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March 24. 2013 11:14PM

Whirlwind begins for Manchester school superintendent candidates

MANCHESTER - The three candidates for superintendent of the Manchester School District who will participate in a public forum tonight bring resumes filled with varied experiences in school leadership.

Two are retired from their most recent superintendent jobs, which each held for more than a decade. The third is in the middle of his first four-year contract as superintendent of a multi-school district. (See resumes at UnionLeader.com)

Two have worked a lifetime in education, while the third was employed for several years in private industry, in addition to decades in education. Two have athletic coaching experience. And each candidate touts his ability to transform the way a school district educates children.

The three today begin a whirlwind of meetings and forums expected to culminate at the end of the week in the naming of a new chief of the state's largest school district.

A public meeting will be held this evening at the Memorial High School auditorium at 7 p.m., to give residents a chance to query the candidates. That forum will be followed by a closed-door meeting Tuesday of the Board of School Committee, at which the members are expected to vote on their pick.

The candidates

Geoffrey Gordon retired last year as principal of the Port Washington, N.Y. Public Schools, a position he held for a decade. A graduate of the University of Virginia, where he played Division 1 baseball, Gordon received master's and doctoral degrees in education from Rutgers University.

Vincent Cotter was most recently superintendent in the Colonial, Pa. School District in suburban Philadelphia, retiring in 2011. He holds a bachelor's degree in secondary social studies and a master's in special education from Millersville University in Pennsylvania and a doctorate in educational leadership from Temple University.

The third candidate, Mark Toback, is superintendent of schools in Hoboken, N.J. Toback was superintendent and principal of a vocational-technical high school before moving to Hoboken in 2011. He began his career as a math teacher and football coach in Paterson, N.J. at what he said was one of that community's "toughest" schools.His hiring as superintendent in Hoboken was delayed when a proposed $175,000 salary ran afoul of an order from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie capping superintendent pay at $155,000. The agreement was renegotiated, and includes merit bonuses for achieving an excellent rating from the school board and a county-wide supervising superintendent, improving attendance records of both teachers and students and reaching specific goals for improved test scores.

Toback has a doctorate in education from Rutgers, a master's from William Paterson University and a bachelor's degree from the University of Delaware.

Financial issues

In Hoboken, Toback was confronted with a deficit of more than $600,000 in the school cafeteria account. Rather than let the children go hungry, the district would provide lunch and then try to collect from the parents.

Toback's answer to the deficit was to change what some community members referred to as the "deadbeat lunch" to an egg salad sandwich, on the premise that such distinctly unpopular fare would prompt parents to make sure their offspring had their lunch money.

He also battled against a proposed charter school, arguing that creation of the school would reduce resources available for the public school system.

Gordon's experience in Port Washington includes dealing with an issue similar to the dominant school finance issue in Manchester. School budgets in Port Washington were subject to a 2.13 percent cap on tax levy increases. The budget ultimately approved by voters was slightly below the cap, at 2.07 percent.

The tax cap was reportedly responsible for proposals for reductions of 4 percent in Port Washington's teaching staff and 5 percent in paraprofessionals. One of the district's strategies for handling the tax cap was to negotiate delays in step increases for teachers, along with a zero percent increase in the pay scale.

The Colonial School District, headed by Cotter, also faced the need to trim spending.

According to district school board meeting minutes, Cotter said his goal in identifying $2 million in budget cuts was to "maintain the core instructional program."

Teachers in the Colonial district agreed to a three-year contract during Cotter's final months that included a 1.4 percent increase in the pay scale and higher contributions from teachers for health care benefits, according to a district newsletter.

Academic achievement

Shortly after becoming superintendent in Hoboken, Toback received word that the New Jersey Department of Education had determined Hoboken schools were short of improvement standards set by the federal government, according to a memo Toback sent to parents.

In his application for the Manchester position, Toback indicates that his response has been to tighten teacher evaluation systems, introduce new math and science programs, and increase student testing.

In the Colonial district headed by Cotter, a performance pay system for teachers rewards instruction that leads to improved test scores. Cotter told a panel discussion on the subject that the performance pay system not only rewards good teaching, it gets rid of non-performers.

"We've counseled teachers into other professions," Cotter said.

In Gordon's Port Washington, a school district in an affluent community with greater resources, the community's schools have been rated by the Wall Street Journal as among the top 10 in the country for students being accepted to selective colleges.

At the same time, test scores for minority students earned the affluent district recognition among 28 percent of New York schools commended for improved achievement by minority students, according to a resolution adopted by the New York Senate last June.

Union Leader Staff Writer Ted Siefer contributed to this report.


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