February 01. 2014 10:20PM

Ted Siefer's City Hall: Despite confusion, public comment is welcome at meetings

New Hampshire Union Leader

You may have heard that recently the school board adopted new rules with the goal of making the body function more smoothly. It had been so far so good, but at Tuesday's meeting of the Curriculum and Instruction Committee, there was a pretty big bump in the road.

The agenda for the meeting did not allow for a public comment period, as had been the case prior to the rule changes. This was scarcely noted until Ward 2 school board member Debra Gagnon Langton piped up. "So if people came tonight, they can't speak? I completely disagree with that," she said.

Ward 8 school board member Erika Connors, the new chairman of the committee, explained that the public comment period had been removed as part of the broader rules changes. The implication was cancellation of the public comment period would apply to all subcommittee meetings.

At the same time, Connors said, it was not a settled policy. "We will be discussing this with the vice chairman of the board, if we're going to add (public comment) back to the subcommittee meetings," she said, referring to Dave Wihby, the at-large school board member.

The idea of the rule changes was, in essence, to make the school board function more like the aldermanic board, which does not allow a public comment period before subcommittee meetings. And Mayor Ted Gatsas, who chairs the school board, last month decreed that public comments would be allowed at all full school board meetings, including the special ones convened on short notice.

The public rarely turns out in large numbers for subcommittee meetings. However, the Curriculum and Instruction Committee is dealing with some pretty controversial stuff these days, what with the ongoing development of the Manchester Academic Standards - the district's alternative to the Common Core standards, which have been a lightning rod for criticism, mostly from conservative quarters.

It so happened that there was a resident at Tuesday's meeting, a Common Core opponent who had done quite a bit of research for the presentation she intended to give to the committee. Later in the week, when the mayor was on the air with radio host Rich Girard, the woman gave Gatsas a piece of her mind for not being permitted to speak at the meeting. And in an unusually fierce exchange, Girard, who is also a strong critic of Common Core, also laid into the mayor.

By the end of the week, the decision had been made: public comments would be allowed at school board subcommittee meetings.

Gatsas told me the policy on public comments had simply not been fully hammered out. "If people think we were trying squelch anyone, that's not the case," he said.

So was there an overreaction to what happened at Tuesday's meeting? "I'll just say it's taken care of," he said.

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Could full-day preschool again be considered by the school board?

The topic came up following a presentation made by Superintendent Debra Livingston based on a recent report that gave further support to the importance of children being able to read at grade level by the third grade. The issue is something of a mantra for Mayor Gatsas.

The study further documented how not being able to read at the level of one's peers in the third grade can set students on a path of poor performance in school and out of school and lead to significant long-term societal costs.

Livingston then explained how in Manchester minority students make up a disproportionately large share of struggling students, which is otherwise known as the achievement gap.

"The goal," Livingston said, "is all students doing well. That would close that gap."

The discussion veered toward solutions and to the topic of full-day kindergarten.

The idea has the perhaps unlikely support of Gatsas and Ward 3 board member Chris Stewart, both Republicans.

"I support the mayor on all-day kindergarten," Stewart said. "If we're going to get into a discussion about busting the tax cap on the school side during our budget discussions, it would be great if we could look at that."

All the talk of expanding kindergarten didn't sit well with Robyn Dunphy, the freshmen Ward 6 representative. "There's a lot of suggestions being made that cost money," she said. "But there are a number of things we could do with the resources we already have to encourage kids who aren't reading at a young age."

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If you've had the pleasure of attending many school board meetings, you're probably aware that administrators have a fondness for acronyms. There's IEP (Individualized Education Program); EL (English Learner); STEM, or, ahem, STEAM, as the mayor insists on calling it, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math.

But at Tuesday's Curriculum and Instruction Committee meeting, the bowl of alphabet soup was overflowing.

In one document, outlining the first phase of the federally funded Innovation Zone plan to improve 10 city schools, there was SAM, SIG and NWEA, without an explanation of what they stood for.

This was preceded by Livingston's presentation on the district's four-year plan to boost student performance. These were labeled SMART goals, again with no indication of what those all-caps letters meant.

Langton, the Ward 2 school board member, asked, "Can the administration at least tell the public what that means?"

Livingston replied, "Yes we can." Long pause.

Langton: "Tonight?"

Livingston had to rifle through some paperwork, but then produced the answer: "Specific, Measured, Attainable, Relevant and Time-based."

OK, that one's pretty clever.

Ted Siefer is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He can be reached at tsiefer@unionleader.com and followed on Twitter: @tbsreporter.