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May 04. 2013 8:45PM

Gatsas wishes 'all the best' to teacher contract negotiators

THERE CAME a moment at Monday's momentous school board meeting when Ward 10 board member John Avard said more money was needed to pay the attorney handling negotiations with the teachers union.

How much money are we talking about? Mayor Ted Gatsas asked. Avard, who chairs the negotiations committee, hesitated to reply. It was deja vu all over again.

Back in November, when the board first opted to handle negotiations on its own, effectively sidelining Gatsas, the mayor insisted on a dollar figure for how much would be set aside to pay the attorney handling the contact talks. Avard resisted having the discussion in public; doing so, the argument went, would give the unions an advantage.

In the end, it was agreed that $20,000 would be set aside for negotiations. Of course, at $175 an hour, that didn't go very far, thus prompting Avard's request on Monday. And in the end, another $20,000 was allocated.

Still, Gatsas seemed none too happy about it.

"I would suggest letting Mr. Upton know we've got a ceiling involved," he said, referring to the district's lead attorney.

On Thursday, Gatsas told me he didn't place much stock in the notion that publicly discussing the legal budget was poor strategy.

"That's coming from people who have never negotiated with a union," he said.

Gatsas, of course, is an old hand at such tasks. Was he concerned that the school board committee wasn't up to the task?

"I'm not at the table. I can't say with confidence or not. I'm not sitting there to see the body language and the expressions of the people," he said, explaining that such things are "very important."

Still, he added, "I wish them all the best."

The negotiations committee can take that for what it's worth.

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The teacher contract couldn't have higher stakes in Gatsas' view. By his reckoning, concessions on health care could free up more than $4 million in next year's budget, enough to eliminate the teacher shortage and then some.

As might be expected, Avard and other members of negotiations committee have been tight-lipped about the talks, except to say they're making progress and everyone's still at the table.

But at Monday's meeting of the joint education committee, Ward 1 school board member Sarah Ambrogi, a member of the negotiations committee, did throw a little cold water on the figure Gatsas has offered, some $4.6 million in possible health care savings.

"It's nothing near that," she said. "There's a number of scenarios being played out where there would definitely be substantial net savings, but if you were transitioning benefits, you might not realize full savings in the first fiscal year."

Of course, the biggest news out of Monday's school board meeting was that it would seek a legal injunction to block Hooksett from letting its high school students leave the district.

This, along with the aforementioned doubling of the negotiator budget, is sure to generate more billable hours for the district's lawyers.

As has been reported, the district is already running a serious deficit in its legal budget, to the tune of $250,000, thanks in large part to investigations of a few wayward employees.

In seeking more money for the negotiator, Avard told the school board that he was assured by the district's business administrator that the money was there. "In speaking to Karen DeFrancis, she was confident the funds were there to see us to the end," he said.

How exactly? DeFrancis never got back to me on this.

Mayor Gatsas cleared up a little mystery that has preoccupied members of the joint education committee of late. Does the school board's list of capital projects even make it over to the Community Improvement Program (CIP), which is overseen by the city's Planning and Community Development Department and controlled by the mayor and aldermen?

The question was raised by the revelation a few weeks ago that the track at Livingston Park was in such a state of disrepair that it could no longer be used for school track meets.

"It seems to me there's a communication issue," Ward 9 Alderman Barbara Shaw told the committee. "I believe the school district submitted a CIP list, then we were told planning doesn't have it."

No, Gatsas told me, the school's CIP list does go to the planning department. And Gatsas, who chairs both the aldermanic and school boards, should know. He's aware that the school board has a long wish list of building and maintenance projects. The one it approved in January had more than 60 items, from the Central High track to replacing bathroom doors.

"I'm well aware, I know the issues," he said.

But there are "needs and wants," as the mayor is fond of saying.

As far as his proposed 2014 CIP budget, the only thing from the school CIP list that made the cut was a $3 million bond for energy efficiency upgrades. Gatsas is a strong proponent of the bond because the first phase of the upgrades ended up saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in utility costs.

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The energy bond may be larger, but it's the mayor's proposed $2.8 million bond for school technology upgrades that has encountered the most scrutiny and resistance.

When the aldermen meet on Tuesday, the question of the night will be whether it will win the requisite 10 out of 14 votes for final authorization.

Ward 1 Alderman Joyce Craig, typically a strong advocate for increased school investment, has led the opposition. In response to concerns she's raised about how and when new computers and other devices would be purchased, district officials have detailed their plan and made some revisions.

So, are her concerns allayed?

"I'm going to see how the conversation goes (on Tuesday)," she said. "I don't know how I'll vote."

The suspense continues!

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Through all the school district's trials and tribulations, at-large school board member Kathy Staub is pressing ahead with her main priority: the crafting of a long-range plan for the school system.

Staub wants to expand the Special Committee on Strategic Planning by adding five "stakeholders" - teachers, parents, administrators - who would join the five school board members on the panel.

"Committee members will work with the incoming superintendent to analyze the forthcoming report on the audit conducted in March, plan and host community events to gather input from stakeholders for vision and mission statements, and deliver a fully developed plan to the Manchester school board in November of 2013," Staub said in a news release.

Those interested in joining can send an email to kathystaub@yahoo.com..

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Wait, what's this about an audit?

You may recall back in December the school board allocated $40,000 for an Iowa-based company, Curriculum Management Systems, to conduct an audit of the district. Its report is going to be ready within the next couple of weeks, and one suspects it won't be glowing.

And for those who are tired of the "doom and gloom" about the schools, the timing isn't great. Word is the state Department of Education will be issuing its own highly critical report on the city school system in a couple of weeks.

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Ted Siefer may be reached at tsiefer@unionleader.com. Follow him on Twitter @tbsreporter.


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