Manchester School Board candidates Q and A
EDITOR’S NOTE: Candidates in each contested race in Tuesday’s city primary election were invited to answer a questionnaire from the Union Leader. Here are the responses from the candidates for school board.
1) Why do you want to serve (or continue to serve) on the school board?
2) What are the greatest challenges facing the school system today and what would you do to address them?
3) How would you redistrict the schools (be specific) and what would you do with Manchester High School West?
SCHOOL BOARD WARD 2
Debra Gagnon Langton
Occupation: Middle School Teacher
Relevant Experience: parent, teacher, taxpayer, and 8-year school board member
1) I want to serve on the school board to continue advocating for children, parents, teachers and taxpayers.
2) The greatest challenge facing the school system is getting students college and career ready. One thing we need to do to address this is reorganize the delivery of special educations services. We should start at the top and work our way down. This will ensure all students needs are met.
3) Before we redistrict I believe we have to find a place to house our preschoolers (currently housed in four different locations). Then I would redistrict schools by cleaning up school boundary lines. I would like to see class sizes equitable across the district. I'd like like to see West have more magnet programs like ROTC or alternative education programs to create a revenue source.
Sarah L. Browning
Occupation: Policy and law administrator at the New Hampshire Department of Education for the last 3 1/2 years and special assistant to the commissioner for over nine years prior to that.
Relevant experience: I am a product of the Manchester public school system. In the more than 12 years that I have worked at the department, I have worked with parents, school districts and people receiving services from vocational rehabilitation. I am a member of the New Hampshire Bar Association and have developed an expertise in education law.
1) I am retiring at the end of this year and currently planning retirement activities. I believe my experience makes me uniquely qualified to serve on the Board of School Committee. I will also have the time to devote to the work of the board. I believe it is time to start a new conversation about public education; one that is respectful of all points of view and encourages participation from parents, educators and students.
2) The greatest challenge is making certain that all of our students are prepared for college and careers. This means exploring new ideas concerning the delivery of public education, creating stronger relationships with our community college system and understanding the opportunities that programs like advanced manufacturing offer for our students. Our goal should be to prepare every student to be able to achieve their full potential as citizens engaged in their community, family, work and civics.
3) Without reviewing the school census, it is not possible to provide specifics about redistricting. I am interested in discussing the K-8, 9-12 concept that the mayor suggested. This was the format when I was in school and I think it is an interesting idea. How to use the West High School facilities presents a challenge. I am concerned about busing students across town and the loss of community identity for students currently enrolled at West High School. I don't believe there has been an opportunity for all stakeholders to weigh in on this, and I would not make any changes until I believed everyone had had a fair opportunity to weigh in on the matter.
NOTE: Ward 2 candidate Carol-Ann J. Giovanni did not return a survey.
SCHOOL BOARD WARD 6
Occupation: Contractor, IBM Software Group
Relevant experience: Active parent in the Manchester School District since 2001; former board member Manchester Transit Authority; join board member Manchester Foundation for Education; president of Manchester Memorial High School's Parents of Performing Students; member of the Manchester Memorial High School Booster Club; adjunct at Daniel Webster College since 2008.
1) The contrastive fabric of the Manchester BOSC offers the community varied voices from, the young/old, the single/married, parents/not. My experiences as a married parent with two children, currently in high school (all in the MSD), lends a relevant perspective to a district on the cusp of positive trending. The inquisitive nature that drives my desire to speak for the student, family, and community, is partly derived from 12 years of witnessing student accomplishments, and struggles, as well as teacher successes, and failures. Countless parent-teacher organization meetings, conferences, and school events have also contributed to a strong sense of community.
The return on investment my family has received by valuing students of all ages as contributing voices of our community, has been immeasurable. It is imperative the city, the schools, and the communities of Manchester reap the rewards of their investment by allowing me the honor to speak on their behalf.
2) It is imperative that we stop losing dedicated educators! Class sizes are just starting to rebound to still unacceptable levels. The 10 additional teachers for this school year will help, especially elementary students. The MSD administration, principals and educators, must remain diligent in ongoing sessions to assign resources to improve class size. Truancy and drop-out rates require immediate intervention. Board development, professional development (MSD-wide), continued aldermanic-BOSC collaboration is vital with input from Hooksett and Manchester students and parents, and businesses. Student, teacher, parent, and community morale have been impacted negatively. Despite the first wave of positive trending, it is imperative that MSD use data to set , measure, and promote realized/failed benchmarks all while reporting audit recommended initiatives.
City, Schools, and Community are connected, and must be part of messaging positive progress.
3) I am of the mindset that it is more of a "what would we do, as the BOSC, with Manchester West H.S.?" Part of my focus as a freshman board member has been dedicated to building a network of educators, parents, grandparents, business owners, transit professionals, local and state delegation, and especially, students, to gain a wide perspective on issues, such as redistricting.
Having been witness to former Superintendent Brennan's 2013 redistricting plan, and community response, it is my recommendation to allow Dr. Livingston to introduce a plan in 2014. I/We will demonstrate a working knowledge of the plan, its implications on school utilization, feeder diagrams, transportation, and the impact on current students, Hooksett and Manchester parents, academia, and the community.
Relevant experience: I have worked in education for over a decade. I have both paraprofessional and teaching experience in the Manchester School District. I also have the experience of being a parent of a student who has graduated in this district. As a former accountant and auditor, I understand the need for writing a budget and the importance of living within it.
1) Having worked in the district, I have first-hand knowledge of the needs of the students and the needs of the schools. I also know the work that is required on a daily basis from the teachers, the administration and staff of the District. I want to serve on the school board to speak for the students and their needs. They need smaller classrooms. They need to be part of a district that plans ahead and is not always trying to get by with a quick fix. I want to advocate for the students who have no one speaking for them. I want their needs met first and foremost. I want budgets to revolve around their needs and not around contracts.
2) The biggest challenge facing this district is the school board itself. The board does not prepare balanced budgets and expects the city to balance their budget on a yearly basis. The board is unable to formulate and complete long-term planning for any project in this district. Redistricting, West High School, and issues of losing surrounding sending communities are just a few problems this district needs to face, make a decision and complete the course of action. The board spends too much time interfering with the administration and drove out Dr. Brennan. Our city lost a dedicated leader due to the Board's inability to take care of their own responsibilities thereby not allowing the administration to do the work they needed to do. The School Board received this same criticism in their outside audit presented in August 2013. I will do my best to help prevent this district from losing another superintendent due to micromanaging.
3) Much work and research has already been done in this area. I would like to see it – all of it. Watching the meetings is not seeing all the collected information. Before giving specifics, one needs to be fully informed. I will say, however, that where your child attends school is not more important than the quality of the education. The experience and quality of the received education should not be outweighed by a history of attending a certain building. Emotion can not determine the final decision. It will not influence my decision. Where you go to school does not outweigh what your child should leave with when entering the real world.
Occupation: District director of school counseling, SAU 81, Hudson
Relevant experience: I have been in education for over 20 years as a school counselor, assistant principal, and director of school counseling. I have served on Manchester's district in-need-of improvement committee, as well as the newly formed Strategic Planning Committee. I worked for eight years at Central High School. I have a bachelor of science degree in business management from Plymouth State, a master's degree in education from Notre Dame College, and a certificate of advanced graduate studies in educational leadership and administration from UNH.
1) Why do you want to serve (or continue to serve) on the school board? I am a lifelong resident of Manchester and have three great sons that are in the system. I have met their teachers and administrators and want to do what I can to help them do their jobs. I feel my occupational history provides me useful and relevant experience that will allow me to see the big picture and have an understanding of the needs of the district. As a school counselor I feel that I can collaborate well with others and put the needs of the students first while supporting the faculty and staff in Manchester. As a taxpayer I am also sensitive to the needs of the city and want to make sure we are fiscally responsible.
2) Watching the board meetings and reading the papers have shown me that there are many moving parts and moving targets in the city. I feel the board needs to review its charge and work to refocus and simplify their task. Manchester is a large city and needs a committed and collegial board to ensure the schools have what they need to properly educate our youth. I would look to bring a calming and common sense voice to the board and work to help address why we are there and what our major responsibilities are. Once that groundwork has been set, I feel that this group of caring, hard working citizens can accomplish whatever they set out to do. The system itself has and will always grapple with resources and mandates. The board needs to work to ensure the school system has what it needs to educate our students as well as policies that assist in this process.
3) I think the district needs to do an analysis of enrollment to see what the trend will be for the next 10-12 years regarding enrollment. Once we figure out what our facility needs are we can produce a plan to maximize the use of our buildings. Based on these numbers we can look to redistrict students to once again maximize the uses of our facilities. To me redistricting is a simple math equation. We have three high school buildings as well as the School of Technology. We should see how many students we have per grade level and distribute them as equally as possible throughout the schools. Some residents have a sentimental attachment to certain schools and that is recognized. The bottom line is that we need to use what we have responsibly and if we need to make adjustments to which schools students attend to be fiscally responsible, then that is what is best for the city.
SCHOOL BOARD WARD 12
Occupation: Homemaker and small business owner
Relevant experience: Three of my children have attended or currently attend Manchester's schools, providing me a wide range of experiences. As a parent of a special needs child that is both blind and autistic, I've been intimately involved with district staff and have seen the challenges of their day to day operations. I will also take my experience as a small business and property owner, which spans more than 24 years.
1) Because of my unique background and experience, I see a variety of issues I believe need to and can be resolved if only we refocus the discussions on things that matter to our ability to educate kids. Having served the community in a number of ways, I believe that if new people get involved, more people will follow and I'm hoping through my example, more people will step forward to engage their schools and their community.
2) We need a direction, something to strive for. Academic excellence in all we do should be the top priority. Discussions about how to achieve excellence, legitimate and serious investigation into the available options to achieve excellence, and a defined and transparent public process that engages the public are crucial if we are to bring the community together around commonly accepted and understood goals. As we've seen with the de-facto implementation of Common Core and the findings of the recent curriculum audit, the absence of these discussions, investigations and processes leads to confusion and an uncertain future. With six states currently halting Common Core implementation, I need to question whether or not this direction is in the best interest of our students. I will certainly work to refocus the discussion, hold administrators accountable for their decisions and better involve the parents and taxpaying public.
3) Redistricting plans were presented to the school board in 2011 and 2013. The new superintendent is working on another one. However the boundary lines are drawn around individual elementary schools, fifth grade classes on the East side should remain intact as they go on to middle school, as proposed in 2013. We should not break up these students and send them to as many as three different middle schools. With respect to West, we should revisit the recommendations made in 2007 and use them as the basis of our discussion on the school's future. That plan is innovative and practical and could help the entire city with redistricting as it solves the preschool problem. Using the remaining space for magnet or other innovative specialty programs that could better engage kids for whom a traditional classroom is a poor educational option should be looked at.
Relevant experience: Bachelors degree from Northeastern University; teaching certification from Salem State College; former educator at Chelsea High School.
1) I want to be on the school board because I care about the students and their parents. I care about the educators and I care about the future of the Manchester School District. We need to attract and retain the best and brightest educators. We need to utilize our resources more efficiently. I want to restore trust and integrity where it is needed. Our future relies on these students, and I want to help them succeed and grow. They are my motivation. Our job as school board members is to ensure that the decisions we make are for the students best interest. If we do so, the rewards of our labor coincide with students success.
2) I think one of the greatest challenges in our school system today is the narrow focus of the curriculum. Students who do not excel in traditional academic courses (English, mathematics and science) feel disconnected in school and continue to under-perform. Education is as much about preparing the next generation of citizens and leaders as it is about training students for future careers. When we focus only on how students are performing in English, math and science, we lose out on developing other skills that students need to be successful in the real world. Not everyone is as focused on the core academic subjects, like math and science. Some are more focused in technical classes, such as marketing, business management, and early childhood education. With the challenges that our society faces today, it is going to take experts from all fields of study to achieve lasting solutions.
3) I would keep K-5 virtually the same, as that is not where the direct problems are. I would redistrict the middle and high school levels as needed. This would be to eliminate overcrowding in the classrooms, which is an ongoing problem in this district. I am in favor of moving the school district offices over to Manchester High School West, therefore eliminating any leases and rental payments they currently have. With that, money will be freed and can be used elsewhere in the district.
Constance "Connie" Van Houten
Occupation: Instructor at Manchester Community College and at English for new Americans
Relevant experience: Teacher in the Manchester School District for 41 years, now retired; experience and training in teaching English (7-12), special education and learning disabilities (K-12), education of the gifted and talented, English as a second language, adult education, and educational leadership; adjunct professor in local colleges; community and volunteer work
1) I am a Manchester native, a concerned citizen and taxpayer, and a product of Manchester public schools. I've also been "under the hood," so to speak, as a teacher who has had many roles and learned from a variety of educational experiences during her career in the district. Although I have no children or grandchildren to be educated here, I care about our schools, and I believe that I have insights that could add to the vision of the school board. I understand curriculum, instructional practices, and assessment; I understand the impact of class sizes; I understand the challenges of special education students and students for whom English is a second language; in sum, I understand education, and I understand Manchester education. I believe that my experience counts, and I want to bring it to the school board table to make Manchester schools the best in the state and beyond.
2) The greatest challenges facing the school system are those that reflect today's society. We must, first and foremost, guarantee the safety of students and others in our schools. And we must provide the quality of education that will best prepare our students for college and/or the careers of today and tomorrow. Our schools already do a good job in these areas, but these challenges are evolving. The school district's recent curriculum audit provides a skeletal road map which can continue to guide the district forward. For instance, one audit recommendation is designing and implementing a management system for a consistent and high-quality curriculum across all schools and grades. Another recommendation addresses developing a comprehensive long-term facilities plan to assure, in part, "safe and healthy building environments." A five-year strategic plan based upon such recommendations will be key to addressing the challenges in our district.
3) Redistricting requires factual insights into geography and population. I trust that Dr. Livingston will utilize the necessary data, as well as Dr. Brennan's drafted plan, to craft a workable plan to present to the school board. Any plan, though, must take into account West High School, for which there are many options. For instance, an academy — an internal high school with a project-based and subject-focused curriculum, much like those at MST — might be housed there. One or more academies in the performing arts, legal studies, or world languages, for instance, might be established, or perhaps Central or Memorial might also each host an academy after redistricting. Additionally or alternatively, separate space for the Adult Learning Center, now on the campus of MST, but slated to be moved, could be provided. West High School, however, must continue to offer a comprehensive education to students on the west side of the river.