Ted Siefer's City Hall: 2013 was a year of big changes, heated feuds and mystery
It was a year that saw the selection of a new school superintendent; a young upstart politician take on the city's popular mayor; a war of words between a fiery alderman and city police officers; and, yes, a ban on school cupcake parties. Here's a look back at the odd and eventful year in Manchester politics.
I'll humbly submit that picking a new superintendent to lead the state's largest and, well, most complicated school district was the most significant event of the year. Mayor Ted Gatsas himself regarded the position as "the most important hire" the city would make, and he helped rustle up donations to fund a national search. Three out-of-state finalists were brought to Manchester in June and put through a gauntlet of meetings and forums, only to be sent packing by the school board.
In the end, in the final days before Thomas Brennan stepped down as school chief, the board settled on a candidate much closer to home: Debra Livingston, who was the head of the Fall Mountain Regional School District. In no time, Livingston had to grapple with classroom crowding and an uproar over the Common Core State Standards. Suffice to say, the challenges will continue in the new year.
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Livingston inherited another problem, and it's one that has only intensified in recent weeks: the feud with Hooksett. Angered by large class sizes, the Hooksett School Board last year declared Manchester in breach of the contract under which it sends its high school students to the city. Things escalated when Manchester sued Hooksett for allegedly violating the contract by allowing a large number of students to transfer schools. In July, the parties seemed to be headed toward reconciliation, reaching a legal settlement that released Hooksett from the remaining 10 years of the contract while requiring the town to pay a higher tuition rate, as well as $200,000, and to negotiate future plans to send high school students to the city in "good faith."
For the three-person majority on the Hooksett board, the settlement was a signal to move full steam ahead toward a contract with Pinkerton Academy in Derry. The board approved a contract this month, and now Manchester is again pursuing legal action, on the grounds the town is violating the settlement.
The Pinkerton contract must still go before Hooksett voters in March. This will put to the test Mayor Gatsas' contention that many Hooksett families want to see the 100-year relationship with Manchester continue.
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On its face, the 2013 municipal election was not earthshaking; it largely saw incumbents get reelected, including the mayor, and the balance of power between Republicans and Democrats (on technically nonpartisan boards), stay the same. The Democrats hold majorities on each. But the campaign of 30-year-old Alderman Patrick Arnold, a relative no-name before the election, was aggressive and well-run. Yes, Gatsas still won a third term by a comfortable 6-point margin, but Arnold deprived him of the double-digit victories and clean sweeps of all 12 wards that he enjoyed in his past wins.
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The biggest non-story of the election might have been the Charter Commission. The panel is convened once a decade to propose changes to the city's system of government. But the commission was marred by infighting and often seemed to lack a clear sense of direction. In the end, the panel proposed relatively modest changes - and these were defeated by voters. One of the top proposals was to raise the mayor's salary to $100,000, and the consensus was that was a non-starter.
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One of the bigger votes taken by the aldermen concerned an ambulance contract, which pitted current provider American Medical Response against American Ambulance of New England. Both are divisions of large national companies, and the battle was rife with corporate intrigue, with the top AMR executive defecting to its rival. AMR started out at a big disadvantage, having faced a deluge of complaints over the size of its bills and aggressive collection practices. And then it was revealed that the committee tasked with reviewing the proposals backed American over AMR. But the tide turned in favor of AMR when Fire Chief James Burkush and Mayor Gatsas said they were impressed by the reforms implemented by the company.
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Moving to the category of unsolved mysteries, last year, the popular principal of Manchester High School West, MaryEllen McGorry, was abruptly suspended. Over the winter and spring, the district racked up more than $350,000 in legal expenses before McGorry was finally terminated, with her health benefits continuing for the remainder of the school year. The district, citing privacy laws, has never disclosed what prompted McGorry's departure.
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In January, Manchester police officers turned out in force at an aldermen's meeting to speak out against Alderman-At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur over public remarks he made that allegedly disparaged the police. Things were tense - and they got even tenser after the meeting, when there was a confrontation between Levasseur and the head of the patrolmen union.
The encounter set the stage for a year of drama between the alderman and the police.
When there were accusations of wrongdoing against the police, Levasseur never seemed to be very far away. As a lawyer, he successfully represented the young man accused of shoplifting in a parking lot sting, and the charges were dropped. The police in turn have accused Levasseur of fabricating allegations about the encounter after the aldermen's meeting last January. That's now the subject of an investigation by the state Attorney General's Office.
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And finally, we come to the cupcakes.
The Board of School Committee in May voted, 10-5, in favor of a policy that would limit sweet-filled school birthday - and holiday - parties to one per month.
Additional parties could be held as long as "nutrition standards for healthy snacks are followed."
The change was only one component of an update to the Manchester district's "wellness and nutrition policy," but it proved to be the most controversial, garnering widespread media attention.
The board engaged in spirited debate over the "cupcake policy" and the larger issue of how to regulate nutrition in the schools. Ward 10 school board member John Avard assailed the treat restrictions and the larger impetus behind guidelines issued in recent years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which largely funds the food programs in Manchester and other districts around the country. "Let's face the facts - I don't think any child got obese by eating school food. The poor dietary habits are coming out of households," he said.
"I know it's a difficult decision to make," then-Superintendent Thomas Brennan said. "But the more we read about obesity, the more I think there's an appropriate role to play in education, in telling people what food's OK or not. There are plenty of places where kids can get that type of food, but I don't think that it belongs in the school house."
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I'm not one for predictions, but we know this much: with Dave Gelinas not returning in January, the school board at its first meeting will be electing a new vice chairman. It's a powerful post, responsible for literally setting the agenda for the board, in consultation with the mayor and the top school administrators. Who will be the new vice chair? My money is on the mayor's buddy, Dave Wihby.
I'll leave other predictions for the new year to wiser folks, including the question of whether Mayor Gatsas will throw his hat in the ring for governor.
Happy New Year to all!
Ted Siefer is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter: @tbsreporter