Ted Siefer's City Hall: School board on the defensive over Cupcake-gate
It was a busy week for the Board of School Committee. There was debate over the Common Core curriculum standards and the details of the technology overhaul, and then there was Cupcake-gate.
As the Union Leader first reported on Wednesday, the Coordination Committee has signed off on a school policy that would limit birthday and holiday parties to one per month. There could be more parties, but only so long as "nutrition standards for healthy snacks are followed." Now blow out the candles on your tofu!
Naturally, the TV news ate it up, and stations sent crews up from Boston to stick cameras in the faces of school board members, or the "party-poopers," as one reporter put it.
All of this perhaps raises the question: Doesn't the school board have more important things (last pun) on its plate? After all, in just a month or so the district will be without a superintendent - and an assistant superintendent. (Michael Tursi announced last week he'll be taking a superintendent job elsewhere.)
These issues barely came up last week, although we were told that the Superintendent Search Committee will vote on a list of five finalists at its next meeting, May 31.
But readers had pointed things to say about the board's priorities in the comment section of the cupcake article at UnionLeader.com, where, to be sure, comments tend to skew in a critical direction.
It was enough to prompt Ward 10 board member John Avard to take to the comment board to defend his colleagues while faulting the negative media coverage.
He noted that the revised sweets policy was proposed by the district's nutritionist to comply with federal regulations, and he rattled off a list of school board accomplishments, including the technology bond and shortening the school year. He also defended the superintendent search, which was extended after the board rejected the three finalists interviewed in March.
"This was not a 'failure' of the BOSC, but a demand for excellence," Avard wrote. "The easy thing would have been to hire one of the applicants. We chose the hard and unpopular, for the betterment of the city."
Calls to Avard and Dave Gelinas, the vice chairman of the board, were not returned.
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Remember how the school board, in response to the revelation that it was on track to overspend its legal budget by more than $200,000, voted to try to hire an in-house attorney for the district rather than rely on outside firms?
That plan has not worked out so well.
"We started to find that educational law is a very broad field," Ward 8 board member Erika Connors told her colleagues on Monday. "When looking at one person with expertise in all these areas, that person does not have a clerk, which will be an additional cost. We think it will be a very difficult process."
Connors proposed the board put out a request for proposals for a firm rather than hire a single attorney.
The board approved the motion, but not before Mayor Ted Gatsas tried to pin down a price range.
Connors suggested that the board stick to the $145,000 it had anticipated for an attorney's salary.
Gatsas was skeptical.
"I can see someone at the back looking at me like that's not going to work," said Gatsas, referring to one of the attorneys in the gallery who was waiting to discuss the latest legal matter facing the district in non-public session.
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Here's a potential bit of good news. District officials, at the suggestion of Gatsas, are looking into the possibility of using up to $1.4 million in surplus federal grant money to hire more teachers next year.
Most of the money, $955,000, is Title I grant money that would typically be sent back to the state Department of Education, Business Administrator Karen DeFrancis said at Monday's school board meeting.
The idea would be to seek a waiver from Education Commissioner Virginia Barry to use the money for staffing. Federal funds normally are designated for narrow purposes and have pretty thick strings attached.
"I know she is committed to working hard with us," Gatsas said of Barry. "She's very willing to work closely with us to see what can be done to reduce class sizes."
The response of Superintendent Thomas Brennan and DeFrancis was that it was worth a shot.
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Ward 9 school board member Art Beaudry took a little time at last week's meeting to give a shout out to the mayor and the aldermen for voting, at long last, to finalize the $2.8 million technology bond.
"It will truly bring us into the 21st century," Beaudry said.
To which Gatsas quipped, "Does that include email?"
Beaudry, as is well known by his colleagues and probably quite a few of his constituents, doesn't "do email."
Beaudry, it bears mentioning, is also the chairman of the Information Technology Committee. So what gives?
"I don't like sitting in front of a computer. I return phone calls within 24 hours. Calling is better than returning a bunch of emails," he said.
As for his committee assignment, Beaudry said, "You'd have to ask the mayor about that."
But he insisted he was proud of the work of his committee. "Whatever job I have to do, I do what has to be done, and I pride myself on my work ethic."
Ted Siefer may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tbsreporter