WHEN THE LIST of candidates in the 2019 Manchester municipal primary election was finalized back in July, one name was noticeably missing.
At-large Board of School Committee member Rich Girard, after playing an active role in city politics and governance for many years, is giving up his seat on the board to focus more on family and his business as an investment adviser.
Gene Martin, Jim O’Connell, Joseph Lachance and Lara Quiroga are candidates for the two at-large seats on the school board this November.
Girard says the second of his five children has just started college, another is in her senior year and his third- and second-graders are getting to “that age,” and not being available to his family “not only burdens me, it burdens them,” especially his wife who has “picked up the slack.”
“It was a very difficult decision to make,” said Girard, who sat down last week with the Union Leader to run down the reasons behind that decision. “I have a knot in my stomach when I look at who’s on the ballot to replace me, and that makes it difficult, because I believe I would have won reelection, and that point of view that I’ve been fortunate to represent on the board won’t be there. I guess what it boiled down to is if I’m going to save the world, I have to take care of my own backyard, and I guess at this point, for me, means my family and my business.”
Girard, who turned 50 last week, said he enjoys being on the school board.
“I support public education, but I recognize that education is changing, and one of my great frustrations is the district isn’t,” Girard said. “There are institutional forces there — the bureaucracy on one hand, the unions on the other — that simply don’t want it to change. And as someone who has often advocated for changes, and choices, and parental rights, I am often made the villain, when nothing really could be further from the truth. Manchester can compete with the best of them, but it has to get out of its own way. I think the people in the bureaucracy now, the people brought in by Dr. (Bolgen) Vargas, and now Dr. (John) Goldhardt, I think they get it, but it’s like turning the proverbial battleship. It’s a slow process, and I think it’s too slow.”
Girard said politics was also a factor in his decision, but it was “pushing me in the opposite direction.”
“It was driving me to find a way to stay on the board,” Girard said. “Under Joyce Craig, the school board has become a political operation. For all her criticisms of Ted Gatsas and how he ran things, and whether or not he was a bully or whether or not he was a micromanager, she is 10 times worse and has conducted herself in a very deliberate political manner — that is the reason why Dr. Vargas left. I know that. For a fact.”
Girard pointed to a recent request from Mayor Craig to have Superintendent Goldhardt take over contract negotiations with city teachers. Girard chairs the district’s negotiations committee. Talks with the teachers union have failed to yield a new agreement over the past 18 months.
The mayor’s request failed by one vote.
“What she did with the negotiations committee is a perfect example of how she has operated throughout this whole term,” said Girard. “As one person whose counsel I value said to me, ‘We need you there because you don’t let her get away with things.’ I do feel like I’m walking away from a fight.”
Girard also pointed to a unanimous school board vote last week to accept a grant of $10,000 for Weston Elementary School from Burlington Coat Factory, which includes a legal agreement allowing the company the right to use the school’s intellectual property in any promotional materials it may develop.
Girard said objections from school officials over district images being used in a private company’s promotional materials was one reason why Ping4 CEO Jim Bender was asked to sign a memorandum of understanding before the company’s Safety Alerts for Education (SAFE) phone app was OK’d for use in Manchester.
“The mayor, on her own, decided the city needed a memorandum of understanding for the safe app, dragged Jim Bender through the mud for 18 months, and forces him to sign this thing,” said Girard. “Then we go and approve a $10,000 grant that literally, in every aspect, was 180 degrees out of phase with the contract we approved (Monday) night. In terms of fundraising, in terms of advertising, 180 degrees out of phase. The board can’t keep doing that. The board’s got to stand by its decisions.”
Girard also cited several exchanges between Craig and city aldermen.
“We voted not once but twice on whether or not there should be student representatives on the board,” Girard said. “You watched those votes, and what did you do, mayor? You not only supported the effort at the Board of Mayor and Aldermen to put the question on the ballot, you actually fibbed about what the school board did to create student voice. You didn’t tell the truth. This is what I mean by it’s a political operation.”
When asked for comment on Girard’s remarks about her, Craig said she disagreed with his conclusions.
“While I disagree with Committeeman Girard’s recall of events and the conclusions he has drawn, I want to thank him for his years of hard work on the Board of School Committee,” said Craig in a statement. “In the last two years, the Board of School Committee has accomplished many things focused on increasing student achievement. We have brought French classes back to middle school and adopted a new math curriculum. We were awarded the highly competitive $10.5 million GEAR UP Grant, implemented new workforce development programs and reduced elementary class sizes through redistricting. We also expanded the Leader in Me program to every school on the West Side and made one of the largest-ever investments in technology. Strong public schools are key to our city’s success, and I am committed to continuing to work together to help our students succeed.”
Girard said there are items he has spoken out about that are “going in the wrong direction” in the district, things he has opposed, such as iReady math, project-based learning and the Nellie Mae Grant.
“Sometimes I have been the only one to oppose them, and I’m happy to do that because if there isn’t someone willing to raise the question and at least get people to think about what they’re doing before they do it, then I think the old adage that an unstirred pot burns becomes applicable,” said Girard.
As for Girard, when asked if he might run for political office again in the future, he wouldn’t rule it out.
“I’ve never closed any door,” he said. “We’ll see what time and opportunity bring.”
A surprise move
School board Vice Chairman Art Beaudry surprised many last week when, just before entering nonpublic session, he announced he was removing Ward 11’s Katie Desrochers from the district’s negotiations committee and replacing her with Ward 2’s Kathleen Kelley Arnold.
Earlier this month, Desrochers said she agrees with Craig that “fresh ideas” are needed and supported the mayor’s request to hand the reins of the contract talks to Goldhardt.
“In my opinion, we failed to deliver a contract, despite some really hard work from the committee,” said Desrochers. “Teachers and all bargaining units deserve contracts. We need to get some fresh minds in with some fresh ideas to get this done. I think it takes courage to accept when you are unable to get a job done; and I believe we as a negotiations team are unable to get the teachers a contract, so it is time for us to step aside.”
Last week, Beaudry removed her from the negotiations team and replaced her with Arnold, who voted against Craig’s request.
“I’ve been thinking about the comments made by members of the committee for the past two weeks, particularly the comments made by the committeeman from Ward 11,” said Beaudry. “I have the utmost respect for the work the committeeman has put in negotiations, but using her own words, ‘it is time for us to step aside and let somebody else do this,’ I’m compelled to make a change on the committee. Committeeman Kelley Arnold has negotiated successful contracts in the past as a member of this board, and I believe she will be an asset moving forward.”
“I am outraged by what happened (Monday) night,” said Desrochers late last week. “Our teachers have not had a contract for two years, and it is harming this community. It is driving away jobs and families. The majority of members do not take this issue seriously and it is time to stop playing politics with our students.”