March 26. 2013 12:18AM

Manchester superintendent candidates step up to the plate

New Hampshire Union Leader




MANCHESTER - The three candidates to head the state's largest school district faced what may be their toughest interview on Monday: a community forum at Memorial High School.

The three answered a range of questions at the event, which was attended by more than 100 people.

The prospective superintendents are: Vincent Cotter, who retired in 2011 after serving for 10 years as superintendent in the Colonial, Pa. School District in suburban Philadelphia; Geoffrey Gordon, who retired last year after a decade as the superintendent of Port Washington, N.Y. Public Schools; and Mark Toback, the superintendent in Hoboken, N.J. since 2010.

One of the more pointed questions came early in the event from Elinor Murphy, the former longtime principal at Beech Street School.

"I'm sure you've all come from political situations, but in Manchester I'm not sure you're aware of how political things can be. Are you willing to put your job on the line to advocate for your students?" Murphy asked, eliciting applause from the audience.

Cotter may have had the most blunt response to the question. "If you don't change what you're doing, you're going to have the same outcomes. I believe we need to change the current dynamic in place," he said. "But to answer your question, yes, I would be willing to put my job on the line. I've been in education for 39 years. I'm kind of independent at this point in time."

Gordon emphasized communication as a way of heading off political disputes.

"The best approach to whoever is coming politically with certain issues is to talk about it before it becomes a festering problem. If you can solve a problem before it becomes a major confrontation, everybody wins," he said.

Toback, the Hoboken superintendent, stressed his support for having a plan and sticking to it.

"Nobody wins if the superintendent walks," he said. "But there are things that can be done well in advance (of problems developing.) Right now, the district is engaged in a strategic planning process," he said, referring to the school board process to establish long-range goals for the district.

The three would-be superintendents were also asked to describe how they would deal with relations with the school board, which have often been contentious.

"The superintendent is the C.E.O.," Gordon said. "If I'm offered the position, this would be my understanding with the board. Board members are volunteers. This said, you can't blind-side them and you can't undermine them."

Gordon cited a recent example in Manchester, when district officials had proposed ending the "no-nit" policy, whereby students are sent home as soon as lice are detected on them. A school board committee unanimously rejected any relaxation of the policy.

"I would go to them ahead of time and talk to them ... rather than embarrass the board," he said.

Cotter said open communication is vital.

"I believe in a very transparent approach that doesn't involve a hidden agenda or manipulation, one that is based on helping the children and helping the district move forward," he said.

Jim O'Connell, president of Citizens for Manchester Schools, the civic group that has been advocating for greater school funding, asked the candidates about the fact that they come from school districts that are significantly smaller than Manchester - and that spend far more per-pupil than the city.

Toback, the Hoboken superintendent, said the comparison wasn't necessarily apt.

"The fact is ... a district with 2,400 students is still a significant operation and we have many of the same challenges you face here," he said.

Toback added, "There are a lot of things that cost a whole lot more in New Jersey - teacher salaries at the top end are almost $100,000. That's a big part of why our cost-per-pupil is much higher."

All three candidates praised Manchester and its economic potential.

Perhaps the biggest applause line came when Gordon noted that he's been a Red Sox fan since he was a kid.

"I wore a Red Sox uniform in Yankee Stadium and almost got my father killed," he said.

Following the meeting, several parents indicated they were pleased with the candidates overall.

"I was skeptical at first," said Nick Want, a member of Citizens for Manchester Schools. But, he said, "I think it's been a good process and the three candidates have their eyes wide open."

Lisa Witte said she "felt good about all the candidates."

Like Want, Witte was leaning toward one of the three men, but declined to identify which one.

The forum capped a busy day for the three candidates, during which they toured the schools and met with business and community leaders.

Today, the Board of School Committee will be interviewing the candidates; it is expected to make its pick at a non-public meeting in the evening. The board is not expected to announce the new superintendent for another couple days, at the earliest.