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December 25. 2012 11:46PM

City school chief says he still has a lot to accomplish

MANCHESTER - Superintendent of Schools Thomas Brennan plans to pack a lot into his final semester on the job.

He doesn't have much of a choice. There is still much to do before this summer, when Brennan will step away from the job he took in 2008 when he returned to the district he left as an assistant superintendent 10 years earlier. A lot changed in his 10 years away from Manchester. Even more has during his tenure as superintendent.

"I feel good about being around here. I wish I could have stayed longer, but I think the five years has taken its toll emotionally, not only for me but for my family," Brennan said. "If I stay any longer, the baggage that I carry will always be at the forefront, whether it's earned or not."

Brennan bluntly acknowledged some in the city will be glad to see him go. Answering to a board that is chaired by the mayor of the state's largest city and school district hasn't been easy. It grew to be enough of a political tightrope that Brennan announced last July that the 2012-13 school year would be his last in Manchester. Not a lame duck

Brennan's tasks include negotiating new teacher contracts he hopes will avoid additional layoffs, getting overcrowded classrooms back within state standards and salvaging agreements with neighboring towns that pay to send students from those communities to Manchester.

"One of the goals I have is to resolve as many of these things as possible for the incoming superintendent," he said. "Some people suggested I might be a lame duck. Anyone who suggests that doesn't really know who I am."

Some have accused Brennan of lacking leadership, resulting in the loss of more than 100 staff members through layoffs and unfilled retirements over the summer. Some classrooms were filled beyond the fire code and others remain over the 30-student limit mandated by the state for core classes.

Tax cap

Brennan was also criticized for siding with Mayor Ted Gatsas, who held tight on the city tax cap through bitter negotiations and warnings that city schools were headed for trouble.

Brennan said Gatsas has told him his initial budget projections should not require more layoffs. The two plan to sit down within the next week or two to go over the numbers. Brennan is hoping Gatsas is correct.

"I may be missing something. Very few people challenge his numbers because he hasn't been proven to be wrong too often," Brennan said. "I need to sit down with him and hopefully get that 'aha' moment."

Gatsas said Brennan will continue to push.

"I think he's doing a great job," Gatsas said. "He's working at it. I think he's got some major things that he's looking at right now."

Gatsas is unlikely to have some magic number that will restore faculty levels to where they were a year ago. But Brennan remains hopeful they can find enough small fixes to lead to big results. He noted the community has also taken notice, and not just in the form of angry parents.

"We have so many assets - by that I mean the schools themselves, but also businesses and other services within the city that can really be advantaged or leveraged to help our kids along the path of education and learning," he said.

Superintendent search

Brennan said businesses have been assisting by donating things such as equipment and agreeing to continue doing so.

"I'm seeing more of that," he said. "I'm sure in part that's because of the mayor's personality and also in part that they're recognizing that something has to be done differently, not only in terms of how we educate students, but the funding situation and how they can help. I'm seeing more of a long-term commitment."

Gatsas was able to raise $25,000 from local businesses to fund the hiring of Chicago-based Proact, a specialty search firm that will narrow down the list of potential replacements for Brennan to about a dozen by March. (See related story.)

"I think we needed to go outside the city of Manchester and look for a national search firm," said Gatsas, noting he was impressed by the way Proact handled the search for a new superintendent in Portland, Maine, earlier this year.

The entire Board of School Committee will vote on the finalists and hope to have a new superintendent named by the end of March.

Some advice

Whoever it is, Brennan has some simple advice.

"Do everything in their power to work collaboratively with the board of school committee," Brennan said. "Figure out a strategy to work with them. I think that was my biggest failure in terms of my inability to work with them."

Brennan opened himself up for more criticism at a meeting earlier this month when he proposed giving 2.5 percent raises to assistant superintendents Karen Burkush, Michael Tursi and Business Administrator Karen DeFrancis - raises he assured the board the three wouldn't accept. Brennan said it was a symbolic gesture, which didn't go over well with some.

Board member Arthur Beaudry, who has often been one of Brennan's more vocal critics, felt it was wrong under the financial circumstances the district still faces.

"They had already indicated to me that they had no intention of wanting any more compensation," Brennan said. "Politically I could have not have said anything, but sometimes I think I think you need to make a statement about the value you place on the people you work with."

At age 65, Brennan isn't sure what is next for him. He thought this would be his last job, but doesn't feel ready to retire just yet.

"I think my wife would like me to slow down, but I still think I can provide some energy and work with school districts and or consulting. I'm wide open for anything," Brennan said. "It's just that it can't be here for me. But that doesn't mean I won't push until the very end."

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Doug Alden may be reached at dalden@unionleader.com.


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