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Ted Siefer's City Hall: School board gives cool nod to STEAM

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 17. 2013 12:45AM

Tuesday's school board meeting was pretty cool; never thought I would use those two phrases in the same sentence. It took place at Dyn, the Internet infrastructure company at the heart of the growing cluster of Manchester technology firms being referred to here and beyond as the "Silicon Millyard."

Dyn is playing a major role in a new initiative unveiled at the school board meeting called STEAM Ahead New Hampshire. Students at Manchester High School West will be able to earn up to a year of college credit, with the goal of launching them on career paths in science, technology, engineering and math - as well as the arts. Hence the acronym.

Some of the city's most disadvantaged students attend West, and the partnership with Dyn could expose them to the cutting-edge innovations happening in their own back yard. It might also show students - judging by the arcade games, Skee-Ball machines and miniature golf station at Dyn - that work can be fun.

The program has been in the works for the past year, and Mayor Ted Gatsas noted that it was quite the feat for its organizers to keep it under wraps.

Indeed, the big launch took place the week immediately after the election. A coincidence? Probably not. STEAM Ahead is being led by Bob Baines, the former mayor, and he praised Gatsas for his support and enthusiasm. A post-election launch ensured that the project wouldn't be tainted by political calculations - or perceptions thereof.

Still, the announcement comes as Hooksett wrestles with the finer points and costs associated with its plan to pull its high school students from Manchester and send them to Pinkerton Academy.

"My bet," Gatsas told me, "is that a lot of people will be taking a close look at what Manchester is doing."

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Call it a rookie mistake. The district's new athletics director, Chris Donovan, had some explaining to do before the school board's Athletics Committee Tuesday concerning the contract for new winter equipment. With the season fast approaching, Donovan was prepared to award the contract without having it go out to bid. That's a no-no; the city's procurement code requires a competitive bid for contracts worth more than $25,000, as was the case with the athletic equipment.

Both Mayor Gatsas and Ward 9 school board member Art Beaudry faulted Donovan at the meeting. Their main concern was that a local company with a good track record, Indian Head Athletics, didn't get a chance to bid on the contract.

"We always try to work with local vendors," Gatsas said. "If they don't meet the number, that's one thing, but Indian Head, they didn't even get a chance . It's unacceptable that we would exclude a local vendor."

Donovan got the message. "My apologies," he said. "And I'll make sure it never happens again."

Donovan later told me that he attributed the misstep to being new to the city and the job. "It's part of the learning curve, but something easily rectified," he said.

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You may recall near the beginning of the school year that there was a minor revolt among principals over concerns about student safety. As part of the conversation about the shorter 175-day calendar, there was concern raised that as the school day got longer for students, there wouldn't be enough staff available at the end of the day to monitor things and ensure youngsters boarded buses and left campus safely.

Now there are concerns about the other end of the day. Students who get breakfast at school aren't getting enough time to eat. The problem, as is often the case, was pointed out by Beaudry at Tuesday's meeting. "A child that is hungry is not going to learn," he said, adding that kids end up trashing the food they don't have a chance to eat.

Superintendent Debra Livingston acknowledged there was an issue, and Mayor Gatsas once again could say I told you so. Gatsas was the lone voice back in the spring against switching to the new calendar.

And Gatsas pointed out any fixes involving adjustments to teacher schedules would have to be worked out with the union. "I would ask that you have a conversation with the president of the union and see what you can do to change it," he said to the superintendent.

Livingston said she was already working on it.

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Starting a couple of weeks before the election, there was renewed interest in the Manchester Dog Park, to put it mildly. A faction of current and former park users accused Ward 10 Alderman Phil Greazzo, the founder of the Manchester Dog Park Association (MDPA), of in effect running it as a closed Republican club. Greazzo in turn called the accusations politically motivated. The election, of course, has come and gone (and Greazzo has lost his seat), but it's clear the dog park issue will linger at City Hall.

The aldermen's Committee on Accounts will take up the matter on Tuesday. The West Side dog park is on city land, and the MDPA was allowed to use it under a 2010 agreement approved by the mayor and aldermen. Alderman-At-Large Dan O'Neil, the chairman of the committee, has echoed some of the concerns raised by the MDPA's critics that it hasn't been transparent and that it hasn't acted on promises to become an IRS-registered nonprofit.

Alderman-At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur has suggested something potentially more troublesome - that the MDPA allowed its liability insurance, a key component of the agreement with the city, to lapse. At the aldermen's last full board meeting, he alluded to information he received from the MDPA's insurance agent and a certificate he obtained from the clerk's office.

Greazzo has called the allegations baseless, and he made good on a promise to furnish proof that the MDPA has carried insurance as long as the park has been in existence. He submitted a sheaf of documents to the clerk's office, including insurance binders and bank statements.

Meanwhile, Greazzo has called on the city's Conduct Committee and the state Attorney General's Office to review whether Levasseur, in seeking the insurance information from the MDPA's agent, Aspen Insurance, violated the section of the city charter concerning abuse of office. "Alderman Levasseur acting without the authority of the Board, used his office to obtain private and privileged information he was not authorized to have or obtain, and then disclosed the illegally obtained information in public," Greazzo wrote in a complaint filed last week.

Here's Levasseur's response, via email: "If the association had simply abided by the rules and given the city the required insurance documents as stated in the agreement, then I would not have had to go looking for them. I obtained the certificate from the city clerk's office properly and followed up on the questions I had about the certificate in the best interest of the city."

So the tale continues.

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Robots, you should know, will be kicking off the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on Nov. 28. This is nothing to fear, Manchester technology entrepreneur Dean Kamen assures us, but should rather be a point of pride.

The robots, including ones that will cut the ribbon at the start of the parade and others that will spray confetti, were designed and built by grade school students as part of the FIRST Robotics Competition. Kamen started FIRST in Manchester as a way to get kids interested in careers in science, technology and engineering, and it's since grown into a nation-wide program. Now, FIRST will be getting more exposure than ever.

"Tuning into the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is an American tradition, and this year the first thing people will see in the parade is FIRST," Kamen said in a statement. "Thanks to Macy's, we have the chance to pique the curiosity of millions of young people, as well as potential mentors, sponsors, and volunteers."

Ted Siefer may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tbsreporter.

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