2/14/2013 - Education issues have made for a flurry of headlines in Manchester this school year. But have the education controversies — overcrowding, layoffs, underfunding, test scores — created enough ammo for someone to make a serious challenge against Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas in city elections later this year?
Gatsas won easily in his first two elections for mayor. He has widespread name recognition and an imposing political network. He also has the potential to raise lots of campaign money. Everyone seems to agree it’s not going to be easy to mount a serious challenge.
The past six months have been filled with controversy related to the city’s school system. Hooksett and Candia, which send most of their high school students to Manchester, are threatening to pull out due to chronic overcrowding issues, marked by class sizes exceeding 40 students at the beginning of the school year. Test scores are down. Funding has been an issue.
Alderman Patrick Arnold, a Democrat, has announced he will challenge the mayor, who many had thought would have run for governor this past November.
“Mayor Gatsas, anyone will find him a very formidable opponent,” said Jerome Duval, a former alderman and current chairman of the city’s Charter Commission. “His roots go back decades in Manchester. ... I would think it would be an uphill battle for any candidate to defeat an incumbent. That’s not to say it can’t be done. … There have been some surprise defeats. Mayor [Bob Baines] comes to mind. That was absolutely an upset. It can be done.”
Even if the education issue continues to pick up steam, candidates can’t run one-issue campaigns. Duval said former Mayor Ray Wieczorek was confronted with essentially the same situation — facing considerable opposition from the education community — but was still able to easily win re-election in consecutive races.
“I think whenever there is heightened city interest in any issue it creates a bit of a stir and creates possible talking points,” Duval said. “I think the challenge for any rival of an incumbent mayor, or any incumbent mayor too, is really to try to take that and expand interest from that single issue.”
To Duval, the big question is what will education issues translate into in terms of voter turnout? Duval said turnout in Manchester is often disappointingly low.
“Initially, there is a lot of passion for any particular issue, but once you get to the polls, it is a hard thing to keep it going,” Duval said. “That’s the game. … That’s where the battle is won.”
Richard Girard, host of Girard at Large on 90.7 WLMW, said he thinks the educational issues are only enhancing Gatsas’ bid.
“I think people are fed up that the only way to improve education is to spend more money, and to pay teachers higher salaries,” Girard said. “They did it in this town for more than a decade and they didn’t get what they paid for. I think the public appreciates Mayor Ted Gatsas’ emphasis on changing how things are done.”
Plus, Girard said he thinks people understand the city has faced a tough budget situation. They also appreciate that Gatsas has stood by the spending cap.
“That’s appreciated by taxpayers who have no sympathy for the teachers’ union for not making concessions on health care that would have saved almost all their jobs,” Girard said.
Still, Duval said he thought there was a perception in the community that the relationship between the mayor and the education community was divisive.
“To that extent, I think it’s hurt him,” Duval said. “I think most think he has not been an advocate for good, quality education and his relationship with teachers has been damaged, and that’s a lost opportunity. ... Something has been lost there.”
Gatsas will likely have trouble persuading education advocates to vote for him, Duval said.
But Girard figured those people weren’t going to vote for Gatsas anyway. Girard said the whole controversy has pushed a group of voters who weren’t ever going to vote for Gatsas out onto the fringe.
“They’re demanding that more money be spent and higher taxes levied to pay for it, and I think they’ve alienated themselves from voters,” Girard said.
Duval is a real estate agent in Manchester and is concerned with how the education issues in Manchester could impact property values.
“Buyers call me and say, ‘Don’t show me homes in Manchester,’” Duval said. “I say, ‘Why?’ And they say, ‘Because the education system is not doing well.’ That’s a problem, not just for parents of children in the system.”