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In debate, Manchester mayoral candidates square off on school construction priorities

New Hampshire Union Leader

October 16. 2017 10:09AM
Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas and challenger Joyce Craig debate on Jack Heath's New Hampshire Today program on WGIR-AM Monday morning. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER — Mayor Ted Gatsas said his challenger is hurting the perception of Manchester schools by listing their shortcomings, but Joyce Craig said poor student scores in reading and math are real problems and can be addressed by changing priorities.

The testy exchange was one of several to take place when the two candidate for mayor met Monday for the first of four scheduled debates. They appeared on WGIR-AM's "New Hampshire Today" with Jack Heath.
 The debate touched on the opioid crisis, taxes and Manchester schools.

The two are next scheduled to meet at a Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce breakfast forum on Oct. 25.

Gatsas said the city has a great educational system and points to the STEAM Ahead program at Manchester High School West, and Junior STEAM Ahead in all city elementary schools.

But Craig said the city is falling short: only 29 percent of third-graders read at grade level, only 20 percent of eighth-graders are proficient in math, and West High School has the second highest dropout rate in the state.

Gatsas said Craig shouldn't bring up the statistics, which he said amount to rhetoric and come from state Common Core-linked testing.

"It's about perception," Gatsas said. "If you're the mayor of this city, you want the perception to be right in this community. And those are statements the mayor would never make about his community."

Craig's response: "This is real." Several times, she said schools could be improved by reprioritizing spending.

Another issue dealt with whether administrators will get air conditioning when they move to empty space in the third floor of West High School.

Gatsas said the schools will save $100,000 a year in the move. But Craig said Gatsas wants to spend $1 million to retrofit the space to upgrade electricity and heating and provide air conditioning. The money would be better spent on students, she said.
"If the third floor was fine for students for their classes, why is it not fine for the administration?" Craig said.

The election is a rematch from two years ago, when Gatsas squeaked past Craig with a 64-vote margin.

As the incumbent, Gatsas portrays the city as vibrant and on the move under his eight years as mayor. Craig has said it's an issue about management: streets have potholes, elementary schools lack math textbooks and city schools lost millions when neighboring towns pulled their children from high schools.

In other highlights:

• Craig faulted Gatsas for not riding along with police or fire to experience the drug epidemic firsthand. "Rather than watching (the television show) Drug Inc., he should head out on a ride along with police and fire to see what's really happening," she said. Gatsas said the ride-alongs involving joking and laughing with police and fire officers, and he doesn't know what advice he could give them. Gatsas said "Joyce, there you go again," to dismiss her claims that Gatsas is late in addressing the opioid crisis.

• Craig questioned one of Gatsas' top education accomplishments: making the Manchester School of Technology a comprehensive four-year high school. He did so when MST enrollment was declining and Manchester's other three high schools lacked textbooks. MST is fabulous, Craig said, but she'd like to see small classes and high tech in all the schools. Gatsas noted the state spent most of the money to upgrade MST. He called it "the most hidden gem in the entire city of Manchester."

• Gatsas faulted Craig for a years-old memo that lists constituent ideas for raising revenue, including sales taxes, rental taxes and other "great ideas." "I would never put my name to any memo that would talk about sales taxes in the city of Manchester. That's just wrong governing," Gatsas said. Craig did not condone the suggestions, she said. It is not motivational, she said, to ask someone for suggestions and then dismiss them as bad ideas.

• Both said they do not agree with Aldermanic candidate Bob O'Sullivan's proposal to jail and treat people who overdose on drugs. Both agreed with Police Chief Nick Willard's policy to not ask people about their immigration status. Gatsas said he will vote for Keno, Craig said she won't.

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