Quick take

  • Solid return on educational investment
  • Supporting less advantaged students
  • Balancing taxpayers concerns with long-term goals
  • Preserving our strengths
  • Good schools create vital communities

PROGRESS PORTSMOUTH asked former councilor Chris Dwyer to give us thoughts on education, her field of expertise. Her overview follows.

A proper role for the City Council in education

While the school board is responsible for oversight of day-to-day school district operations, through annual appropriations and capital investments the City Council creates and protects the platform that makes excellence possible. Over the past decade or so in Portsmouth, we have achieved solid return on our annual investments while upgrading all of our school system facilities. Portsmouth’s annual per pupil expenditures are close to average for New Hampshire, yet our students now regularly outperform most communities in the state—attributable to strong leadership of the system over the past decade.

Portsmouth schools value academics, arts, and athletics and in recent years have paid increasing attention to ensuring equity so that the ability to take advantage of opportunities does not depend on a family’s economic circumstances or a parent’s assertiveness in seeking advantages for their children. Our schools serve a socioeconomically diverse population, including at the middle and high school levels, substantial numbers of students from surrounding communities.

Because school expenses are the largest portion of annual budgets in NH communities and therefore the majority of public employees actually work for school districts, the stage is set in most NH communities for acrimony on the part of taxpayers during annual budgeting. Generally, in Portsmouth this has not been the case in recent years—even though only a small proportion of residents have children in school.

Balancing taxpayer concerns with long-term needs

The Council must always balance taxpayer concerns with the long-term view that education necessarily requires. Avoiding acrimony is possible when Council members take an active interest in schools and stay well informed, enabling them to make thoughtful suggestions to the school administration and school board, seek innovation, and demonstrate an understanding that schooling has changed considerably since they were young. At the same time, stewardship demands paying enough attention to proposed expenditures to make meaningful inquiries about the rationale for expenditures and not simply accept all education costs at face value.

It is not helpful for Councilors to micro-manage, pit school employees against other public employees, demand across-the-board reductions in force, expect the administration to hire only the least experienced and therefore least expensive staff, or eliminate the types of opportunities (such as after-school sports or arts or electives) that serve to engage students.

Vital aspects we need to maintain and preserve

Features of Portsmouth schools that councilors should look to preserve:

  • Unique arrangement of combining City recreation and school sports through common personnel and facilities. Not only is this cost-effective, the philosophy of participation common to recreation tempers the negative aspects of competition that sometimes characterizes school sports -- without sacrificing success.
  • Relationships with the City’s cultural amenities (PMAC, Strawbery Banke, the Music Hall and so forth) that provide extended opportunities for students.
  • Concerted attention to meeting the needs of students with disabilities.
  • Regular capital expenditures to maintain the now-upgraded facilities for students at all grade levels.

The quality and condition of a community’s schools, parks and libraries signal the extent to which leaders have a long view of their responsibility for all residents of the community. This approach creates opportunity while building affinity for the community and thereby setting the stage for long-term local economic and social vitality. To remain vital, communities must continue to appeal to young families by offering good schools.


Public high school in Portsmouth

Public elementary/middle schools in Portsmouth

Private elementary/middle school in Portsmouth

Colleges/Universities in Portsmouth

  • Great Bay Community College (Full-time enrollment: 1,203; Location: 320 Corporate Dr; Public; Website: www.greatbay.edu)
  • Empire Beauty School-Portsmouth (FT enrollment: 99; Location: 2545 Lafayette Rd; Private, for-profit; Website: www.empirebeautyschools.com/)
  • Paul Mitchell the School-Portsmouth (FT enrollment: 25; Location: 140 Congress Street; Private, for-profit; Website: portsmouth.paulmitchell.edu/)