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Ted Siefer's City Hall: Drivers education to science, meeting all about the kids

August 30. 2014 10:38PM

THE BOARD of School Committee had one of those meetings last week, the kind that stretches past midnight and that, in this case, featured a protracted debate about hiking the tuition for drivers ed by $50 (no, was the conclusion), among many other things.

This isn't to say, however, that the board didn't deal with some substantial matters, the biggest of which was discussed behind closed doors. Word is, yet another tentative deal has been reached on a teacher contract. Details are being kept under wraps until the membership of the teachers union, the Manchester Education Association, has a chance to review it.

Of course, we have been here before. A tentative agreement between the MEA's leadership and the district administration was announced in May, but was rejected by the union's rank and file. The big question is whether the latest proposal strikes the right balance between hiking the teachers' single-digit health insurance contribution rates and boosting salaries.

The teachers have been working without a contract since last fall.

Maybe the start of the new school year on Tuesday will prove auspicious. Do it for the kids, right?

The fact that much of last Monday's meeting was devoted to lengthy presentations and rambling debates could also be taken as a sign of progress.

Superintendent Debra Livingston (UNION LEADER FILE)

There was none of the hyperventilating that has preceded the start of previous school years, over the prospect of overcrowded classes and desk and textbook shortages.

Superintendent Debra Livingston and her deputy Dave Ryan assured the board they were prepared.

"There are nine classrooms at the elementary schools that we're watching. They're just over the number (of students)," Livingston said, referring to the 25-student limit set by the state. "We also don't know at this point which students will be 'no-shows.'"

Livingston has a pretty good tool in her belt to deal with the notoriously chaotic opening days of the school year - the authority to hire teachers on short notice to deal with crowding.

Ryan was more sanguine concerning the middle and high schools. "At all eight secondary schools, the principals have checked in with me, and they're very comfortable with where they're at," he said.

Mayor Ted Gatsas made it clear at the meeting that he prefers to call the latest venture to get kids excited about careers in the sciences, engineering and math (and arts) Junior STEAM Ahead, not STEAM Ahead, Junior. Noted. However, the presentation that followed from internationally renowned inventor Dean Kamen raised the question whether there was anything junior about it.

You see, the all-expenses-paid field trip for district fourth-graders to the SEE Science Center that you may have heard about is just the beginning. Kamen wants the trip to be an entry point for students to the FIRST Lego League, an involvement facilitated in the classroom and running the entire school year.

Over the coming school year, three elementary schools would be involved; four more would join the next year, and in the third year, all of the district's fourth graders would participate. In other words, the Lego building competition could become a central component of the fourth grade science curriculum.

The FIRST Lego and Robotics programs are now an international phenomenon, involving hundreds of thousands of students, and Kamen said the SEE center, where it all began, should be regarded as a hall of fame like Manchester's Cooperstown, as he put it.

But Kamen said it was a shame that many city students have never set foot in the place.

"We will show this isn't just a sport for white kids or rich kids," he said. "We're very excited we're doing this in our home city of Manchester."

He added, "If I look around this country ... I find places where there is high tech, we find the economy is doing fantastically well. It's not a job problem; it's a skills problem, kids not having the skills."

Gatsas made his enthusiasm clear. "I'm as excited about his program as I was about City Year," he said. "If we can get students at a young age, they're going to move along on their own." Not to throw "Kragle" into the mix (Lego movie fans may appreciate the reference), but a couple of school board members raised concerns that fourth-grade teachers - who will have plenty on their plates this year with the rollout of new academic standards - weren't sufficiently consulted.

The board voted to support the plan, with the caveat that fourth-grade teachers and principals be given a chance to provide their input.

An odd coalition has emerged since the announcement that Bronstein Park would be closed to the public during school hours in response to the recent spike in overdoses linked to "spice." It may come as no surprise that Alderman-At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur has decried the move as heavy-handed on the part of the mayor and the police chief.

But Ward 6 Alderman Garth Corriveau, who like Levasseur practices law, has also waded into the fray, raising concerns that closure may violate civil liberties. Corriveau is on the Lands and Buildings Committee, and at his urging a special meeting has been called on Wednesday.

It should be interesting, with the mayor, parks chief, solicitor and police chief all on the invite list. Levasseur, in his quest to show that the partial park closure is illegal, even managed to dig up the original deed for the park, written by hand and signed Oct. 25, 1852. And no, there's no mention of "Smacked!"

Ted Siefer is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at and followed on Twitter @tbsreporter.

New Hampshire Politics Political columns City Hall Manchester

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