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November 17. 2012 11:36PM

Ted Siefer's City Hall: Gatsas won't be driving this contract-negotiation bus


 

The contract battle looming between the city and the teachers union may have higher stakes than other negotiations in recent years.

The Board of School Committee signaled it means business last week by voting, for the first time, to hire an outside negotiator.

The decision effectively relegates to the sidelines Mayor Ted Gatsas, a man who has long been comfortable in the role of negotiator-in-chief.

It was Gatsas who played a key role in the extension of the existing teacher contract three years ago, and last year he called on the union to reopen the contract and agree to health care concessions. The union refused, setting the stage for hundreds of layoffs - and the ongoing controversy over large class sizes since the start of the school year.

The contract expires at the end of the school year.

While the mayor hasn't said he's opposed to hiring the outside negotiator, he didn't exactly make things easy for some school board members Tuesday when it came time to vote on approving the contract.

The negotiator, a law firm, would be charging $175 an hour for its services. Board member John Avard, who will be chairing the board's negotiation subcommittee, did not want to allocate an exact dollar amount because this could give the union an early advantage. If union officials knew how much the district had to spend, they could run out the clock, he argued. At the very least, Avard said, the matter should be discussed in a non-public session.

The mayor wasn't having it.

"I think that's a discussion the public has to hear. What about transparency? We should not be writing blank checks," he said.

The mayor may not have been in the most accommodating mood, since earlier in the evening he had clashed with Avard over his plan to organize parent tours of the schools, which Avard justified in the interest of "transparency." (Gatsas said he is a strong advocate for parental involvement, but that the tours would be disruptive and nonproductive.)

In the end, the board did discuss the negotiator contract behind closed doors - and they emerged with an exact allocation: $20,000 from the district's legal budget. That would pay for 114 hours, or three weeks' full-time work.

Avard called the allocation a "starting point."

"After about 100 hours' worth of service, we're going to have a better idea (of what we'll need)," he said.

Avard said it was important to have a professional negotiator since this is the first time in six years that the entire teacher contract would be up for review, from health care benefits to teacher evaluations. "Everything is on the table," he said. "I think both sides have an opportunity to move forward instead of at a standstill, so I'm positive."

Ben Dick, the president of the teachers union, the Manchester Education Association, said he's willing to talk to anyone. "Certainly my communication up to this point has been with the mayor, but I don't see an issue either way," he said.

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The district's assistant superintendents regularly appear at school board meetings on all topics curricular and financial. On Wednesday, however, the issue was personal.

The Coordination Committee was considering whether to renew the contracts for Superintendent Tom Brennan's three trusted deputies, Assistant Superintendents Karen Burkush and Michael Tursi and Business Administrator Karen DeFrancis.

Committee members Art Beaudry and Debra Gagnon Langton have some reservations.

Both in the past have questioned the need for three highly paid administrators. Burkush is getting $111,000, and Tursi and DeFrancis are getting $105,000. The new contracts would likely include raises, contingent on reviews by their boss.

The new annual contracts begin in July, and Beaudry pointed out that Brennan, who is stepping down, will be gone by then. He proposed making the administrators at-will employees until the new superintendent is hired.

"I believe strongly that the individual should be able to interview the candidates and put together the team they want," Beaudry said.

Langton suggested that a curriculum coordinator could be hired at a lower salary, rather than having an assistant superintendent for curriculum, Tursi's title. "We could be saving the taxpayers money," she said.

Brennan offered his full endorsement of the administrators, and he noted that it would be a lot to expect of an incoming superintendent to find qualified people for the posts.

"You have to be concerned about the timing of these decisions," he said. "I don't know if (the superintendent) could be hired before the end of the school year."

In the end, the committee made no recommendation on the contracts, referring them instead to the full board for a vote.

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There hasn't been much noise on the school board so far about the fact that close to a third of high school freshman failed algebra last year, as reported in these pages.

But the matter is on Brennan's mind.

After it was pointed out at Tuesday's meeting that he made in addition error in a report he was presenting to the board, he quipped, "It must be that Everyday Math."

Everyday Math is the novel curriculum adopted by the district four years ago that critics have implicated in students' math troubles.

Have you considered stand-up comedy as a future career path, Dr. Brennan?

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After a slow few weeks, the aldermen are going to have a busy couple of days. On Monday and Tuesday, six subcommittee meetings are scheduled, along with a full Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting with a public comment period. Then on Wednesday, the aldermanic chambers will be the setting for the inaugural session of the 2013 Charter Commission. But then City Hall will be closed Thursday for Thanksgiving, giving the city's elected officials something to be especially thankful for.

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Ted Siefer may be reached at tsiefer@unionleader.com. Follow him on Twitter: @tbsreporter.


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