True professionals, turf wars and band nerds

I really slammed School Committee member Chris Herbert in this column, a move that would have put me on the banned-for-life list of most public officials I used to cover in Southern Maine. But Herbert didn’t take it personally. He is a professional and has continued to answer my calls and questions without making me feel like a heel.

That’s more than I can say for myself, who still holds a grudge against those nasty commenters who frequented my column in the early days of my tenure.

And then I talk about the battle over the school driveway and my first public admission in Manchester that yes, indeed, I played in band.

City, school officials sparring over $2 million

THE BATTLE OVER the school district budget has come down to a $2 million question: Will the aldermen support the $150 million budget put forward by Mayor Ted Gatsas and Superintendent of Schools Thomas Brennan, or will they go with the Board of School Committee’s $152 million budget?

As the aldermen mull their decision, nine school board members decided to give their city-side counterparts a little nudge. In a letter sent last week, these committee members argue that the mayor’s budget goes too far and cuts too deep. They say their $152 million proposal is responsible, has fewer layoffs and would allow the district to meet the needs of students and its federal education mandates.

This letter, from “the undersigned members of the school committee,” was passed around before and after Monday’s meeting for signatures. It was handed off to the district administrative office on Thursday and later disseminated to the aldermen.

Even though I was at Monday’s school board meeting, the letter was news to me when it came up on Thursday during an unrelated interview. When I called Committeeman Chris Herbert, the author of the letter, to ask whether I had missed something, I learned that the letter had not come up during the official meeting.

“I sent it to the board members by e-mail; they made suggestions; and I typed it up to a final version, brought it in to the last meeting, and those who wanted to sign it, signed it,” said Herbert. “I wanted to keep it quiet and give the aldermen the courtesy of getting the letter before it becomes a public matter. I wasn’t trying to be sneaky. Everyone knew what I was doing.”

Except that everyone didn’t know what Herbert was doing, specifically the reporter who was covering the meeting and the people watching on Manchester Public Television Service at home or the people who were sitting in the audience at City Hall .

It’s no secret the school board meetings have been acrimonious lately, but that doesn’t mean members should skip the process altogether. Sending a letter to the aldermen so they know about an issue “before reading about it in the newspaper” isn’t an excuse either.

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THERE’S BEEN a behind-the-scenes push for months to draft a charter amendment to make the Manchester School District a city department. The move would give the aldermen more power over the school budget and possibly cut down on the contentious battle the two boards wage each year during budget season. At a recent aldermen’s meeting, Alderman Phil Greazzo said the idea had merit. Mayor Gatsas agreed. So far, no one has indicated they’re drafting any language.

Now it looks like school board members Joe Briggs has beaten them to the punch.

Briggs has proposed a charter amendment that would bypass the aldermen in the school budget process, instead giving the school board authority to craft its own biennial budget and send it to the voters for approval.

“History has shown that Manchester consistently funds its schools near the bottom of the state, yet has the highest paid and best equipped fire department,” said Briggs. “I am convinced that if the district is ever to achieve excellence in educational opportunities and performance, that we must stabilize the budget against such large budget and personnel fluctuations as provided in the Guinta and Gatsas administrations.”

Voters will decide whether they want to take up Briggs’ plan and other charter amendments this fall when they vote on whether to form a charter commission in 2012.

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CANDIDATES IN WARDS 6 and 12 may want to keep an eye on the work being done this summer by the ward redistricting committee. The group will consider whether to craft a charter amendment to change the ward boundaries using 2010 U.S. Census numbers. While it would not affect ward boundaries in the 2011 city elections, it could change the lines in 2012.

Ten years ago, Ward 2 was the largest in the city, followed by Wards 5, 7 and 1. A decade of growth on the outer edges of the city has shifted those numbers, making Ward 6 the largest ward today. According to U.S. Census data, it has 10,151 residents, an increase of more than 1,000 people. The largest overall growth in the city was in Ward 12, which saw 1,171 new residents move in, for a total of 9,848.

The biggest drops were in Wards 4 and 5, which declined by about 250 people each.

Overall, the city gained about 2,500 residents, putting the population just shy of 110,000. This makes Manchester about the same size as Lansing, Mich., Inglewood, Calif., and Waterbury, Conn.

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WHEN ALDERMAN At-Large Dan O’Neil questioned whether the school board had picked the best plan for redesigning the Parker Varney Elementary School entrances, parking lot and playground, he got serious guff from the school board for what members saw as butting into official school business.

Last week, the school board gave it back to the city once more, shifting responsibility to the city for paying for the road changes surrounding Parker Varney.

Committeeman Arthur Beaudry said the school district will pay for the work on school property, but not work on the curbing and new roundabout.

“We’re not going to ask them. We’re just going to give it to them,” said Beaudry. “The road is city property, and I don’t know why the school district would pay to have the road reconstructed anyway.”

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MOVING MORE THAN 100 students, their uniforms and their musical instruments anywhere is a major endeavor. Moving them halfway across the world is an even bigger task.

You’ve probably heard that the Central High School Marching Band is heading to Hawaii as the New Hampshire representative at the 70th anniversary commemoration of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The campaign, dubbed Operation Pearl Harbor, gets a plug this week because: first, I am a proud former marching band member and know how much preparation, practice and fund-raising these students must put in to make this trip a reality; and second, Operation Pearl Harbor is holding a Luau Party fund-raiser at St. George’s Cathedral on Hanover Street on Friday.

To learn more about the trip or Friday’s event, go to operationpearlharbor.com.

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