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April 30. 2013 11:09PM

Common core education talk draws opponents in Manchester

MANCHESTER - Opponents of Common Core will get to air their concerns about the new statewide education standards at a city school board committee meeting later this month.

The chair of the Curriculum and Instruction Committee has agreed to put the topic on the agenda for its next meeting May 28.

The move comes a day after the full board approved a nearly $84,000 contract for a Boston-based company to train teachers in the elementary and middle schools in the Common Core standards, which will be implemented in the fall for English and math.

The Monday meeting was the first time the full board discussed the contract or the concerns raised about Common Core. The only two votes against the contract came from board members Art Beaudry, Ward 9, and Debra Gagnon Langton, Ward 2, who questioned the need to hire an outside firm and the expense of the contract. The company will be paid $6,500 a day.

"We have a superintendent for curriculum and instruction who makes $100,000 a year," Langton said, referring to Assistant Superintendent Michael Tursi, whose salary is $105,000. "With the kind of budgetary situation we're in, we're going to give $83,000 to someone?"

Several groups have opposed Common Core, which has been pushed by the Obama administration as a way to develop nationwide standards for student achievement.

A local activist, Deborah Olszta, has raised concerns about Common Core with city officials since early March.

"I've conjured up a bee's nest. They all ignored me except for my representative," Olszta said, referring to Beaudry. "The children, they're all guinea pigs. This has never been tried. It's one big experiment."

Beaudry said on Tuesday that he didn't necessarily agree with Olszta's viewpoint, but he said he had called on district officials to respond to the concerns. "Tursi has been skirting this issue for months now," he said.

Superintendent Thomas Brennan, Mayor Ted Gatsas and others at the meeting indicated they had also heard from Olstza.

"Any time you put a standard like Common Core out there, you hear from people throughout the country, people who don't approve of it," Brennan said. "Every time a new math program has been introduced you get warnings the sky is going to fall."

Gatsas said he raised the issue with principals whom he respected.

"They assured me this is the right thing to do for students in Manchester," he said. "Who better to know than the principals in these schools?"

The proposed contract for "Common Core State Standards Alignment" was first publicly discussed two weeks ago at a sparsely attended Curriculum and Instruction Committee meeting April 17.

The meeting was held at Northwest Elementary, before a redistricting forum.

According to a document presented to the committee, three companies had responded to a request for proposals for the contract. Student Focused Educational Consulting bid $31,600; Pearson bid $270,000; and the Public Consulting Group, based in Boston, bid $83,900.

Brennan and Tursi recommended PCG based in part on the "experience and expertise" the firm would bring to the district. The committee voted to support the recommendation.

The contract calls on the company to devise a plan for Common Core alignment in grades K-8 for math and language arts, and to conduct staff training over the summer. Beaudry, who was at the meeting last month, voted against the contract. "There was nobody vetting this out," he said.

While some conservatives have taken aim at Common Core, it's more recently drawn criticism from teacher unions.

On Tuesday, the president of the American Federation of Teachers called for a moratorium on Common Core assessment testing, arguing that teachers haven't had time to prepare for and create a curriculum around the standards.

As of last year, 45 states had adopted the Common Core standards for math and English, however,

Common Core repeal bills have been proposed in seven states.

Under the New Hampshire Department of Education's plan, school districts this fall must begin "instructional shifts" in math and English to meet the Common Core standards. Starting in the 2014 school year, assessment tests will be geared toward Common Core, in place of current the NECAP statewide testing system.

Olszta, the local activist, said she and others opposed to Common Core would appear before the curriculum committee later this month.

"Every student in the country is going to be doing same thing at same time. China can do this sort of thing, but in America, this is supposed to be an open and free-thinking society," she said, adding, "I homeschooled my children. I have a degree in education, and I know enough to know better."

Ward 1 school board member Sarah Ambrogi, chair of the curriculum committee, did not return a call for comment. Assistant Superintendent Tursi was unavailable for comment.

tsiefer@unionleader.com

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