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Paul Feely's City Hall: School committee grapples with 30-year-old problem

By PAUL FEELY
September 03. 2017 1:07AM


EVERYBODY OUT of the pool.

The school board's Building and Sites Committee discussed a memo last week from the city's Board of Assessors, notifying them that the residents at 46 Aurore Ave. have installed a pool, fence, swing and shed - all of which encroach on school property at 100 Aurora Ave., the current site of both the Green Acres and McLauglin schools.

"In reviewing school records, there appears to be no request for permission given to this homeowner to use school (city) land," the memo states. "Due to the liability concerns of the school district, it would be advisable to request the encroachments and private improvements be removed from this property."

One small problem with that plan. The "encroachments" - otherwise known as the pool, fence, shed, etc. - were put up 30 years ago.

"30 years ago?" asked At Large school board member Rich Girard. "I can't believe they didn't pick that up when they built McLaughlin."

The homeowner has been approached by the city and is aware of the issue, according to Karen DeFrancis, business administrator for the school district.

Committee members voted to ask city aldermen to have the solicitor's office send a letter offering to sell the land to the homeowner, or offer to enter into an indemnification agreement that allows them to stay status quo until the property is sold, at which time the improvements must be taken down.

"I have a hard time saying to someone who has been doing it for 30 years, now you have to take your pool down," said Girard.

"I think the likelihood of compliance without a big fight is low," said Sarah Ambrogi of Ward 1.

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As paving was being done on Elm Street last month, Public Works officials raised the idea of using different materials, or different colors, on downtown crosswalks to help make them more noticeable to motorists.

City Engineer Todd Connors said his department has identified two potential locations - the Elm Street crossings north of Mechanic and Amherst streets - he feels would be good candidates for a test run of these crosswalks, because they are not signalized intersections. Connors recommends testing material from a company called Transpo Industries, which puts out skid-resistant colored pavement marking that adheres to existing asphalt surfaces.

Connors recommends using a yellow crosswalk material for a possible test. The matter goes before the Aldermanic Committee on Public Safety, Health and Traffic this Tuesday at 6:15 p.m.

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Mayoral candidate Joyce Craig last week announced the hiring of three organizers for her campaign - Blake Tyler, Steve Muzzey and Cayla Eck.

"I'm proud of the work our campaign has done to talk to voters early and have conversations about the direction we want for Manchester," said Craig in a statement. "Residents are telling us it's time for a change at City Hall, and we're working hard to earn every vote."

Tyler is a graduate of Central High School and worked previously as an organizer in the Nashua area for the New Hampshire Democratic Coordinated Campaign in 2016.

Muzzey is a Concord native and graduate of the University of New Hampshire, who last worked as an organizer for Kevin Cavanaugh's State Senate special election campaign and managed Tom Sherman's campaign for State Senate in 2016.

Eck is from Keene and a graduate of Tulane University. She has previously worked in the special education department at Keene Middle School, and was an organizing fellow on the New Hampshire Democratic Coordinated Campaign in 2016.

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When civil rights groups gathered outside City Hall earlier this month to announce that a Right-to-Know request seeking information from the Manchester School District on efforts to "achieve equity" in Queen City schools had been filed, the leadership team for the city's teachers union was right there with them.

The request, filed with Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bolgen Vargas, seeks information related to progress on the implementation of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) Resolution Agreement Work Plan, related to a resolution agreement city school officials signed with the federal Office of Civil Rights in 2014.

Manchester Education Association (MEA) President Sue Hannan said the union supports the Right-to-Know request, and called for more "transparent communication" with school district leaders.

"It is important that the citizens, including our students, know that we take equity seriously," said Hannan. "Our students are speaking up about the inequities that they face each and every day and are asking all of us to assist them in creating an educational system that is fair and equitable for all."

Ahead of Tuesday's start of classes at city schools, Hannan said a districtwide workshop for all teachers, administrators, directors, coordinators, and support staff was held last Thursday, focusing on Equity Literacy. All members of the school board and city aldermen were also invited to attend.

Hannan said MEA leadership spent multiple days over the summer organizing the workshop, which was presented in all 22 schools across the city simultaneously.

"Equity Literacy focuses on removing the roadblocks and barriers that students have to face daily preventing them from accessing all opportunities in receiving a fair and equitable education," said Hannan. "Some of these barriers include issues with race, ethnicity, gender identification, special education, poverty, social-emotional issues, sexual orientation, trauma, language barriers, and the impact resulting from the opioid crisis."

The workshop will be followed by a series of webinars, readings, workshops and discussions throughout the year and coming years to continue the education and understandings of the staff, Hannan said.

Hannan said MEA sent five members to the Montgomery Institute in Maryland last year, and the workshop grew out of the action plan they brought back with them. The idea was presented to Vargas and district officials last year for approval.

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Another effort to eliminate taxpayer-funded health care benefits for elected school board members has failed.

The latest attempt came when At Large school committeeman Rich Girard called for a vote to eliminate benefits for the next school board, after members are sworn in come January, following the general election.

"It keeps coming back over and over and over again, the question of whether or not the members of this board - who I don't consider employees, we're elected officials and if we are employees we are part time - should get the health insurance benefits that we don't even give to our own part-time employees," said Girard. "I won't belabor the point. I'll just ask for a roll call vote on whether or not this board should eliminate taxpayer-funded health insurance benefits beginning with the next board."

"I have always voted against members getting the benefits or I have abstained on one occasion, but I have been thinking about this since the last vote and I have actually changed my mind," said Ross Terrio of Ward 7. "I think one possible solution is we get the stipend and some people get the health and/or dental benefit. I think a reasonable solution is that you can get one or the other, you can get the stipend or the benefits, but not both."

Terrio said the reason he changed his mind has to do with time spent on district business by board members.

"Dr. Avard, Committee Member Desrochers and I are on the negotiations committee," said Terrio. "I know Dr. Avard invests huge amount of time and expertise in negotiating contracts. It got me thinking that the health care benefits and the dental benefits, and I'll say for the sake of disclosure I get them through my work so I don't need them, but I think for the people who don't get them or can't afford them through their work it is a fair compensation for the amount of work that people put into this board."

"I don't think anyone disputes the fact that everyone who sits on this board utilizes an immense amount of their own personal time," said Lisa Freeman of Ward 5. "That's what public service is about. I do know that Dr. Avard is instrumental in the contract negotiations, and he has been for the past several years. ... But what I don't agree with is the fact that some of us on this board don't take the health care benefits, but are those savings realized for our individual wards? I would say no."

On a roll call vote, board members Girard, Freeman, Art Beaudry, Deb Langton, and Mayor Ted Gatsas voted in favor of eliminating the benefits, while Terrio, Erika Connors, John Avard, Katie Desrochers, Connie Van Houten, Sarah Ambrogi, Mary Georges, Leslie Want, Dan Bergeron, and Nancy Tessier voted against the motion.

A reminder for Ward 6 voters - last month the Board of Mayor and Aldermen accepted a request from Ward 6 selectmen that all voting activities take place at the Henry J. McLaughlin Middle School. Polling location change notices have been mailed to the addresses of all registered voters in Ward 6.

Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the Union Leader and Sunday News. He may be reached at pfeely@unionleader.com.


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