Next month, a primary election in Manchester will narrow an unusually crowded field of candidates seeking to unseat three-term mayor Ted Gatsas. The race has been roiled by Gatsas’s recent decision to nix a contract with the city’s teachers union. The move has enraged the educators, who have been working without a contract — and without raises — for the past two years, and it’s given new ammunition to the mayor’s rivals.
The importance of the teachers contract in the mayoral race was clear at last week’s Manchester school board meeting. Members of the city teachers union crowded City Hall plaza, chanting and waving signs, and then they filled the chamber to capacity. One by one, they lined up to address the school board, with Gatsas standing at the center podium. Maxine Mosely, a veteran teacher, posed a series of questions.
“Is this the kind of city government you want, is this the person you want in the mayor’s chair?” she asked. "You need to get up and register to vote and we need new leadership in the city of Manchester.”
The audience erupted into raucous cheers.
Of course, Gatsas is used to taking flak. The former state senate president is one of the state’s most prominent and battle-hardened Republican leaders. But this year, in his bid for a fourth term as mayor of the Queen City, Gatsas faces two formidable opponents -- and they’re hoping the teacher contract will prove to be his Waterloo.
Gatsas’ decision to veto the contract not only incensed the teachers, but aldermen and school board members who backed the deal by large margins. Later in the evening, school board board member John Avard made a motion.
“Through our unanimous vote in favor of this contract, we instructed you to go forward and represent our interest and total support of this agreement. Instead you represented the interest of your own political career,” Avard said. “In consideration your actions Mr. Gatsas, I move that this board vote no confidence in Theodore L. Gatsas as chairman of the Board of School Committee.”
The cheers crescendoed yet again, and the board would support the no-confidence motion by a 10-2 vote.
Gatsas insists that his decision to reject the teacher contract has to do with finance, rather than politics. He argues the city’s tax cap simply makes the teacher contract unaffordable. Citing figures provided by the city’s finance director, he estimates the three-year contract will put the city around $700,000 over budget in its second and third years. That’s when teacher raises of 5 to 7 percent kick in.
“When I look at that number and say, OK, we haven't done anything on the city side or school side to add more teachers in the classroom, to buy more books, for special education costs,” Gatsas said. “Let’s sit down at the table and see if we can’t work something out that’s not only a fair contract for teachers but a fair contract for the taxpayers of this city.”
Gatsas also bristles at the charge that he undervalues teachers: “I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you as mayor of Manchester if it wasn’t for a lot of great teachers I had in school. So for anybody to think that i don’t respect teachers, that’s absolutely wrong.”
Of course, Gatsas’ critics have a very different view. They’ve questioned his calculations on the teacher contract and argued its costs can be absorbed within the budget.
Joyce Craig, a veteran alderman, is a presumed front-runner among Gatsas' challengers. Speaking as volunteers were busy preparing for the opening of her new campaign headquarters, Craig insisted the contract struck the right balance between increasing teacher pay while requiring them to cover a greater share for their health insurance.
“The concessions made on health care were the most we’ve seen in years. This was a very fair contract and it’s something we should proceed with,” she said.
Gatsas’ other main challenger is Patrick Arnold, a former alderman who surprised many by coming within single digits of Gatsas in 2013. He tends to be more blunt.
“Mayor Gatsas has a well known my-way-or-the-highway style of governing, and his veto of a very reasonable, very responsible proposed contract for Manchester educators is the most recent example of that governing style,” he said.
But if history is any guide, Gatsas’ opponents will have a tough fight. Gatsas has proven himself a powerhouse in Manchester, winning each mayoral election by comfortable margins. And his campaign has raised $250,000 over the last three month reporting period — its biggest one-time haul ever.
Meanwhile, Gatsas insists he still wants to reach a fair deal with the teachers. But it seems highly unlikely that they will be willing to return to table — at least until after the November election.