Voters in Manchester will cast their ballots Tuesday in the hard-fought race for mayor between three-term incumbent Ted Gatsas and Alderwoman Joyce Craig. The campaign has touched on several big issues, including crime in the city and the heroin epidemic.
But perhaps the issue that has loomed largest is education, with the two candidates offering very different views of the challenges facing the state’s largest school district.
Those clashing visions have been on display in the series of public forums in which city residents have sounded off about their concerns. The forums have been well attended, and the state of Manchester’s public schools has been a running theme. Residents have lamented crowded classes and missing text books; and — as one man said at a recent forum — the flight of young professionals away from the city, often in search of better schools.
At a forum last month at Parker Varney Elementary School, Gatsas sounded frustrated with the grief he was hearing. And he pointed to a banner hanging behind him that declared the school the winner of the 2015 state “Excellence in Education” award — meant to acknowledge its innovative programs.
“And we have the school right here in our neighborhood, and in our city, the best school in New Hampshire," Gatsas said.
For both Gatsas, a Republican, and Craig, a Democrat, education is an issue close to their hearts. Both are graduates of the city’s public schools — and both attribute their success in life at least in part to the teachers they had.
But there is no clearer dividing line between the candidates than how they now perceive the school system. Where Gatsas trumpets the accolades bestowed on specific schools and programs, Craig sees persistent and systemic problems.
And, as Craig explained at her campaign headquarters recently, she has an inside perspective: she has three children attending city schools.
“My two kids who are at Central -- my son who is a senior still doesn't have a science text book," Craig said. "My daughter, a junior, didn’t have a math text book and received it a couple weeks ago. My other daughter at Hillside, in the 6th grade, was in a class of 32 for her math class. So that’s just my family, and I know these things are happening throughout the city.”
Craig’s harshest line of criticism against Gatsas concerns the exodus of tuition-paying high school students from the neighboring towns of Hooksett and Candia. Hooksett severed its contract with Manchester a couple years ago largely over concerns about class sizes, and Craig faults Gatsas not doing enough to repair the relationship.
For Craig, restoring ties with the sending towns is also key to funding improvements in the schools: according to her calculations, the district has lost $1 million in annual tuition revenue from the departed students.
Gatsas insists parents in Hooksett will come around, especially as they take note of some of the initiatives he’s pushed. Central to Gatsas’ pitch on education are public-private initiatives like STEAM Ahead, in which students at West High School are able to earn early college credit. He also points to his support for City Year, which provides mentors for at-risk students.
“We were instrumental in starting City Year, in the 3rd grade in four schools, and we're now at eight schools," Gatsas said in an interview. "In the first three years, I raised about $300,000 from the private sector. So education is going in the right direction.”
Gatsas, who made his fortune as the head of a staffing company, has used his connections to the business community to help fund many of these programs. And this ties into another central point he makes: He is committed to limiting the use of taxpayer dollars and upholding the tax cap, a budgetary constraint that has proven popular with voters.
But judging from the comments at the voter forums, not all parents share Gatsas’ view. Jim O’Connell is the head the parents group at Hillside Middle School and the president of Citizens for Manchester Schools. And he’s also a something of a thorn in the side of the mayor.
"The mayor said at one of the mayoral debates recently that he was the chief cheerleader for the city," O'Connell said. "And i think that’s correct, he ought to be the chief cheerleader for the city. I think the problem with Mayor Gatsas is he thinks that’s his only job. His job is to be a leader for the city, and to see the problems for where they are, propose solutions, and lead people forward, and that he has singularly failed to do.”
Assessing a large, diverse school system like Manchester’s isn’t easy, of course. And the district’s demographics, with large numbers of low-income students and non-English speakers, makes it difficult to compare the city’s schools to the rest of the state’s.
But for all the political rhetoric, there have been signs of progress in the district. Class sizes are down from where they were a few years ago. And students scored higher than the state average on Advanced Placement exams last spring.
Chris Stewart, a school board member who recently stepped down when he moved out of his ward, said he was optimistic about where the school system was headed.
“It is true for every two step forward we tend to take one back," Stewart said. "But I would argue that is true of many districts as we all wrestle with what does a 21st century American public education system look like.”
How voters cast their ballots on Tuesday in Manchester may in large part hinge on whether they view the education glass as half full or half empty.