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Ted Siefer's City Hall: City down to the wire on school budget, superintendent

May 25. 2013 11:54PM

Many a teacher has warned their students to not wait until the last minute, but it's advice that sometimes seems lost on the boards of school committee and aldermen. As the end of the school year fast approaches without a final budget or a superintendent.

But then there's that other adage, good things come to those who wait. It appears likely a budget will go before the aldermen, possibly as soon as this week, that will allocate up to $1 million more to the district than the budget proposed earlier in the year by Mayor Ted Gatsas.

Gatsas has proposed a 2014 fiscal year budget of $155.7 million, the maximum allowed under the tax cap.

The additional funds will come from the surplus that has steadily piled up in the latter months of the current fiscal year, thanks in large part to vehicle registration fees and departmental belt-tightening. According to the latest estimate from the Finance Department, the city is on track to finish the year $1.69 million in the black.

Aldermen Pat Long, Ward 3, and Joyce Craig, Ward 1, have been working over the past couple of months on the revised budget. Craig, you may recall, was the architect of the budget plan last year that sent another $2 million over to the school district, which served to blunt the impact of mass layoffs.

According to Craig, the proposed budget will use the surplus to bolster both the city and district spending plans proposed by the mayor.

Of course, Craig's plan is not a done deal. Other aldermen have been eyeing the surplus for their own priorities. But Craig and Long's plan has the advantage that it's already been run by Gatsas. He may not support everything in it, but he won't be blind-sided when his budget is finally pulled off the table for consideration.

That will most likely happen at a special meeting this week or, at latest, the week after. Under the charter, the budget must be finalized by the second Tuesday in June, which is the 11th.

All the while, there's another big moving part to consider - the ongoing negotiations with the teachers union. Gatsas has said that he'd like to see any additional money for teachers come from contract concessions, in particular on their health care plans.

Of course, the biggest question mark hanging over the school district is who will take the helm after Superintendent Thomas Brennan leaves in about a month. The superintendent post, after all, is "the most important hire in the city," as Gatsas has said.

With time running short, perhaps it's not surprising that there's a rumor going around that Gatsas approached John Rist for the superintendent job. Rist is the former Central High principal who was tapped as the interim principal at West High in the wake of the turmoil there.

Gatsas is not one to respond to rumors. "I talk to a lot of people," he said. And Rist was unavailable for comment. (The same rumor goes that he's not interested in the job.)

But Gatsas did say that he's been astonished by the changes he's seen at West since the resignation of the former principal, MaryEllen McGorry, for reasons the district has yet to disclose.

"I can tell you, at West there is a whole different level of confidence, morale and student excitement," he said.

Gatsas acknowledged that he can't say the same for every school he visits.

"There have been an awful lot of schools that have great concerns. Teacher morale is down. We need to find a way to get the district to a place where everyone is working for a common cause, for the children," he said.

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Meanwhile, the school board's superintendent search committee is set to have a closed-door meeting on Friday at which time it will narrow down a list of five finalists, who will then be invited to the city for interviews the following week.

For his part, school board member Ted Rokas, Ward 5, the committee chairman, said he feels good about the direction things are going.

"I've had talks with the search firm, and they told me they've got even better candidates than the first time," he said, referring to the three candidates who came to Manchester in March - and were sent packing.

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On the topic of education, Gatsas' Democrat opponent for mayor, Ward 12 Alderman Patrick Arnold, picked up a couple of big, if unsurprising, endorsements last week.

Patrick was endorsed by the Manchester Education Association, the city teachers union, and the National Education Association-New Hampshire, the main statewide teacher union.

"I'm proud to receive support from educational professionals in Manchester and throughout our state," Arnold said in a statement. "Though we have dedicated educators and students who want to learn in our schools, we also face an educational crisis in our city, which Mayor Gatsas has only made worse."

Ben Dick, the MEA president, called Arnold "the clear choice in this race for parents, students and taxpayers of our community."

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At their meeting Tuesday, the aldermen OK'd one of the more novel ideas to come out of City Hall in some time. Coming to downtown will be six "spare change" meters, retooled parking meters where passersby can deposit coins that will help fund programs at the New Horizons shelter and soup kitchen. The idea is to both raise money and deter panhandling.

But there was one little wrinkle in the plan. The first $260 collected in the meters was to go to the city to cover the cost of installation. The first donors would unwittingly be sending their money to City Hall.

Thanks to Mike Craig and Art Gatzoulis of the Craig & Gatzoulis law firm, that wrinkle has been ironed out.

The firm agreed to donate $260 to cover the initial costs. Craig, not so incidentally, is the husband of Alderman Joyce Craig. Credit where credit is due.

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If the mayor's gig doesn't work out, Gatsas might want to consider trying out for "America's Got Talent." It seems he's been taking a star turn of late.

A couple of weeks ago, he was a judge at a dancing contest at the Moore Center, which assists special needs adults. The week before that, he stepped up to play bass in an impromptu ensemble at McLaughlin Middle School. He was a big hit with the students, and now photos of the mayor getting down are making the rounds on Facebook.

Gatsas characteristically downplayed his creative talents.

"It took longer to teach me how to play than to perform," Gatsas said. "I'm not looking to perform for the Boston Pops."

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

City Hall Manchester

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