Ted Siefer's City Hall: School panel taps brother Gatsas to settle contract score
For the past year, a school board subcommittee had been handling negotiations with the teachers union over a new contract. But on Monday, in a move resembling a bruised kid leaving a playground fight to get his big brother, the school board voted to hand the reins back to Mayor Ted Gatsas.
The mayor is known for driving a hard bargain with unions, and he has been critical of the lack of progress and legal expenses associated with the talks between the subcommittee and the Manchester Education Association.
Of course, the mayor doesn't necessarily have a good track record with the MEA when it comes to contracts. In the spring of 2012, the teachers rejected health care concessions, which the mayor had proposed for all city unions, that were aimed at preserving 143 teacher jobs. Mass layoffs ensued.
But the decision Monday seemed to reflect the profound frustration school board member John Avard, the chair of the board's negotiations subcommittee, and his colleagues felt in the final stretch of the talks.
To hear Avard tell it, the district's negotiating team had agreed to several key changes proposed by the MEA since the parties first reached an impasse in the early summer. "There were numerous concessions made in there, more than could probably be sold to the school board and the aldermen," he said. But then, Avard said, after he had been told the deal was satisfactory, the MEA sought more changes, including retroactive pay increases to when the last contract expired. "This would've resulted in a negative cost (for the district) over two years; there's no way the Board of School Committee would accept that."
The basic parameters of the deal are similar to the ones agreed to by other district unions, an increase in single-digit health care premiums to about 20 percent, coupled with yearly raises linked to the tax cap.
There's been tension between Gatsas and Avard over the negotiations, but Avard enthusiastically supported putting the mayor in charge at Monday's meeting. Was this a Christmas gift of sorts?
"It might be more like a lump of coal," Avard joked. "I don't know that he truly enjoys it. He's wiling do it. This kind of activity is not fun for anybody."
Gatsas, for his part, said he remained hopeful that an agreement could be reached with the teachers, who along with school support personnel are now the only union employees in the city working without a contract. "You've got to come to a common understanding," he said before repeating his mantra for negotiations: "Unless both sides are unhappy, then you don't have a good deal."
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Kathy Staub is one of the more mild-mannered, reticent members of the school board, so it was surprising at Monday's meeting to hear her accused of advocating the dismemberment of children.
During the public comment period, two people called Staub out for allegedly suggesting at a recent meeting of the strategic planning committee, which she chairs, that students be "drawn and quartered" as a way of curbing truancy.
Her critics were Deborah Olszta and state Rep. Emily Sandblade, R-Manchester, who have both been outspoken critics of Common Core. Staub, not incidentally, has defended the education standards.
"She stated she wanted to draw and quarter students should they fail to take seriously the district's attendance requirements," Sandblade said. "Any student making such a statement would face immediate arrest. So why is it OK for a school board member, one who should be a positive role model, to utter such statements without consequence? Such statements are shocking, and she should step down."
Staub apparently didn't feel the allegation merited a response during the meeting, but later in the week she told me that her critics completely mistook her intention in mentioning the barbarous medieval ritual.
"The irony is I was trying to make the point that you can't keep making punishment worse and worse, you have to look at other options to reduce truancy," she said. "Right after I said those words, I said I know I'm being hyperbolic."
Then Staub added, "Maybe learning what hyperbole is is not part of Common Core, so they don't want any part of it."
This is the second school board meeting in a row that Staub has faced criticism for comments she made in other public forums. At the previous school board meeting, Mayor Gatsas faulted her for suggesting that the district's attempt to form its own Manchester Academic Standards was just a slight shift from Common Core. At least Staub has gained an audience.
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The beginning of Monday's school board meeting was a bit like a class reunion; there were several faces we hadn't seen in awhile. It was the last scheduled full board meeting of the year, so before the newly elected board is sworn in in January, it was time to say goodbye to the seven departing members, including Donna Soucy and Jason Cooper, who resigned earlier in the year.
The greatest honors went to Soucy and, of course, Dave Gelinas, who is the board's longest serving member and its vice chairman. The mayor handed them engraved clocks.
Gelinas was first elected to the school board in 1973 at age 22. He served for 10 years and was again elected to the school board 30 years later, in 2003.
As vice chairman, Gelinas has been the board's elder statesmen, and Monday's recognition was clearly a meaningful moment for him; when he stepped to thelecturn, he quickly choked up.
"I didn't think I was going to do that," he said. "I'll simply say thank you for allowing me the opportunity to serve with all of you."
I suspect the feeling is mutual among Gelinas' colleagues.
Ted Siefer is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter: @tbsreporter.