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June 29. 2013 11:06PM

School district audit report lands with a thud


 

ON WEDNESDAY, the long-awaited audit of the Manchester School District arrived with a sobering thud. The report - running nearly 300 pages - was presented to the school board's Curriculum and Instruction Committee by Judy Birmingham, the lead auditor for Curriculum Management Systems.

She began by applauding the district for hiring the firm, which is based in the Midwest, to come in and do its work. "It's a healthy thing to do," she said.

Then it was time for the board to take its medicine.

With cold precision, the CMS report marked Manchester inadequate in column after column, and it plotted graph lines that showed declines or scant improvement in test scores over four years.

And Birmingham singled out the school board itself as part of the problem. Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out the things that can go unnoticed. A 15-member school board is exceptionally large, she noted, and to have elections every two years? "I think that presents a challenge to stability," Birmingham said.

Yes, Manchester had some good policies on paper, she said, but they are often disregarded by the very board responsible for overseeing them. "You have a fine policy that says if an employee has a concern, they should take it up with an immediate supervisor - not first to board members ... or the press," she said.

One got the sense that the board knew exactly what Birmingham was talking about - and that she had done her homework. Birmingham said she and her team interviewed 90 people and visited every classroom in the district.

Perhaps it wasn't surprising that the most hands-on member of the school board, Ward 9's Art Beaudry, didn't seem too pleased with the audit's findings. He questioned the suggestion that the board tended to "micromanage" the district.

"I can only say what I see. The board is reluctant to pursue big changes too much because that's seen as micromanaging. So they back up, or at least some board members do," Beaudry said.

The report can be downloaded from the district's website, mansd.org.

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Mayor Ted Gatsas also didn't seem too pleased with Birmingham's presentation. The last time a scathing audit came down, last spring from the state Department of Education, Gatsas protested its findings, and it ended up being largely retracted.

Gatsas said many of Birmingham's findings weren't surprising to him, since they echoed the things outgoing Superintendent Tom Brennan had often pointed out during his five-year tenure.

"The common thread, that we don't do the same things everywhere, that every school is a district within a district, we could've saved a lot of money on this audit if we listened to him," he said.

The audit cost $40,000, an appropriation that Gatsas voted against in the fall.

Still, Gatsas found something to like in the report. He noted that it did not dwell on funding problems. "It's not about the level of spending. It's about what we're spending on and how to do it better," he said.

To be sure, Birmingham, like any good educator, leavened her critique with compliments. And the report is not all bad. The board will have time to parse its findings before it discusses them in greater depth at its August meeting. So enjoy the hefty new addition to your summer reading lists, school board.

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Meanwhile, Ward 12 Alderman and mayoral candidate Patrick Arnold quickly embraced the audit - and used it as a cudgel against the mayor.

"The audit validates what most of us in the city already know about the state of the Manchester School District - Mayor Gatsas' failed leadership has left our school system in desperate need of a new vision for success," Arnold said in a statement Thursday.

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With all the talk about the stalled negotiations with the teachers union, it's easy to overlook the talks underway with the city unions representing police support personnel and Water Works employees. And we probably wouldn't have heard much about the talks - the unions together represent fewer than 200 people - were it not for Mike Roche, the vocal union president of the Steelworkers local representing the Water Works employees.

The two sides recently began meeting, and Roche has pointed out that no fewer than four people were sitting across the table from him at the past two sessions. In addition to the attorney the aldermen agreed to hire, at a rate of $175 an hour, there was Water Works head David Paris, the human resources director and the deputy city solicitor - all people, Roche pointed out, at the top of the city's pay grade.

"It's a waste of money big time, and the people in City Hall, they're always crying poor man," he said.

No doubt, Roche wouldn't be so upset were it not for the raw deal he feels is being offered: a fourfold increase in health insurance premiums - from 5 to 20 percent - with just a half-percent raise. At least the paraprofessionals and other district employees are being offered tax cap-based raises of 2.17 percent, Roche said.

What's more, Roche says, the city's hired attorney has repeatedly said he has to run things by Mayor Gatsas, "like it was a one-person show at City Hall."

Water Works is technically an independent entity, with its own overseeing commission, on which the mayor sits.

But the notion that the mayor may be calling the shots will likely not sit well with some of the aldermen. Look for them to raise the issue at what will surely be an eventful meeting next week.

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The main event at Tuesday's meeting will likely by the controversial ambulance contract. But there will probably be plenty of other early fireworks, seeing as how it will be the only meeting in the month. At least that's been the custom.

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It being the end of the school year, much of Monday's school board meeting was taken up by the recognition of students and presentations. Of course, one employee is having his own graduation of sorts. It was Brennan's last full board meeting.

Board Vice Chairman Dave Gelinas took time out to mark the occasion: "We hired you on as superintendent and you fulfilled your contract, but you also gave us your friendship. You leave us as a former superintendent, but not as a former friend."

Here's seconding that motion. .

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


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