Public, school community outlines wish list for next superintendent

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Dr. Martin Handler, left, and Dr.John Gratto, consultants with the Omaha, Neb. firm of McPherson & Jacobson that the Manchester Board of School Committee hired to find candidates for the superintendent’s job, conducted forums Tuesday to find out what school staff and residents think the superintendent should have for qualifications and what that person will be confronting as the head of the largest urban school district in the state. Photo/Pat Grossmith

MANCHESTER, NH — The number one issue confronting the next Superintendent of the Manchester School District is the underfunding of the school system, residents said in answer to a survey conducted by a consulting group in charge of finding potential candidates to replace outgoing Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas.

Whoever accepts the job, residents said, should be politically savvy, have great communication skills and be able to easily navigate between the Manchester Board of School Committee, which sets school policy, and the Manchester Board of Aldermen, which sets the budget.

About three dozen people attended five separate superintendent search community forums held Tuesday in the auditorium at Manchester West High School.  Sessions were for principals and vice principals; support staff; parents; Manchester Proud, and the general public.

“Funding is the number-one issue we have heard over and over again,” said Dr. Martin Handler, a consultant with McPherson & Jacobson, LLC of Omaha, Neb. which the school board hired to conduct the search.

The district has the lowest per-pupil spending in the entire state, one resident said.

“It’s the lowest.  It’s rock bottom,” said Leslie Want, Ward 4 school representative. The problem stems, in part, from the state cutting funding and the city’s tax cap.

Another resident said the district has the highest number of kids per teacher out of all 200 school districts.  Poverty is another problem and a growing one as is evident by the 60 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches, according to school officials.

Handler said 40 percent of students are minorities; statewide the percentage of minorities is about 7 percent.  One resident said the district needs to recruit teachers of color.

Resident Jim O’Connell said there is a $40 million backlog in capital improvement projects.  

Mike Porter, who has two children in the school system, identified politics as one problem.  The aldermanic board looks down on the school board when both “actually are on the same level,” he said. They need to be more cooperative, Porter said.

Marcella Termini has three children, two at Green Acres and one who is homeschooled and has an IEP.  She said more classrooms need to include special education students so they can be educated in the least restrictive environment.

The survey asks four questions:

  • What makes your community a good place to live?
  • What makes the Manchester School District a good school district for students and staff?
  • What are the issues the new superintendent should be aware of if he or she comes into the district?
  • What skills, qualities and characteristics will the new superintendent need in order to be successful in the Manchester School District?

The positives about the city, which will be used to market the job to candidates, included its location – about an hour’s drive to the Seacoast, the mountains and Boston; the airport; culture; politics; business; restaurants; parks; flourishing technology; caring people, great hospitals.

The pluses about the school district included dedicated and caring teachers and administrators; a diverse student body; staff skilled with doing more with less; Manchester Proud, a critical and effective partner in improving schools;

Eight members of Manchester Proud, the community-based movement committed to championing student success and creating a shared vision for the city’s schools, attended the session specifically for them.

Members, which included architect Barry Brensinger, realtor Will Kanteres, Arthur Sullivan of Brady-Sullivan, Pawn Nitichan, executive director of City Year, and Cathy Cook, among others, had a long list of qualities and characteristics they believe the next superintendent should possess.

They included a commitment to stay for five years or more; being a visionary to lead the district into the future; focused and thick-skinned;  a proven track record with the ability to create teams and teamwork; an innovator; a person of character and credibility; possess political finesse to work with many stakeholders in a respectful way.  And the superintendent also has to be a people person.

Those attending the public session said the superintendent needs to be politically savvy and personally resilient; speak the truth with everyone; have experience in a similar sized urban school district; experience as a teacher and principal; knowledge about curriculum and also with CEO qualities; someone who is multi-lingual; empathetic with working with challenging population in schools.

Arthur Beaudry, vice chairman of the BOSC and who attended all 10 sessions over two days, said nothing that was said came as a surprise to him.

“We have the candidate working already for us,” he said.  “Unfortunately, he’s leaving.”

The survey is being posted for two weeks, beginning Wednesday, March 20, on the school district’s website for anyone who was unable to attend the forums and wants to express an opinion.

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Pat Grossmith

Pat Grossmith is a freelance reporter.