On August 3, 2021, the Manchester Education Association (MEA) filed an “Unfair Labor Practice Complaint” with the New Hampshire Public Employee Labor Relations Board (PELRB). The subject of the complaint was Hillside Principal Brendan McCafferty, whom the MEA accused of “retaliation” after it filed a “good faith complaint on behalf of a number of members alleging harmful and harassing conduct by (McCafferty).” The MEA complaint provided five pages detailing how “McCafferty authored and communicated a strategy to MEA members of how to attack and weaken the MEA.”
In its filings, the Manchester School District did not contest the allegations. However, in admitting McCafferty had done as he was accused, the district claimed it had no knowledge of his actions. As a result, the district and the MEA agreed to a PELRB ruling ordering the district to “direct the Principal at Hillside Middle School to cease and desist any and all such activities.”
Following the publication of a story on this subject in the NH Sunday News on March 6, 2022, Girard at Large was contacted by multiple people familiar with the situation who provided “the rest of the story,” as radio great Paul Harvey would say. Since receiving this information, we have worked diligently over the past several weeks to confirm what now follows in this article. Our efforts to verify the information frequently uncovered new information that also needed confirmation. Information we were unable to corroborate or information that would expose a source is not published herein.
Not surprisingly, this is yet another example of the power politics played by politicians and bureaucrats for personal reasons that have nothing to do with what’s in the best interests of either the district or the children it is supposed to serve.
In 2018, after complaints were filed against McCafferty by the MEA with district’s human resources office, the district initiated an investigation. In a December 12, 2018 letter to MEA President Sue Hannan, district legal counsel Meghan Glynn detailed the district’s efforts to investigate the complaints, concluding “…after reviewing the report, I wanted to inform you that any allegations of misconduct raised by the Association were unfounded.” The letter did, however, acknowledge “communication issues amongst staff members, and between staff members and building administration.” Saying the investigator’s report “constitutes an internal personnel practice of the District,” Glynn said the report would not be made public.
Girard at Large has learned that while an outside investigator was hired by the district, then Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Gillis, currently the district’s interim superintendent, oversaw the investigation for the administration. While Glynn’s letter asserts that “nine randomly selected staff members” were interviewed during the investigation, multiple sources have told Girard at Large that Gillis allowed McCafferty to provide her with the names of those nine staff members, meaning they weren’t randomly chosen. Also interviewed were all three of Hillside’s administrators and eleven staff members requested by the MEA, according to Glynn’s letter. Said one source:
“It’s obvious she was giving him every chance to tilt the results of the study in his favor. Hand picking the so-called random staff members gave him the opportunity to directly dispute the complaints. A random sampling of staff would have produced a different result.”
In one of the emails obtained by Girard at Large, Gillis went so far as to ask one of those chosen by McCafferty how the investigator would use the information given.
Gillis and McCafferty were known to be “close” when Gillis was Southside’s principal. They, along with Forrest Ransdell of Parkside (whom Gillis appointed as interim Director of Human Resources, his lack of qualifications notwithstanding) and Bill Krantz of McLaughlin frequently attended meetings of the board and its committees together as a group.
After receiving the district’s letter in December 2018, the MEA sent its own “culture and climate survey” to every staff member at Hillside to see if things had improved since the original complaints were filed in January of that same year. According to the filings with the PELRB, “the results were mixed.” The union called a meeting with the school’s staff “to have an open discussion with members about the findings and what, if any, next steps were appropriate.”
Upon learning of the meeting, McCafferty sprang into action, organizing his favored inner-circle staff members to form opinions among the broader staff and manipulate the meeting. In an email dated January 19, 2019, entitled “Staff Movement Meeting January 24, 2019 Points of Discussion” McCafferty sent an agenda designed to organize the planned disruption of the MEA meeting. It included talking points such as:
- Undermining of Hillside
- Harassment of principal, targeting of principal
- No contract
- Speaking points, list for all, strategy for that day
- Phil (Sapienza) and Pat (O’Neil) to attend
It included “strategies,” notably:
- Must choose a facilitator with a plan. Use first 10 minutes to review the speaking points and edits. Use 10 minutes to review strategies. Use rest of time to speak to how everyone’s attendance and participation is vital, how it needs to be relentless. Then use the remainder of the time to work the crowd into a fury.
- Sue Hannan must be pushed by all to attend the meeting ,via phone calls, emails and in person visits all week.
- Maxine Mosely (MEA vice president) must not be allowed to attend due to conflict.
- Michelle Couture (NEA-NH Uni-Serve Director) must not be allowed to finish a sentence.
In a section entitled “Next Steps,” McCafferty tasks his trusted inner circle members with contacting other staff members with the goal of enlisting their support to defend McCafferty by disrupting the meeting. (The first named in that section were the ones trusted to make contact with those that followed their names.)
Three days prior to this meeting, on January 21, an email with talking points sent by McCafferty was circulated by members of his trusted inner circle. In it, McCafferty fleshed out the talking points in the January 19th email, coaching its users to both undermine the validity of the survey sent by the MEA and the MEA itself, demanding it “stop the attack on our building administration, so that we can do our job, and work to create a healthier, more positive environment here at Hillside, and across the district.”
It also included a letter McCafferty wanted his inner circle and others to send to Michelle Couture demanding Hannan and Mosely be present for the meeting on January 30th and that the meeting be rescheduled if both would not be there.
According to several sources, McCafferty’s attempt to derail the meeting worked. “It was a complete S#@t show,” said one attendee.
In a follow up email sent on February 2, 2019, McCafferty wrote he was “incredibly impressed at how things have come together, and a huge part of that is your increased organization.” He went on to give “a few thoughts from an old man’s perspective.” He directed recipients of the email to meet with the other “leaders” he had identified to memorialize the meeting by transcribing the notes taken and emailing them to “everyone on your email list, Sue/Max/Couture/Lawyer, Dr. Vargas/Gillis/Allen, Mayor Craig. Send to me as well, Sue/Max/Couture send the survey results to me.”
McCafferty refers to the January 30th meeting as “an excellent start, but we now need to see this all the way thorough. What does this mean for the individuals in the group? To remain committed and involved through the end of the school year for now.”
It encourages them to get “the word out to the Union Leader, local media, your connections at other schools, other connections” and to “Plan next large group.”
“that’s all i have for now. no more chances. surge forward. operation tsunami. #schorched earth ***please don’t share with others that i am providing input thanks” (all text in original. Underlining added.)
The next day, February 3, 2019, McCafferty writes again, sending an email entitled “Final Thought (Jerry Springer)”. He wrote: “This MEA leadership group is seriously exposed right now. You have checkmate, they fired their best and last bullet and your guns are LOADED. With a good plan, you can pick them apart, strip them dry and bleed them out by year’s end. #eye of the tiger.”
Current and past staff members describe a culture of “continuous threats and intimidation,” accusing McCafferty of playing favorites and holding those in his good graces to a very different standard of conduct than those on his “enemies list.” Said one insider:
“McCafferty makes it miserable for anyone who even dares to ask a question. He doesn’t like to be questioned or challenged and is very closed minded to any ideas that aren’t his own. It really is his way or the highway and if you don’t go along, he’ll do everything he can to run you out of the school. And it’s not just him, his inner circle piles on. There’s nowhere in the building where you’re safe from their rude behavior when you’re outside of their circle.”
Sources say McCafferty has “forced” more than fifteen faculty and other staff members to transfer. Some left after beating back his attempts to have them transferred from the school involuntarily. “They just couldn’t take the abuse anymore,” was a recurring theme spoken by those familiar with staff who’ve fled the building. They also say the McCafferty minions that make them miserable routinely make him look like the “second coming” when, at his behest, they flood the board with emails, board meetings with speakers and the ManchesterInkLink.com with letters to the editor on his behalf.
“Is there any dirt on other staff?” That was a question one former member of McCafferty’s inner circle said was frequently directed to them. “He sets people up to be spies,” said one. “’If you see this person come in late,’ or ‘fill in the blank,’ ‘let me know.’” Sources also claim McCafferty would share private personal and or medical information with his favored faculty to ridicule other staff members. “He’d tell people who was a recovering alcoholic or who needed an ADA accommodation for some condition…deeply personal stuff…and he’d make fun of them,” said one source.
As part of the “culture of intimidation,” multiple people have said that McCafferty “shuffled the (teaching) teams to make sure one of his loyalists is in place to keep an eye on those he doesn’t like. Nobody trusts anybody at Hillside.” Several staff members have been told their “assistance is no longer needed” and teachers once very involved with building committees, activities and working groups have been disenfranchised. This includes, according to sources, McCafferty failing to pass along the names of teachers interested in district level committees and working groups.
McCafferty was suspended by Superintendent Dr. John Goldhardt in May 2021, following an investigation begun after teachers again came forward with evidence of McCafferty’s abuse. Sources say Goldhardt wanted to suspend McCafferty for at least five days without pay but was blocked by the board, which forced him to reinstate McCafferty after about three weeks of paid administrative leave.
During Goldhardt’s investigation, from which he specifically excluded then assistant superintendent Jenn Gillis because of her close personal relationship with McCafferty, which he believed caused her to ignore the growing complaints from the school and taint the 2018 investigation, at-Large School Committeeman Jim O’Connell was said to have been a “near daily” visitor to Hillside, “going unannounced from classroom to classroom,” in violation of the COVID-19 protocols in place at the time. (Note well that McCafferty still requires children to eat lunch in their classrooms as he has refused to reopen the cafeteria to “protect” against COVID.) Several sources familiar with his visits believed he was there to rally support for McCafferty and intimidate those making complaints.
Goldhardt also removed Hillside from Gillis’ general oversight during the investigation, handing responsibility for the school to Assistant Superintendent Amy Allen, someone known to hold building level administrators accountable.
As complaints from Hillside grew during Goldhardt’s time as superintendent, he attempted fixes. At first, he looked to transfer McCafferty to another middle school. That failed when every other middle school principal refused to “walk into that Hillside mess” and pledged to fight the transfer. Goldhardt also went to the board in non-public session to advise he was going to initiate an involuntary transfer to move McCafferty to Henry Wilson Elementary School. Sources believe O’Connell leaked that information to McCafferty who then, with O’Connell’s help, successfully lobbied the board to block Goldhardt’s transfer.
O’Connell, whose closed door advocacy in non-public sessions and various district offices continues unabated and unabashed to this day, may be more than “returning the favor” of McCafferty’s “loud and proud” support for O’Connell’s first run for office. It may have something to do with McCafferty’s employment of at least two of O’Connell’s children as substitute teachers at Hillside. Sources say O’Connell’s daughter Lilly subs regularly at the school and his son Liam has been “a long term substitute” teaching 8th grade English since school started in January for a teacher out on maternity leave. He will be in the position until school finishes in June, report our sources.
According to Liam’s LinkedIn page, he is “a graduate of the University of New Hampshire with a BS: Business Administration focusing in International Business and Economics” and lists himself as a “teacher…Full time” in the Manchester School District. He does not have an academic background to teach English nor does he have any training as a teacher. He also does not otherwise meet the published minimum requirements to hold the position, according to a current job posting on the district’s Web site. Among the missing requirements is being certified by the NH Department of Education. According to the DOE’s Web site, he’s not. Prior to taking the long term sub position, Liam worked on the Manchester Water Works “Woods Crew” and held an internship with an electrical distributor.
Those familiar with the arrangement say Liam’s being “coached” by Seanna O’Neill, McCafferty’s cousin and a primary member of his inner circle. O’Neill used to teach English at Hillside but McCafferty converted her to a newly created “instructional coach” position. Girard at Large has learned that other middle schools have also hired instructional coaches but have used limited term grant funds for the positions. McCafferty used permanent staff already on the payroll, including a math teacher who was also “converted” to an instructional coach. Sources say McCafferty didn’t need either teacher in the classroom due to Hillside’s declining enrollment. The process these conversions went through is unclear as is Liam’s hiring.
O’Connell continues to be a frequent visitor to Hillside and is in the district office “almost daily” to meet with Gillis, who herself has been to Hillside multiple times since her appointment “to see the good things happening at Hillside.” The clear loyalty and favoritism shown by Gillis and O’Connell to McCafferty has unnerved many at Hillside and made targets of district officials who’ve tried to “corral” McCafferty on issues regarding English language learners and special education. Girard at Large has been made aware of multiple complaints lodged with both Mary Steady, the district’s Chief Student Services Officer, and Nicole Ponti, the district’s Executive Director of English Language Learner Instruction and Equity over McCafferty’s “illegal” handling of special education students and English language learners. Sources say Steady and Ponti have clashed repeatedly with McCafferty over his handling of these students and that McCafferty has gone out of his way to blame them for his decisions while resisting, if not outright defying, their directives. Said one person familiar with the situation, “Hillside has to be the only school left that keeps English learners kids in self-contained classrooms. McCafferty refuses to allow them to attend other classes.”
O’Connell appears to support this approach, which some have said isn’t legal. Several sources have either been told by O’Connell or overheard him say that it’s “unfair” to “burden” teachers with students whose English is passable but not yet fluent. Sources say O’Connell has stepped up criticism of both women for their “handling” of things at Hillside. Gillis has been AWOL as these complaints have mounted. Some speculate that she will watch as McCafferty and O’Connell sew the seeds of discontent with Steady and Ponti, paving the way for the return of the district’s former Director of English Language Learner Instruction Wendy Perron. “Jenn LOVES Wendy,” said an insider who believes that Gillis would bring Perron back to the district if made superintendent. Perron quit and was rehired to the position several times before then Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas refused to hire her back after the last time she quit.
O’Connell’s advocacy for Gillis to be the district’s next superintendent has been thinly veiled. As chairman of the special committee charged with finding a new superintendent, O’Connell picked a committee loaded with members that voted to make Gillis the interim superintendent. He as refused to hire a search consultant to conduct a broad based search for candidates. He has repeatedly said that the district has many “fine” internal candidates and has created an application deadline and review process that makes it virtually impossible for external candidates to participate. Tellingly, he went from suggesting a “co-interim superintendency” between Gillis and Allen, as was done after Superintendent Vargas left, to backing Gillis only for the interim position after McCafferty launched a “Jenn only” email campaign at the school board. It’s not gone unnoticed by people at Hillside or in the district office who believe that if Gillis is made the superintendent of schools then McCafferty will run over anybody who gets in his way with impunity as he will have succeeded in his self appointed role as “kingmaker” by getting Jenn Gillis, his close friend and protector, installed as the city’s next superintendent.