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Ted Siefer's City Hall -- School officials favor new policy: Follow the rules

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 26. 2013 10:20PM

The School Board's Curriculum and Instruction Committee on Tuesday approved a radical new policy: Cap enrollment in high school classes at 30 students.

This would seem to be a simple way to prevent overcrowded classes and, more important, keep from violating state standards, which is the main reason the towns of Hooksett and Candia are looking to send their high school students elsewhere.

But wait a minute - isn't the district already obligated to meet this standard? Or are the standards more like suggestions?

No, says Paul Leather, the deputy commissioner of the state Department of Education, the class size limit is part of the state's "Minimum Standards for Public School Approval."

Violating the rule, specifically Ed. 306.17, triggers a process that could result in a school being rejected for approval by the DOE.

But Leather noted that the DOE was aware of the challenges facing the state's largest school district in keeping class sizes down. "We have chosen to try and work with Manchester to help them in this regard," Leather said.

Others who heard about the school board's plan to cap class enrollment were less understanding, including Ed Murdough, a former official with the Department of Education.

"Why does Manchester believe that compliance with state standards is a matter of choice? The school year is half over and nothing has been done to address the several areas of non-compliance that were identified last year and over the summer," he wrote in an email sent to DOE officials and state lawmakers - and forwarded to the New Hampshire Union Leader.

Murdough may have a more intimate knowledge of city schools than others; he was the one who oversaw the scathing DOE audit last spring that described, among other things, kids sleeping in class.

The DOE ended up retracting the report following objections from Mayor Ted Gatsas and Superintendent Tom Brennan.

It was the other component of the policy approved by the Curriculum and Instruction Committee that generated the most controversy on Tuesday: setting a minimum enrollment of 15 students. If fewer students sign up for a course, it would be dropped.

Board member John Avard raised strong objections to this provision, arguing that it would hurt students at West High, where, because there are fewer students than at the other high schools, it would be less likely that there would be enough students to fill advanced courses.

"I don't want to be limiting opportunities just because where kids go to schools," he said. "That's not right or fair."

Avard couldn't vote on the policy Tuesday because he's not a member of the subcommittee, but he is on the Coordination Committee, which will next take up the proposal, and so is Mayor Gatsas, who loves the idea. He's all for cutting under-enrolled niche courses from the curriculum. Should make for a lively debate.

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The Charter Commission on Wednesday finally didn't play to an empty room. About 40 people turned out for the public hearing on education, most of them parents who had some pointed suggestions for the panel to improve the city school system.

There was something of a running theme to the parents' recommendations: Move up the deadline for the city to finalize its budget for the schools; remove the mayor as chairman of the school board; make it easier to override the tax cap.

There was another similarity among at least three of the parents: They all had kids at Webster Elementary School.

Commissioner Christine Martin, who is the principal of the school, may have been "glowing," as Chairman Jerome Duval joked. But Commissioner Rich Girard, who was sitting next to Martin, was not.

On his radio show on Thursday, Girard pointed to a post Martin put on her Charter Commission Facebook page. It begins: "Friends have asked for talking points relative to the public hearing on education . Here are some thoughts."

Martin then goes through a list of items, including the option of repealing the tax cap and removing the mayor from the school board. Martin, who has long advocated for more support for the school system, does not directly advocate positions, but she makes her own attitudes known.

Regarding giving the school district taxing authority, Martin writes: "I cannot think of anything that would make the school district more accountable to the community. How does this idea fly with FB followers? This would be a bold but positive change."

For Girard, one of the more conservative members of the commission, the post was out of line, given Martin's position as an elected official. "When things cross the line is when a charter commissioner with point-of-view starts stacking the deck at a public hearing, and then can turn around and use that as evidence for overwhelming public support for those positions," he said on his radio show, "Girard At Large."

Girard - who between his radio and cable access TV shows has quite a following of his own - added that he's been "very careful" about what he says on his program in regards to the commission, saying, "I don't think it's valid for people to encourage their own" (supporters) to come to meetings.

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When it comes to the mayor's race, however, Girard has no qualms about delving into politics.

On Wednesday, he had on Alderman Patrick Arnold, the newly declared mayoral candidate.

Of course, Arnold, who is 29, has his work cut out for him in taking on the stalwart Mayor Gatsas.

His interview raised the possibility that voters may be hearing a lot more about a certain software contract than they may care to try and comprehend.

Since 2011, the city has been paying the company Innoprise hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on a contract to overhaul the software system used by all city departments. As the aldermen learned a couple of weeks ago, the system is nowhere close to being completed.

Arnold told Girard that he voted against the contract because he felt it had been rushed through.

"This is a boondoggle," he told Girard.

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

City Hall Manchester

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