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New group aims to bring new blood to city's elections, political scene

December 01. 2012 10:59PM

With the dust barely settled on the November elections, a new political action committee is being formed to inject fresh blood into Manchester politics for next year's municipal races.

Voters for Manchester's Future is the brainchild of Queen City residents Tyler Deaton, a lobbyist and board member of the New Hampshire Young Republicans, Sarah Crawford Stewart, a political consultant, and Mike Skelton, a familiar voice for those of us in the media as spokesman for Public Service of New Hampshire. Skelton, who will serve as the group's chairman, is also on the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce and was a past chairman of the Manchester Young Professionals Network.

Deaton said the group is nonpartisan.

"We'll be focusing on bringing fresh voices to city government, whether Democrat or Republican. We want to find those community leaders that, maybe, wouldn't at first want to run and getting them involved in city government," Deaton said.

In coming months, the group will recruit and support candidates for both the aldermanic and school board races, Deaton said.

What about the mayor's race? "We're open to that, too," said Deaton.

So look out, Mayor Ted Gatsas, you could have some young whippersnappers coming after you.

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For the past few months, school reform has been moving on two different tracks. One involves the school board's strategic planning committee, which is embarking on a months-long process of fact finding, community engagement and consensus building. The other, spearheaded by Mayor Gatsas, is, well, not about those things. In short order, he's proposed a dramatic expansion of technology in the classrooms, redistricting and other changes to be implemented not in months or years, but a matter of weeks.

Those two paths appeared to collide at Wednesday's Board of School Committee meeting.

The mayor was upset about comments made by Mark McQuillan, the dean of the Southern New Hampshire University's School of Education, when he was facilitating a community meeting of the strategic planning committee. Gatsas recalled the dean saying, according to an article in this paper, that the district is "woefully underfunded."

McQuillan is quoted in the article telling a group of people that there is "good evidence" the district is underfunded.

"I would ask that he would come before us and explain where he got those ideas in his head before he facilitates a program going forward," Gatsas said.

McQuillan is not inclined to do so. On Thursday, he told school board member Kathy Staub, who has been leading the strategic planning initiative, that he's bowing out.

"The city of Manchester lost, and the mayor won," she said. "We have lost this resource, who could be so helpful to us in improving our schools."

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Gatsas probably won't be much help with another project near and dear to Staub and other school board members. Last week, members of the Curriculum and Instruction Committee interviewed two companies to conduct a performance audit of the district, school by school, and went so far as negotiating a price, $40,000, for a contract with an Iowa-based company.

Hopefully, they haven't cut the check yet.

"I have no idea where the money for that is going to come from," Gatsas said.

Of course, the mayor didn't take too kindly to the last audit of city schools, performed last spring by state Department of Education officials who described a long list of "deficiencies," including kids sleeping in class. The education commissioner later acknowledged the report was full of subjective observations outside the scope of state standards and retracted it.

Gatsas insisted that his concerns about the audit contract were strictly financial.

And these days, it seems the mayor is the only one who can rustle up extra funds for the cash-strapped district.

Gatsas told the school board Wednesday that he was able to raise $25,000 to pay the search firm hired to find a new superintendent, a job he calls "the most important in the city."

Donors include AutoFair, People's United Bank and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

Now Gatsas hopes to firm up a financial commitment of $60,000 to build "virtual" computer-assisted classrooms. The assistance could come in the form of cash or hardware, he said.

All of this prompted board member Art Beaudry to ask at Wednesday's meeting how exactly these donations would "come in."

The checks would be made out to the Manchester School District, and would be designated for the purpose they were intended, the mayor said.

Not that Beaudry was complaining. "Good job," he offered, in a rare bit of praise for the mayor.

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Last week in this space, it was reported that an exasperated Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur couldn't even get someone to second a motion to have the Welfare Department to stay open during lunch.

It turns out, the motion did not fall on deaf ears. Welfare Commissioner Paul Martineau has announced that starting Monday, the office will be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.

By several accounts, Martineau has tried to be more accommodating in the wake of allegations that his office is tightfisted in paying out assistance, while he makes a salary of $113,000, higher than that of any elected official in the city.

Changes may be coming on this score as well. On Tuesday, the Committee on Human Resources will take up a proposed ordinance that would remove the welfare commissioner from the Yarger Decker system of annual raises. Instead, aldermen will consider establishing a set salary for the job, as is the case for other elected offices. Based on a comparison to other cities in the state, the human resources director recommends a range of $80,000 to $90,000.

Martineau, however, won't likely be getting a haircut anytime soon. The consensus on the committee at its last meeting was that changes would not go into effect until after the 2013 election. We'll see how inclined Martineau is run for reelection next year.

Ted Siefer may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tbsreporter.

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