Now that she doesn’t have to run for reelection in Manchester, Mayor Joyce Craig is leaving the city with a school system that is losing students and a budget that relies on $30 million in one-time funding.
Craig’s proposed 2024 budget uses $30 million in COVID relief funds to pay for ongoing school district expenses like salaries and staff benefits, as well as transportation costs. Craig’s use of temporary revenue will become a problem for whoever takes her job next. Craig recently announced she is not running for a fourth term.
Jay Ruais, a Republican running for mayor, said Craig’s budget for 2024 is irresponsible.
“Using one-time funds for recurring costs is a band-aid approach, not a long-term solution to our city’s needs, and is a practice that will continue to harm us down the road,” Ruais said.
“Communities like Manchester will continue to face significant education funding gaps as long as the state continues to underfund public education and downshift costs to local taxpayers. I encourage the legislature to pass pending legislation that reinstates state contributions for teacher retirement and increases State Adequate Education Aid,” Craig said during this month’s annual budget address.
Craig blames a drop in state education funding for creating the need to use federal funding for operating expenses this year. In fact, state aid has increased on a per-pupil basis. It’s falling enrollments that are costing the district funds, leaving taxpayer groups to ask why the city needs more money to educate fewer students.
According to data from the New Hampshire Department of Education, since 2000, enrollment in Manchester schools has fallen by nearly 28 percent. At the same time, per pupil costs have risen more than 55 percent.
Craig’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Victoria Sullivan, a Republican considering another run for mayor, said Craig is going to leave the city by giving residents a tax increase after she’s long gone.
“The increased tax burden facing the taxpayers next year when the city has to reconcile the budget without the tens of millions of Cares Act, ESSER, and ARPA funds that have been irresponsibility used will either force significant layoffs across our city or force rents and property taxes to skyrocket,” Sullivan said. “Our citizens cannot afford this short-sighted budget or the inevitable consequences of it.”
Manchester’s projected State Adequate Education Aid grant comes to a little more than $44.8 million for 2024. That’s based on an anticipated average daily attendance in the district of 11,601 students.
Since the State Adequate Education Aid is based on those attendance numbers, the city’s adequate funding depends on its ability to keep families and students. Last year, with more than 12,000 students, Manchester schools got more than $45.5 million from the state, meaning the projected 2024 grants are hardly a large drop in funding.
In 2014, Manchester was getting more than $46 million from the state in adequacy grants thanks to the fact it had more students. At the time, Manchester’s average daily attendance was more than 13,000 students.
Manchester isn’t alone in losing students. According to data released by the New Hampshire Department of Education earlier this year, The Granite State has seen a 22 percent drop in the number of students since 2002. That year, there were 207,648 students enrolled in schools in 2022. The number has fallen to 161,755 enrolled for the current school year. Meanwhile, the cost per pupil has gone up an average of 78.4 percent since 2000.
Craig’s $390 million total 2024 proposed budget for the city and school district is headed to the Board of Alderman for approval. Of that, the school district budget is about $190 million. Craig boasted in a recent budget address she’ll be able to lower local real estate property taxes under her plan using money left over from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, part of the CARES Act.
The ESSER funding was sent to districts in order to make sure students were still getting an education during the COVID emergency. The U.S. Department of Education recommended using the money to support remote learning for all students, especially disadvantaged or at-risk students, and their teachers.
Ruais said Manchester is ready for leadership that knows how to balance a budget without tricks.
“Our city cannot achieve its full potential unless we have a fiscally sound budget. Year after year we see taxpayers footing the bill for irresponsible spending practices, as taxes continue to go up,” he said.