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Outgoing Manchester superintendent speaks his mind

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 26. 2013 10:36PM

MANCHESTER — In a candid exit interview at the Manchester Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, outgoing Superintendent of Schools Tom Brennan said it’s time for the school district to be run in the interests of the students, and not in the interests of the people who work there.

A professional audit of the school system’s policies and practices released Wednesday night (see related story, B1) provides a road map for that change, he said, adding, “I wish I had something like that five years ago.”

As he prepares to leave office on June 30 and hand over management of the state’s largest school district to a newly hired superintendent, Brennan reflected on his five years in Manchester in response to questions from Chamber President and CEO Robin Comstock.

After a tempestuous term that often saw him at odds with the city’s Board of School Committee, Brennan did not pull any punches when asked about his greatest disappointment. “My inability to communicate with the Board of School Committee at a higher level,” he said. “Over the last couple of months, it’s become more civil, less mean-spirited, but I’m going to be candid. They can’t do anything else to me now.”

Brennan announced his plans to resign a year ago, in July 2012, when members of the school board were considering a censure vote over the hiring of a principal at McLaughlin Middle School. Although he had assured the board the candidate he backed had the required qualifications, that later turned out to not be the case.

He urged his successor, former Fall Mountain Regional School District Superintendent Debra Livingston, to establish better relationships with school board members.

“My advice would be to reach out to individual board members,” he said. “She needs to take the risks that I did not take because I had big trust issues.”

Manchester Ward 5 school board member Ted Rokas, who headed the search committee, was one of three board members also at the session. He said Livingston has already started to meet one-on-one with board members in anticipation of her July 1 start date.

Brennan cited extended learning programs as one of the district’s most significant successes under his tenure, and a reflection of his education philosophy.

“Having the school board pass significant new policies that allow students to learn beyond the schoolhouse door, extending learning opportunities outside of the standard classroom, was very important,” he said.

The program enables students to get academic credit for projects in partnership with a wide range of private and public institutions in the city. The teachers’ union insisted that the activity be supervised by a qualified teacher, which Brennan cited as an example of the focus on job preservation that impedes creativity in developing new approaches to education.

“So a teacher with one year of experience is better qualified to judge a student on a plumbing project than a plumber?” he said. “We should be an organization dedicated to the advancement of children, not the adults who work in the system. And we are not an organization about children. It’s all about the principals and the teachers, and which teachers are getting along with which principals.”

In response to questions from the audience, Brennan predicted that the public school system in Manchester could soon see serious competition for enrollment from non-profit, private alternatives. “In the next two to three years, unless we change, you are going to see a significant challenge to running public education from the private sector,” he said.

The event, titled “Manchester Education at a Crossroads?” was part of the Issues and Insights Breakfast Forum series hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, and also included a panel discussion with school board members Rokas, Chris Stewart and Kathy Staub.

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