Ted Siefer's City Hall: Schools, consolidation ideas and tears mark aldermanic session
THE MAYOR and aldermen made up for lost time last week. Tuesday was their first full board meeting in more than a month, and it had something for everyone: heated debate, laughter and, yes, even a few tears.
The school board, in case you haven't heard, has an ambitious building plan. At long last, it wants the district to expand the Manchester School of Technology and close up the classroom walls at the Beech Street and Webster elementary schools. There's a big price tag: close to $15 million, and the administration wants to get the ball rolling on the architectural work soon, with the goal of breaking ground next summer.
But based on some of the comments at Tuesday's meeting, the school board may need to embark on a lobbying campaign to win 10 votes on the aldermanic board. That's the number needed to authorize the bond or bonds required to finance the building projects.
The main sticking point is MST, which, at an estimated $8.7 million, is the costliest project. Mayor Ted Gatsas - typically one of the biggest boosters for MST's brand of vocational education - questioned whether amenities such as a cafeteria and gymnasium were really necessary when state education officials had already shown a willingness, year after year, to grant waivers to approve MST as a four-year high school. And similar concerns were expressed by Ward 1 Alderman Joyce Craig, the board's leading voice on fiscal matters.
The district's business administrator estimated that the district's net debt service on the bond would be about $750,000 a year.
Alderman-at-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur said the district needs to keep some room in its budget to hire more teachers or make other adjustments should a contract deal finally be reached with the teachers union. It was a valid point, but not exactly diplomatically expressed.
"We do have the final say as the board of aldermen over our stepchildren over there, the school board," Levasseur said.
Still, a quiet majority of the aldermen were willing to move forward with at least the preliminary phase of the projects, voting to support spending $1 million for architectural services.
The mayor lately has been beating the drum of trimming government costs, although his aldermanic colleagues haven't exactly joined the parade. On Tuesday, the Human Resources Committee and the full board in short order voted for a motion allowing Manchester Fire Chief James Burkush to hire a new district chief.
Gatsas had objected to the hire, arguing the department was missing an opportunity to do some reorganizing of the top brass. Burkush and his supporters have argued that the district chief is a necessary on-the-ground post.
Gatsas' latest idea is to consolidate the Office of Youth Services - following the imminent departure of its longtime director - within the Health Department.
Gatsas outlined the proposal before the HR committee on Tuesday, and it was clear it's much more than a vague notion.
Public Health Director Tim Soucy had produced a detailed analysis of the consolidation, complete with a new organizational chart, projected net savings - $15,000 in FY 2015, $42,000 in FY '16 - and its new proposed location in the Rines Center, where the Health Department is located.
But there already appear to be bumps in the road. At the committee meeting, Alderman-at-Large Dan O'Neil, the chairman of the board, urged the mayor to cool his jets. At the very least, he said, Gatsas should appoint an interim OYS director while the board considers the consolidation.
"I don't think it's fair to the young people served by them, no matter how this plays out. Rushing it is a mistake," O'Neil said.
The committee members seemed inclined to agree. They voted to table the matter and schedule a public hearing.
Where's Dr. Livingston? Or maybe the better question is "Onde Dr. Livingston?" That's Portuguese. You see, the school Superintendent Debra Livingston is in Brazil for a U.S. State Department-sponsored educational exchange program for school administrators. Why should students get all the fun?
Her Brazilian counterparts visited Manchester last October. Livingston is to return in a week.
In the meantime, Assistant Superintendent Dave Ryan has been main point person before the school board and aldermen.
That is, even more so than usual.
Alderman Levasseur is not known as the most touchy-feely guy, so it was a surprise to see him getting choked up late into Tuesday's meeting.
At the beginning of the meeting, two residents of the Elmwood Gardens public housing development - Daniel Issu, a refugee from Sudan, and Sophia Niyifasha, a young woman and Burundian refugee - spoke of their desire to form a resident council at the complex.
Alderman Barbara Shaw commended Niyifasha for coming forward, and she noted that she remembered her from when she was a grade school student and was quiet and withdrawn.
"She's come such a long way," Shaw said.
But the issue was more personal for Levasseur, who grew up in Elmwood Gardens.
"I drove through there a couple of weeks ago," he said, choking up. "I have to say, I'm extremely impressed how it looked, how clean it was - those kids look like they're doing a heck of a job ... . Who knows, someday they might be standing at that podium right there," he said. Then he quipped, "Just like I will."
Ted Siefer is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @tbsreporter.