectations by Gillis and her team presented a best-case scenario.

“I am struggling because I don’t know what the full scope of this is and it’s hard to approve it in pieces without knowing where the funding is coming from,” said Craig.

The proposal will also require approval from the Board of Mayor and Aldermen for the use of city land in possible school site reconfigurations and street closures.

Finnegan noted that grant funding could help defray some, but not all, of the costs within the $306 maximum price tag.

Those concerns were countered with statements from Ward 3 BOSC Member Karen Soule, At-Large BOSC Member Jim O’Connell and Gillis indicating investment in the city’s schools is an investment in the city itself and that additional information will become available over future months that can allay fears regarding funding.

“It’s taken us 25 years to get here, any deceleration is a problem,” said O’Connell. “I’m strongly in favor of moving forward, I’m not in favor of taking baby steps.”

“This is another huge step forward to ensure that all of our students have access to modern learning environments that meet their needs and support their growth,” Gillis said. “With our schools aging well past the recommended lifespan, we do not have the luxury of continuing to wait to take action. I thank the board for its thoughtful support of these recommendations, and we are eager to bring this forward to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen for consideration.”

Ward 12 BOSC Member Carlos Gonzalez and Ward 11 BOSC Member Dr. Nicole Leapley were absent, with the only vote in opposition to the motion coming from Ward 6 Member Ken Tassey Jr.

Tassey made a motion to table a decision on Gillis’ recommendations but could not receive a second. He also asked if renovations were possible given that numerous colleges such as Harvard were several hundred years old, although Finnegan noted that Harvard undergoes numerous renovations annually.

Ward 6 school board member Ken Tassey Jr. on Aug, 28, 2023. Photo/Andrew Sylvia

Several candidates running for the Board of School Committee this fall were in attendance such as Ward 12 candidate Camille Craffey and Ward 9 candidate Bob Baines.

Craffey expressed frustration with the decision given that the district has been unable to adequately fund approximately $150 million in deferred maintenance for schools in recent years.

“I know you have to have a plan in place in order to execute something as complex as this, but this seems very loosely planned, said Craffey. “All the what-ifs make me nervous that more mismanagement could happen and that makes me wonder if we go down the line and we run out of money, how would that end up?”

Baines, who served as the principal of Manchester West High School in the ’80s and ’90s before serving as Mayor in the 2000s, praised the board’s decision. During his term as mayor, $105 million was spent to upgrade the city’s schools.

“Now, twenty years later, additional efforts are finally taking place,” said Baines. “I think the superintendent is being very bold and pro-active and pro-student and pro-teacher in what they’re doing.”

Baines’ mother, who was born in 1910, went to Wilson, but he also supported the decision to close that school.

“It’s time,” he said. “There’s a lot of aging infrastructure and they’re finally looking at improving the situation.”