Burying the lead

I don’t know why I started this column with the city election. I guess it’s because I always feel pressure to keep politics a top priority, with the more anecdotal stuff towards the end, but by checking out the comments from this week it’s easy to see that people reacted strongly to the valedictorian piece. Perhaps it’s because everyone’s been to high school or has a kid in high school and remembers what a brutally petty contest the whole top-of-the-class rankings are. While it’s great to recognize the kid who got the best grades, 10 years from now, no one’s going to give a crap. I’ve always felt that way, even in high school, but it’s clear there aren’t many over-achievers that agree.

Maybe major challenges are keeping candidates away

For many of those considering — or being nudged toward — a run for public office in the next election, the display of commitment was pretty tepid through the middle of last week.

The pace of candidate filings was so weak, in fact, that City Clerk Matt Normand called the New Hampshire Union Leader to talk about it. The filings picked up on Thursday and Friday, but the number of candidates signing on so far is significantly lower than the 173 people who ran for office in 2009.


Finance officials estimate expenses for the city and the school district next year will go up a combined $22 million. Candidates elected to the city’s top boards will have to help decide where to cut already pared-down services or implement large tax increases. They will also have to deal with the effects of state and federal budget cuts, and they will negotiate city and school labor contracts.

In addition, it will be the next slate of aldermen who get phone calls in December from residents angry about how this year’s property revaluation affected their taxes, and it will be the next board that gets criticized for spending too much or cutting too deep.

It’s no wonder new recruits have been slow to sign up, but in the end, somebody’s got to do it.

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One candidate said to be on the reelection fence for a while was Board of School Committee member Mike DeBlasi. Often a practical and reasoned voice on the board, DeBlasi grew openly frustrated during the recent budget process. That frustration, however, has sparked his enthusiasm for seeking another term.

“It’s pretty common for people to be apathetic when it comes to public service, but when you find a passion, it’s paramount to pursue that passion,” said DeBlasi.

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Former Alderman Peter Sullivan announced early his bid to become welfare commissioner, launching shots at Commissioner Paul Martineau before the filing period even began. Jane Davis has joined the field, and last week, the race took an interesting turn when former Deputy Welfare Commissioner Diane Guimond announced her candidacy. The primary will be September.

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One of the first issues Superintendent of School Thomas Brennan brought before the school board was whether to eliminate the titles of valedictorian and salutatorian from the city high school graduation ceremonies. The original meaning of the word “valedictorian” refers to bidding farewell, not to the rank of the student giving the address, but over the years, Brennan said, people have lost sight of the true meaning of the distinction.

The race for top of the class has turned hyper-competitive, Brennan said, describing one instance during his time as a high school principal in which two competing students presented him with portfolios of achievement they had compiled since the second grade.

“If we’re going to keep it, we have to have a standard,” said Brennan. In an era of weighted grades and AP (advanced placement) classes, it’s not just good grades that get you a ranking; it’s class selection. Brennan said he’s heard of students trying to game the system for even the smallest competitive edge, and he wants to see a fairer way of honoring achievement. He suggested a system similar to that used by colleges and universities, with the top 1 percent of students graduating summa cum laude.

Brennan also raised the issue of overall student achievement. Is a student athlete with a near perfect grade-point average less worthy of honor than a musically gifted student with a grade-point average 1/100th of a percentage point higher? Brennan wonders whether there is a way to recognize those overall outstanding students, not just a statistical number written on a soon-forgotten transcript.

Brennan has been instructed to research the valedictorian system and report back to the school board next month, including whether eliminating the status would keep college-bound students from applying for special scholarships given to those who carry that title.

Brennan understands such moves have been criticized as “feel-good attempts” to strip children’s lives of competition.

“Having personally viewed it and seen it, I have a different opinion,” said Brennan. Watering down competition is not his goal, but he’d like to see the game change.

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As candidates hit the campaign trail, the city party organizations are fine-tuning their get-out-the-vote efforts. Online efforts to organize activists and increase voter turnout continued to grow in the 2010 elections, and this city election campaign will be no different, said David Hurst, an officer in both the Manchester Republican Committee and the New Hampshire Young Republicans.

“We’ve been using online efforts more to get activists motivated, get them to the lit drops, more grassroots activities,” said Hurst. “More or less you still have to do door to door, you still have to do the mail pieces, but we can add an additional layer by sending out those email blasts.”

City Dems understand where and how online campaigning fits in with Manchester politics, too, said Manchester City Democrats Chairman Mike Brunelle. The local party organization is on Facebook and Twitter and will use the Internet to raise money and keep activists informed, he said.

“What goes over well with the voters is good old-fashioned shoe leather, and at the end of the day, we’re going to make sure the candidates are meeting with people one on one,” said Brunelle. “We will have a solid presence (online), and we have had a solid presence. We don’t have to play catch-up.”

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