Manchester School Conditions Give Voice To Two Outspoken Dads

Jan 11, 2013

If you’ve been paying attention to the budget struggles in Manchester’s public schools, you’ve likely come across two outspoken parents. These two fathers have taken conspicuous roles in the budget debates in the Manchester School District this past year.

John Lyscars of Hooksett (aka the Hooksett Elf)
Credit Ryan Lessard / NHPR

John Lyscars of Hooksett got a lot of attention of when he showed up to a Manchester School Board meeting in December dressed as a Christmas elf.

“We went through a few tearful sessions in my house. Pleading, begging, from my kids and my wife not to do some of the things I’ve done… When you put yourself out there and you speak some truths sometimes or you put on an elf costume, it’s very difficult because people start to look at you as ‘You’re not doing the norm…’”

Lyscars is stepping out of the norm because he wants to see Hooksett released from its current contract with Manchester schools. He feels the district’s budget woes are hurting students.

Jim O’Connell is also outspoken about the same budget woes. But he wants more funding for the city’s schools, where his kids attend.

Jim O'Connell
Credit Ryan Lessard / NHPR

O’Connell grew up in Ireland and when he got to Manchester, he didn’t see himself getting involved in politics here.

“By the time I arrived in the United States in 1992, my interest in politics was in reading the newspaper.”

But now, O’Connell and Lyscars have a lot in common. They’re both fathers in their 50s, they’re fond of a good argument and they’ll talk your ear off if you let them. They even coach their kids’ soccer teams. And now, they’ve both become activists.

John Lyscars says he and O’Connell have the same goals.

“I am right shoulder to shoulder with him, fighting for the kids of Manchester.”

At the start of the budget process for the Manchester School District last spring, it became clear early on that big cuts were going to be made. Manchester came in several million dollars short of what was needed just to maintain services.

In the wake of these cuts, which included laying off close to 100 teachers and staff, several concerned parents spoke out. People who had remained quiet on the sidelines for years, jumped into the political fray.

Including Jim O’Connell, who first got involved in politics while he was still a teenager.  

“And so by the time I was 18 I was a fully fledged marcher, organizer, deeply filled with the desire of changing the world and making it anew, and all the things we love young people for.”

O’Connell calls himself a liberal-leaning Independent while Lyscars is a self-described fiscal conservative and a Republican. But they both chose to speak out in defense of public education funding.

In October, Lyscars started a Facebook group called HELP which stands for Higher Education Lifts People.

It’s a group of Hooksett parents who collect data and debate school issues. Issues like whether or not to end the town’s contract with Manchester schools. And, if so, where to go instead.

John Lyscars as the Hooksett Elf on right.
Credit Courtesy of John Lyscars

Lyscars says in a few short weeks the number of members skyrocketed to a height of 400.

“The days, to me, are gone where we can expect a town to congregate at town hall or at the library for town meeting like we used to in New Hampshire.”

Lyscars is still new to politics and he says he’s not a fan of the game but he knows it’s the only game in town.

“I hate politics. And I really to be honest with you, I say… now you’re probably laughing because you’re like ‘Well the guy hates politics but he’ll sit there as an elf in front of the Mayor of Manchester.’ And to be honest with you I never thought I would do something like that.”

Jim O’Connell didn’t expect to get back into political activism either. Now, 20 years after moving to the U.S., he is the president of the advocacy group called Citizens for Manchester Schools. He and several other parents formed the group last May amid early signs of a severe budget shortfall.

Today, O’Connell says he’s eager to work with both sides. But his passion for public education goes back to his experience in Ireland.

“You know, I grew up in Ireland when it was a pretty poor place… So I could make an argument and I would be happy to make it that education was certainly one of the most important but I think the most important factor in transforming the Irish economy.”

Lyscars and O’Connell are natural allies when it comes to advocating for increased education spending in Manchester. Although, Hooksett’s immediate solution could mean Manchester laying off even more teachers. And in a budget issue that’s not going to be resolved soon, Lyscars and O’Connell are likely to keep playing loud and colorful roles in the debate.