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Manchester and its Suburbs Continue to Drift Apart on Education Issue

Ted Siefer
Residents of Candia will vote next month whether to pull their students from Manchester Central High School. The move could reflect simmering tensions between Manchester and its suburbs over the city's schools.

Next month, residents of Candia will vote whether to pull their high schoolers out of the Manchester school district and send them instead to Pinkerton Academy in Derry. If the agreement goes through, Candia would be the last town in the greater Manchester area to remove its students from the city’s school district – the largest in New Hampshire.

If you want to understand what’s made many parents in Candia turn against Manchester, talk to Nancy Deihle. She grew up in Manchester and works in the city, but she says she’s alarmed by what she’s seen in recent years, particularly around Central High, where most of the Candia kids now attend school.

“The things I see now just walking to and from my car is shocking,” she said. “It’s the worst part of Manchester. I don't want to send my kids there everyday, when I choose to live in Candia for the security and the community. “

Deihle is hardly alone in her opinion of Manchester and its schools. Indeed, an anti-Manchester movement has spread through the suburban communities ringing the Queen City in recent years.  Concerns about large class sizes and safety in the city led two other neighboring towns, Auburn and Hooksett, to break long-standing contracts with Manchester and find other districts to take their high school students.

It hasn’t always been so. For decades, parents in Hooksett, Auburn,Candia, and, Bedford — sent their kids to Manchester high schools. The towns were also an important revenue source for the district, providing millions of dollars every year in tuition revenue. The mix of city and suburban students in those schools had historically defined the district, and made it a stand out in academics and athletics — as well as entertainment.

Comedian Seth Meyers, for one, was one of the Bedford kids who attended Manchester High School West in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, before the town built is own high school. After a performance at the Bedford High in 2012, Meyers told WMUR that the facility was a far cry from West— but not necessarily in a good way.

“I’m a proud proud graduate of Manchester West," Myers said. "(Bedford) has a beautiful school, but I meant what I said: You develop way more character at Manchester West High.”

Candia is the last remaining town with ties to Manchester schools. If residents opt to redirect their students to Pinkerton Academy instead, by invoking an opt-out clause in their contract with Manchester— it will effectively spell the end of their district’s agreement with the city. 

Bob Baines, who was mayor of Manchester when the contracts between Manchester and its suburbs were hammered out, said he's distressed to see thing get to this point. Baines, who was also the longtime principal at West High, remains bullish on Manchester schools. He’s currently heading an effort known as Steam Ahead New Hampshire, which functions as a college track academy within the high schools.

Baines said Manchester offers the suburban kids more than just an academic setting.

“Going to schools where there are families who are struggling people, working class parents, that’s the reality of the world and the community we live in," Baines said. "When you break that apart, I think you isolate students from the reality of that type of experience.”

The departure of the tuition towns could exacerbate the challenges facing the Manchester district, the most ethnically diverse in the state and where more than 50 percent of the students come from low-income homes.

Manchester officials seem resigned to Candia’s likely departure. There’s been little public response to the issue. And after all, Candia now has only about 130 high schoolers in Manchester, out of a total of about 4,500.

School board member John Avard concedes that Candia appears to be on its way out, but he also stressed recent positive developments in Manchester schools.

“Who knows what the future holds. perhaps these communities or other communities might decide to be part of the Manchester experience," Avard said. "We’ve been doing awful lot with our schools, and I think that as time goes, they’re going to see some aspects of Manchester that are going to become very attractive.”

Meanwhile in Candia, backers of the Pinkerton agreement are mounting a vigorous campaign ahead of the town meeting next month. And they insist the new contract will cost taxpayers less money than the current one with Manchester.

Candia residents vote on March 8. 

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