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November 22. 2014 6:06PM

Ted Siefer's City Hall: Driver's ed program had been run into the ditch


THE SCHOOL board on Monday will finally get to review the contract with the company that has taken over the district's driver education program - the company that started its first class about a week ago.

To say it's been a bumpy road for the drivers ed. program is both a cheesy metaphor and an understatement. In a few short months, the school board went from voting to increase the tuition for the program by around 10 percent to last month pulling the plug all together and inking an agreement with Granite State Driving School to take over the program.

What's been going on? I decided to file a right-to-know request with the district for communications concerning the driver's ed. program over the past few months, and while I question whether it's a complete record, the documents do provide a somewhat clearer picture of the disarray that prompted the rapid changes.

The beginning of the end for the program came in the first week of October, after Business Administrator Karen DeFrancis wrote an email to Mike Dubisz, then the driver's ed. director, informing him that his final payroll submissions had resulted in an $8,392 deficit for the summer, bringing the deficit for the year to $14,553. (This was on top of the roughly $180,000 in negative balances already posted by the program over the past few years.)

At the beginning of the summer, Dubisz, when he was still insisting to the board that he had a plan to right the ship, had projected the program would finish the summer session with a $2,300 surplus.

In her email, DeFrancis asked Dubisz if he intended to be at the school board meeting the next week.

Dubisz wouldn't attend that fateful meeting, when Assistant Superintendent Dave Ryan recommended suspending the driver's ed program and conducting an audit, and he informed the board that Dubisz was no longer the director.

Then the administrators scrambled to refund the money to students who had already signed up for the November course while trying to line up a deal with a driving school to take over the program.

Several complaints came in from parents. One said in an email that her son, who had saved money from a summer job to pay the driver's ed tuition, only received a partial refund. When he complained, she said she was told by administrators that a teacher had paid him the difference - in cash.

"I think that is a horrible way to do business," the parent wrote.

As for the audit, the administrators supplied the accounting firm with a 13-point list of areas to examine, focusing in large part on reconciling billed hours of instruction with the time that was logged in records.

And, of course, the audit is not free. The contract with the firm, Plodzik & Sanderson, will cost the district between $15,000 and $25,000, with any additional time required billed at $65-$200 an hour, "depending on the expertise required."

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In the I-told-you-so department, Ward 5 Alderman Ed Osborne doesn't like the latest tentative deal to sell the old Chestnut Street police station building. Not one bit.

"It's the biggest blunder in Manchester since I've been an alderman, and that's a long time," Osborne said in a voicemail he left not long after the aldermen voted on the deal.

Osborne was opposed to putting the building on the market in the first place more than two years ago, believing the city was better off using it for its own purposes.

Since then, three deals have fallen through, while the city has dealt with upkeep costs. It was first suggested that the building could fetch close to $2 million; the latest offer is for $749,000 - and now a chunk of the adjacent fire station lot is part of the deal.

It's a measure of how agitated Osborne is about the issue that he dropped a dime even though health issues have prevented him from attending meetings of late, including the one on Tuesday when the aldermen discussed and voted on the agreement.

But he wanted to give his two cents. And then some.

He said it was time to hold a referendum on the building. "Let the people decide. This belongs to them, not us - and we can't seem to be able to give it away," he said.

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Roll out the red carpet: It's time to name the winners of the Bright Ideas Award - given to city employees who come up with innovative notions on how to improve government efficiency and service. This year's winners are - drum roll please - Public Works officials Todd Connors and Chris Proulx.

In their case, the name of the award is especially apt: Deputy Public Works Director Tim Clougherty credits the pair with potentially saving the city millions of dollars when it converts its street lights to the more efficient LED bulbs.

Connors and Proulx, Clougherty wrote in an email to the board, were instrumental in getting the city to intervene with state regulators before they agreed to an LED rate structure proposed by PSNH.

In the end, the regulators OK'd rate structure that was more favorable to the city, which Clougherty estimated would save the city $500,000 a year - $11.3 million over 20 years.

The Bright Ideas prize carries a more modest reward: $500 and a certificate from the mayor, which will likely be bestowed on Connors and Proulx at the next aldermen's meeting.

Ted Siefer is the City Hall reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at and followed on Twitter @tbsreporter.

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