Ted Siefer's City Hall: A school board bombshell dropped behind camouflage
If perchance you were watching Channel 22, the local government station, late Monday night, you may have witnessed the unfolding of a pretty big news story. Not that you likely could have divined what the Board of School Committee was talking about, based on the series of cryptic motions they voted on before adjourning.
As we have since learned, those votes concerned the resignation of West High Principal MaryEllen McGorry and the naming of her interim replacement, John Rist, the longtime Central principal.
Everything surrounding the McGorry case has been hush-hush. The board has not apprised the public of the results of the investigation into her conduct, for which a Massachusetts firm billed the district $250 an hour. This didn't stop a narrow majority of the board from voting to accept the terms of McGorry's resignation: She will be paid through April and will receive health benefits until June 30.
Members of the school board have been told in no uncertain terms that disclosing any personal information about the McGorry investigation could land them in legal hot water. And McGorry's lawyer, Andru Volinsky, is about as high profile as attorneys come. He is the one who won the landmark Claremont education ruling, and he represented the state in a case against the Local Government Center.
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The news about McGorry easily overshadowed what was supposed to be the main event at Monday's meeting: the long-awaited presentation of Superintendent Tom Brennan's report on redistricting, which, to judge by Mayor Ted Gatsas' reaction, was a dud.
Redrawing attendance zones in order to make better use of school facilities has been a priority for Gatsas for nearly four years. He expected something meatier than "retain the current academic configuration of our elementary and middle schools," one of Brennan's top-line recommendations. The superintendent didn't rule out longer term changes, including building a new elementary school.
That's a nonstarter for Gatsas, and he said he still plans to press the school board to come up with more immediate fixes.
"We have overcrowded schools and underutilized schools," Gatsas said. "Something has to be done."
Gatsas likes an ambitious idea that has been put forward by school board member Erika Connors.
Noting its central location, she's suggested making Jewett Street Elementary School the district's one preschool building, freeing up space at the other elementary schools where preschool classes are held. Southside Middle School could be converted into an elementary school to take the Jewett students, and the remaining three middle schools, two of which have considerable excess capacity, could absorb the former Southside students.
"We could put all the preschoolers under one roof, along with the specialists who now have to go all over the city," Connors said. "We could do this without having to purchase a whole new preschool" - which at $5 million, is the biggest item on the board's wish list of building projects.
The board on Monday voted to refer Brennan's redistricting report to the Curriculum and Instruction Committee, of which Connors is a member. So she'll have plenty more to say about her plan.
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With all the talk by the school board about redistricting, it's easy to forget that such decisions affect institutions that are the centers of the universe for young people.
Allie Nault, a freshman at West High, was among the many people who saw reports on the local TV news indicating that Brennan was recommending the imminent closure of her school. (In fact, Brennan said an alternative plan for West should only be implemented after "a comprehensive plan and the appropriate vetting of the concept," which would no doubt be a lengthy process.)
Nault dashed off a letter to the mayor and school board last week. "We are not numbers to be redistributed. We are real flesh and blood people who are supposed to be enjoying some of the best years of our lives in high school," she wrote.
Nault had already waded into city politics earlier in the school year, circulating a petition in support of McGorry, shortly after the principal was suspended.
"Since you no longer need the petition," she continued in the letter, "we would appreciate it if you would send it to Ms. McGorry so that she will see how much she was loved and appreciated by us."
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The aldermen on Tuesday are expected to get the latest installment in the ongoing saga that is the city's software contract.
It so happens a man very much at the center of the controversy reached out to me recently. Dennis Harward is the founder of HTE, the company that built the system the city now uses, and he's the founder of Innoprise, the company that won the contract a couple of years ago to upgrade and streamline the system.
Since the Innoprise contract was awarded two years ago, there has been scant progress toward completing the new system, but there's been lots of finger-pointing of late. Alderman Patrick Arnold has seized on the issue in his mayoral bid to criticize Gatsas' handling of the deal, which Arnold refers to as a "boondoggle."
Gatsas has lamented that the city was "sold a bill of goods."
Harward has a strong idea of whom Gatsas is referring: himself.
"There was no bill of goods sold," said Harward, who is a New Hampshire native. "I took it personally. This wasn't just a contract to me. I wanted to do a good job for the home team."
Harward said his troubles started when he was sued, shortly after the Manchester contract was signed, by Sunguard, the company to which he had sold HTE and which had been overseeing the city's software system. The company accused Harward of using his knowledge of HTE's software code to unfairly compete against it for government contracts. Distressed, Harward sold Innoprise to Harris, a software company based in Canada. So now he's out of the loop.
"The city is still getting software support," Harward said. "I lost everything to Innoprise. I didn't benefit at all from this adventure."
Ted Siefer may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @tbsreporter.