It is often said that “Fact is stranger than fiction. You just can’t make this stuff up!” The corollary to that in today’s politics is this: If the facts don’t support the political objective, then fiction is just as good.
Such is the case of the alleged impropriety of my sending an email directly to a student. The accusation came forward in a nicely orchestrated assault. First, Memorial High teacher James Colby, a longtime, bitter critic of mine, raised the specter of unethical conduct that crossed a “fine line.” A school board member, he said in a speech given during the public participation part of the agenda at our Board of School Committee meeting on November 13, 2018, had directly communicated with a student via email. Ominously, Colby warned the district was “approaching a dangerous precipice by allowing non-school district personnel the ability to look up and communicate directly with our minor students with no boundary or consequence.” The implication was clearly that something improper, unethical and untoward was done to a minor student.
Not unexpectedly, an aghast School Committee Member David Scannell (D-Ward 2), who has, for years, vacuously accused me of harboring and wielding all sorts of “isms,” complained that the email communication was “quite inappropriate” (he didn’t “want to get into specifics”) and “a safety issue.” He moved to “disconnect” the ability of school board members to email students, arguing the boards’ rules should be suspended for immediate action because children were at risk.
About two weeks before the Nov. 13 meeting, I came to know that the email had caused a stir. Vice Chairman Arthur Beaudry (D-Ward 9) called me about a complaint Committee Member Katie DesRochers (D-Ward 11) had made to him about the email being “an inappropriate communication with a student.” During the meeting on the 13th, she said she had received several calls about “the incident.” She also let slip that she has known for some time that board members have access to student email addresses.
Beaudry contacted me the day of the meeting to share that Kathi Hanson, also a bitter, longtime critic of mine, had sent an email to Superintendent Bolgen Vargas demanding I be removed from the school board over my “inappropriate direct contact with the student” and if that wasn’t going to happen, she demanded my removal from the Special Committee on Negotiations. Vargas referred the complaint to the mayor as chair of the school board and to Beaudry as vice-chair, saying it wasn’t something he should be involved with.
So, what, exactly, did I do that was so wrong? What exactly was in the email that had such a devoted group of my critics quaking in their boots over the safety of a student? What was so bad that Mayor Joyce Craig proclaimed it was inappropriate because “she’s a student in our school and she may not feel comfortable with you contacting her.”
When I saved the email to upload to this article, the name it gave itself was “Manchester School District Staff and Students SAU37 Mail – Your Little Green column.” The reason why I share this is that Scannell accused me of going through “a process” to track down Phelan’s email address. Others have accused me on social media and other media outlets of “stalking” her or otherwise going to some great length to “track her down.” As Scannell well knows, anybody who is part of the “Manchester School District Staff and Students SAU37 Mail” system can look up anybody who is also in it. All I did was type her name into the search bar and the address came up. That’s all I had to do. No “tracking down.” No “stalking.” No “process” to go through.
So, now that the particulars of this shockingly bad behavior have been disclosed, it would seem those gnashing their teeth in outrage to demonize me for sending an email to a student about a column she wrote is little more than an attempt to create a political issue over a non-event. Not once was I contacted by Phelan (she didn’t even mention it when she spoke before the board on Tuesday night), her parents, an advisor for The Little Green, a member of Central’s administration or any of the school board members who allegedly received so many calls from those aggrieved and believed sending this email was an egregious act. They did, however, contact those same school board members and others around the district to fan the flames of discontent. Moreover, one has to ask whether or not such outrage would have been manufactured if, instead of offering Phelan the other side of the story, I had simply sung her praises and congratulated her on “using her voice.” I have my doubts.
As I said in the meeting, if we want to have a discussion about who may legitimately access student email addresses, I have no problem with that. However, the oft-made suggestion that this email represents some sort of unsavory breech of ethics, morals or existing protocol is deliberately dishonest.
Since the meeting, there has been a shocking amount misinformation about the discussion that took place over this issue during the board meeting. To help clear the record, I’ve included clips of the comments made by Colby and the board’s discussion. Had Colby not deliberately implied that the recipient of the email was a minor, I would not have mentioned that Phelan wasn’t. The idea that I’ve “defended” myself by saying Phelan was 18 is simply misleading. I pointed it out to correct Colby’s clear implication to the contrary.
I’ve also included the entire meeting to ensure nobody can say I’ve used selective edits to skew what actually took place.
Similarly, there’s also been a huge amount of flat-out falsehoods said about my commentary regarding this matter on my TV show. I have not called Phelan a “snowflake,” a “liar” or anything else, nor have I attacked her. So that record is clear, here’s the show.
I’m a bad man! Tune in to find out why!
Posted by Girard At Large on Thursday, November 15, 2018
Finally, for the purposes of disclosure, here is what Phelan wrote in the September 28, 2018 edition of The Little Green. I’ve typed it in as I have not found an online version of the paper to link to. It’s only fair that you know what I responded to and why I had no reason to believe my email would be considered inappropriate or disturbing.
Those of you who know me personally may know that I am extremely passionate about politics and am a strong advocate for civic engagement. Having cast my first vote in the primary elections on September 11, I am thrilled to finally have my voice heard in the voting process, and it is a dream of mine to have all young people excited about and involved in politics. As a high schooler you may think that you can sit back and let the adults handle things, but I can tell you from personal experience that your 18th birthday is approaching faster than you think. It is imperative that we pay attention to politics now so that we can hold our lawmakers accountable in the future.
Many of the policy issues up for debate in the current election season in Manchester, including jobs, crime, and property values, have solutions rooted in our public schools. Manchester Proud, an organization currently working on solutions to improve Manchester’s public schools, states that, “In an increasingly competitive world, our public schools are the key to Manchester’s future success.” Communities with great public schools attract more companies which bring more jobs, are safer, and have higher property value. When considering the effects of the quality of a city’s public schools it seems straightforward that schools are a worthy investment, so why is it that Manchester’s school board and board of aldermen seem to not think so?
While the school board has accepted the mission of Manchester Proud, they continue to stall negotiations for the renewal of teacher contracts. Every three years, teachers contracts are renewed and new negotiations take place. These negotiations have historically been stalled, as the school board has repeatedly refused to meet Manchester teachers’ contract proposals that would give teachers fair compensation. Not only is this blatant disrespect and disregard for the quality of Manchester’s teachers, but it has also caused the district to lose excellent new teachers who receive better compensation in other districts.
Teachers have very little leverage in trying to push through negotiations, but they have turned to a strategy called “work to rule,” which means that they are working to the letter of their contracts. In order to do their jobs well, most if not all teachers do work outside of what is required by their contracts including correcting at home, writing recommendation letters, advising clubs, buying supplies for their classrooms, and chaperoning school dances. Manchester teachers take great pride in their jobs, and are more than willing to work outside of their contracts because, as stated by an anonymous Central High School teacher, “Teaching is a calling, not a profession.”
The goal of the work-to-rule strategy is to draw attention to teachers’ dedication to their jobs. You may have noticed your teachers wearing red on Mondays, and you have probably complained at least once so far this year about how some school activities are not happening as usual whether that be the math team or the Homecoming dance.
I urge you to keep complaining, but be productive in doing so. Call your school board representative or attend a school board meeting and let them know how you feel. Share your personal experiences about times when Manchester’s teachers have gone above and beyond to help you succeed. As students, we all share in our teachers’ burden during these stalled contract negotiations, so we should also take part in making sure that our teachers receive the recognition and compensation that they deserve.
In closing, I would note that many criticize the school board for being dysfunctional. If political hit jobs like this one simply didn’t happen, things would work better. Those who complain about how the board functions will, no doubt, use this article as evidence that I am at fault. They won’t look at what actually happened or those who orchestrated it. They will, as they have in the past, complain that I should just “walk away and let it go,” though they themselves would not ever do the same if someone set upon them as they have set upon me. All I have to say to those with this complaint is that the person who defends himself after being attacked is neither at fault nor responsible for those who perpetrated the attack. Personally, I would much rather spend my time working on the many issues before the district than having to spend it defending myself against these patently absurd, personally motivated political attacks.