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Candia, Hooksett superintendent not afraid of big battles with Manchester

Union Leader Correspondent

December 02. 2012 9:16PM


In the beginning of October, relatively early in the Manchester high school overcrowding crisis, Manchester schools Superintendent Thomas Brennan gave a presentation to the Hooksett School Board where he attempted to assure them that the problems which riled up parents in September were being addressed: class sizes were down, desk availability had never really been an issue, and books were on the way.

After Brennan left, and the board discussed what they had heard with some skepticism, SAU 15 Superintendent, Charles Littlefield started to fiddle with his iPad.

"I'm not being rude," he assured the audience and the board as they waited. "I'm being dramatic."

After a moment, he held up his iPad to the audience to display a picture of something a parent had shown him: a textbook tattered beyond repair, split almost in two.

It was an unusual display but a telling one. In a profession of technocrats and bureaucrats, Littlefield can operate something like a deferential crusader.

"I had to take a picture of it," Littlefield said to the audience, "because I don't want to hear that there are plenty of books. Although, that would actually be two books."

It was a gesture he would repeat almost two months later during a joint meeting between the Candia and Manchester school boards where it was received less enthusiastically by Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas

It was a are rare public display from Littlefield, who as superintendent serves as the primary liaison between the Candia and Hooksett boards and the city school district, where they send the majority of the their high school students. It's a role he typically performs diplomatically.

Minutes after the iPad demonstration, for instance, he refused to hear any ill words about Brennan, calling him "one of the most honorable and professional men I've ever worked with."

"I can't stand bureaucracy and bureaucratic structures. I can't change the world, but I can change the way I operate, and I do not operate as bureaucrat," said Littlefield. "I operate a multi-million dollar business.

"So part of my approach on a daily basis is a business approach. But, I'm not dealing with digits, and I'm not dealing with bricks; I'm dealing with and I'm an advocate for living, breathing human beings: kids. And despite my advanced years, I haven't forgotten what it's like to be a kid, and the need for somebody to really advocate for kids.

"There are times when the passion leaks through the business facade, and it has to. There is an emotional part to this issue: those high school kids are our future. This is what drives me. I truly believe that democracy depends on this next generation of kids who have to more competitive in the world than any generation, period."

Much of his attitude is visible in his history.

Charles Phil Littlefield grew up in Quincy, Mass., before attending Boston University in the late 1960s. He was an idealistic pre-med student, a little all over the place - he says he probably would have been given a steady regimen of Ritalin if he had grown up in a later time - but "driven to make a difference in people's lives."

"My vision was I was going to be a Dr. Tom Dooley [the American physician and humanitarian] in the jungles of Southeast Asia," he said.

After his father died in 1969, the financial realities of medical school caught up with him.

"It just wasn't going to happen," Littlefield said. "So I had to step back and say what's an alternative path, where I can make a difference, I can have an impact, where long after I'm gone there may be those that say 'Hey, remember that guy.' "

After graduating in 1969, Littlefield became a public school teacher in Massachusetts, his medical coursework proving helpful to him as the federal government was investing increasingly in the sciences and math, until becoming superintendent for the "large and complex" Methuen School District in 1985. There, he was forced to deal with Proposition 2, a statute strictly limiting property tax increases, a fact which allows him some empathy for Manchester's budget issues.

After nearly 20 years in Methuen, however, Littlefield was looking for something smaller and more intimate. In 2006, he saw the opening at SAU 15, and made the move.

"I haven't blinked yet," he said. "I was blessed with three wonderful boards. . I work in three wonderful communities that are very supportive of teaching and learning, that have great kids, and involved parents who hold us accountable and hold our feet to the fire."

In SAU 15, Littlefield seems to have found both that intimacy and an outlet for his drive to make an impact. He remembered one SAU 15 student who had difficulty conforming to the demands of school.

"I got to know him, and he was and is a technological genius," Littlefield said. "I don't mean just good at technology. I mean, wow. And I think I was a part of a group that was able to open some doors for this kid, had him display and demonstrate some superior talents. If I hadn't known him by name, that may not have happened."

As the Manchester schools continue to struggle, and the city's school officials struggle to provide a satisfactory solution to its sending towns, however, Littlefield might soon have to step on to a larger stage as a negotiator for the towns' release from their high school contract.

"(Manchester) is facing so many challenges in terms of financial resources that you wonder, even if there's a willingness to address the issues, whether there's the capacity to do so," he said. "It may come to the point where we just have to agree: If you can't do it, just tell us you can't do it. We don't have to be mad at each other, we don't have to be critical of each other, we don't have to find fault with the way each is operating."

In terms of how he will approach such a step, the iPad moment may not be a bad indicator. After considering a comment that he was something like a wartime superintendent, Littlefield said with a smile, "I'm not afraid of battles."

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