Best News All Day 3-26-13


Being a superintendent of schools is a pretty thankless job. There is never enough money. Everyone is constantly second-guessing your decisions, from teachers to the school board to the average citizen who knows next to nothing about education. And when you try to make improvements, shake things up for the overall good, parents, kids and teachers fill a large auditorium or gymnasium or hearing room to talk about why the improvement plan is such a bad idea — often before hearing all the details.

Hudson Superintendent of Schools Brian Lane is trying to make a change, to improve student test scores by restructuring the early education model in his town. Will it work? Maybe. But first he has to convince the people who live in Hudson to let him do it.

— In case you missed it, WMUR interview with newly elected Manchester City Democrats Chairwoman Liz Kulig.

— Not quite New Hampshire news, but a rare white coyote was found in Kennebunk, Maine.

These photos of Cranmore Mountain’s annual pond skimming event over the weekend makes you realize the North Country is totally having more fun than we are this winter.

Another blow to charter schools. And the university system.

— The Manchester Superintendent of Schools candidates got a taste of the job Monday night.

— Last Thursday, I attended the Portsmouth Pecha Kucha (pronounced Puh-CHA Koo-CHA), a sort of TED talk thing that actually began before the whole TED talk thing was a thing. My favorite segment was presented by Jane Seney, educator, tour and docent program director. A Manchester native, Seney spoke about how her view of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Zimmerman House has changed over the years. It was enlightening and made me realize how rich in art and architecture Manchester really is.

Best News All Day Rare Friday Edition



— The Washington disconnect to the “real people” living in the small cities and towns is nothing new, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot as the sequester debate coincided with Town Meeting/state budget debates. As attempts to solve the sequester problem have been ineffective at best, there has been a lot of hand-wringing in the media and political pundit world about why Washington can’t just make reasonable cuts to the budget and solve this thing. A look at the state’s budget debates might provide some answer to that.

After a few years of shrinking home prices and state revenues, people are frankly sick of having their taxes go up while getting less for what they pay. At Thursday’s state budget hearing, the call was not to cut spending but to increase it for a long list of programs that have suffered as the state has attempted to keep spending down. Merrimack Valley School District defeated a proposal to cut almost $1 million from the budget, and in Rindge, voters rejected $100,000 in across-the-board cuts. Of course, I could list just as many links to stories about towns that approved cuts, but I mention these above as evidence that the voters’ desire for lower taxes isn’t always a simple matter. Sometimes people can find the value — albeit painful — in the taxes they spend.

— How much is a full-time mayor worth? Manchester Charter Commission has decided it’s quite a bit more than Mayor Ted Gatsas’ $68,000 a year salary. While giving politicians pay raises ranks fairly low on the priority list for most voters, especially after the cutting Manchester has done to its schools and city staff, there is an argument to be made here. All city department heads make over $85,000 a year. There are also quite a few senior city workers, police officers and fire fighters that make more than this and quite a few city retirees that make more than $68,000 a year on their pension. Mayor Ted Gatsas certainly won’t be deterred by the pay, so might I suggest the pay raise instead go to his hard-working staff?

— Connecticut River Valley train is now moving faster. The same cannot be said for attempt to get a Merrimack River Valley commuter train.

Union drama … again in Manchester.

As someone who belongs to a union and has seen contentious contract negotiations play out in the workplace, I find it fascinating the way public unions and government hash out contract deals so publicly. The media, in this case pretty much just me and the stories I write, can be seen as a problem or a tool by either side in getting what they want. Manchester teachers have long argued they have made concessions more than other city unions. More give-backs is not what the members are looking for. But school and city officials argue that holding out and forcing 160 or more layoffs could not only hurt schools and make teachers’ jobs nearly impossible, but it could also turn public sentiment against those who stand in front of the classroom.

Holding out at this point also puts allies of the teachers on the Board of Aldermen in a tough spot. After promising to give more money to schools if the unions show movement on concessions, it will be hard to convince those aldermen on the fence to shift money from city services to the one group that has decided to stand its ground in this year’s labor dispute.

This week’s column also got to note the work of a behind-the-scenes player in Manchester, Kevin O’Maley. As the overseer of all city buildings, he has worked hard to improve energy efficiency, showing that being environmentally friendly doesn’t have to be this dramatic political fight, but just makes common sense when done right.


Vote against school contract sends aldermen wrong signal

SINCE MAYOR Ted Gatsas laid out his budget, aldermen have been looking for more money for the Manchester School District. The amount the city can give schools under the new tax cap is about $12 million below what the district says it needs to keep staffing and services at today’s level. This column reported last month that if school unions signaled they would make concessions to save jobs, the aldermen would consider shifting more city funds over to the school side.

On April 17, the Manchester Education Association’s executive board voted against a tentative agreement reached by school and union leaders.

This was not the signal the aldermen were looking for.
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The Prediction Game

Some good advice I received a few years back about covering politics was that people never hold political journalists accountable for their predictions. If you call the race for one candidate and the other wins, well then you get to write about the upset. If you pick the correct horse, then you’re deemed a savvy political mind for properly crunching the data.

Another way to get in some “analysis” without taking on the prediction yourself is to get others to predict what happened. This week I tried just that by asking all the aldermen I could whether a tax cap override is possible.


Aldermen flirt with tax cap override, but refuse to commit

THE ALDERMEN INDICATED on Tuesday there may be enough votes for a tax cap override. They also made clear they don’t want to vote on it right now.

Alderman At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur made a motion at the end of Tuesday’s lengthy school budget discussion to stay within the tax cap as “a test vote.”

“I’m calling our bluff,” he said.

After a quick moment of protest, Alderman Tom Katsiantonis moved to table the item. The tabling motion passed, 10-4, with Aldermen Levasseur, Phil Greazzo, Jim Roy and Bill Shea voting no.

Later that meeting — at 12:30 a.m. — Alderman Patrick Long made a motion to override the tax cap by 1 percent. The aldermen shot each other surprised looks until Alderman Russ Ouellette made a motion to table that proposal, too. It passed, 11-3, with Long, Roy and Levasseur voting no.

The two motions will appear on the board’s agenda again this month.

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Budget season

The longer I do it, the more I realize budget debates are all the same. The only thing that differs is the size of the fight.

The debate over the school budget has become pretty serious, with more than 200 people showing up at a budget hearing this week, followed by a three-hour aldermen hearing about schools. This column, which appeared before those hearings, got 60 comments and drew education advocates, union bashers and simple spendthrifts to the table.

After going through a tough union negotiation battle with my company this fall and winter myself, I understood that such events have an effect on morale and condition of the workplace. When you take that idea and apply it to people who educate children all day, I thought it touched on something interesting … how worrying about your job year after year affects the face you put on for the kids each day. I also wondered is it solely up to the teachers to make their workplace better or do city and school leaders have a responsibility in it too.

Threat of layoffs creates ‘terrible’ morale for school staff

The school board’s decision to pink slip 161 school staffers last week came as a surprise to some board members, who entered the chambers that evening under the assumption that the votes to pass a reduction in force were not there.

Since then, the reality has sunk in, especially for teachers, and the union leadership has met to discuss the ramifications of the layoffs. As of Wednesday, there were no plans to bring the entire union membership together to talk about concessions.

With little movement expected from either side, both school and union top officials said the vote has further chipped away at the staff’s already low morale.

“Right now, people aren’t feeling good, especially after that meeting,” said Manchester Education Association President Ben Dick.

Staff morale is “terrible,” said Superintendent of Schools Thomas Brennan. “People are very anxious and concerned about their livelihood.”

Although the deadline for laying off teachers is not until May, Brennan said his staff will soon determine how to spread the 161 pink slips throughout the district.

“We certainly have the obligation to give all the staff time to get into the job market earlier,” said Brennan.

When those pink slips do come out, they’ll be hand delivered by Brennan, which he sees as his responsibility.

“My name is on the bottom of that page,” he said.

Mayor Ted Gatsas sees the teachers’ down attitude in another light.

“It seems as though the morale in the city (employees) was the same thing,” said Gatsas. “We came to an agreement with the unions on concessions, and it seems the morale has changed 180 degrees.”

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Teachers getting a kick in the shins

It has been so long since one of my stories a) made it on the web b) got lots and lots of awesome comments. It felt good to be back.

School assaults on teachers raise concern

MANCHESTER — The Board of School Committee is again asking school administrators to report assaults committed at school by students to police.

During Tuesday’s board meeting, Mayor Ted Gatsas presented the board with a list of about 20 incidents where students and teachers had an altercation that resulted in a worker compensation claim in September. Although teacher names were omitted, a brief description of the incidents included students biting teachers, throwing objects at teachers and headbutting teachers. There were also injuries sustained while teachers were breaking up student fights.

In September, $55,151 was paid out in workers compensation claims. About half of those claims involved student-teacher altercations. Continue reading

The Corps code

Alderman Phil Greazzo. As real as it gets.

Briggs says Job Corps Center ‘more like an overnight reform school’

First, it was low-income rentals that Joe Briggs took on. Now, it’s the Job Corps Center. The school board member asked the aldermen last week to take another look at the center, which will offer job training to low-income students.

“I don’t see a strong social or economic benefit. People think Job Corps is a high-end technology center, but it is more like an overnight reform school,” said Briggs. “It’s a facility where troubled, underprivileged youth can go to have one last chance to have their high school equivalency or learn a trade. … It’s not exactly the cream of the crop, in a sense. I don’t think there are going to be companies lined up for these kids.”

The $35 million Job Corps Center, slated to be built on Dunbarton Road sometime in 2013, will train about 300 low-income New Hampshire students ages 16 to 24. Programs will include health care, clerical and trades training and GED certification.

On Tuesday, Briggs asked about the cost of the water and sewer lines needed for the facility. He cited a study from the Heritage Foundation that showed Job Corps costs exceed its benefits. And with the dearth of open land in Manchester, Briggs wondered whether something else would be better suited for the location.

His suggestion didn’t go over well with Ward 10 Alderman Phil Greazzo, who graduated from a Job Corps Center program after he got out of the Army in his early 20s. Greazzo said the comments were “way off the mark” and inappropriate coming from a member of the school board.

“I don’t think he’s known anyone who’s gone through one,” said Greazzo. “There might have been some kids who were using up their last chance, but they were putting effort into it.”

There are young people like that here in Manchester, Greazzo said, and the city should support their efforts to better themselves.

“I think it’s unfortunate he doesn’t see that,” said Greazzo. “He just sees them as a drag on our economy.” Continue reading

School Board budget talks continue

For the past two weeks, the Manchester Board of School Committee has been trying to hammer out a budget, but talks have stalled on the three proposals outlined below. When the board returns from February break, they are expected to take a vote.

School Board Weighs 3 budget options

Saturday, Feb. 19, 2010

MANCHESTER — When the Board of School Committee votes on a budget next month, it will have three proposals to choose from, each including a possible tax increase.

The three varying proposals indicate a wide range of opinions of the school board regarding how much it should cut school programs to keep tax increases down. The board’s lack of consensus and lengthy debates over the budget now have the Board of Mayor and Aldermen wondering how much longer it will take for the school board to reach a decision. Continue reading

City Hall Feb. 20

This week’s City Hall earned quite a few comments, which I expected considering School Committee member Joe Briggs’ controversial position on low-income housing and the cost to the city. Also included update on the Superintendent/Assistant Superintendent of Schools contracts, fireworks at Fisher Cats stadium and redistricting information.

Statistically speaking, Manchester is a poor city. More than half the elementary students are enrolled in the federal Free and Reduced Lunch program. In the city’s poorer neighborhoods, the numbers exceed 80 percent, and at Beech Street Elementary School, 94 percent of students in 2010 were enrolled in the program.

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