On April 1, 2022, Patrice Benard, known affectionately as “Mom at-Large” to those who follow Girard at-Large, and someone who has spoken out frequently about poor student performance in Manchester’s schools, received the following email from Forrest Ransdell, the Manchester School District’s Acting Director of Human Resources:
Congratulations! You have been recommended to a Para-Educator position with Manchester School District at Parker Varney Elementary School. Your name will go before the Board of School Committee (BOSC) at their next meeting held 4/11/22…You have been placed at $13.74 on the AFSCME salary scale. You can begin working in this position on 4/12/22 and as soon as the receipt for your background check/fingerprints and new hire forms are on file in the HR office.
Gaining board approval should have been a mere formality. Little did she know the April 1 date of Ransdell’s email would prove to be the April Fools Day joke of her life.
The $13.74 hourly wage quoted in the email is the starting pay for a “Paraprofessional II” position, a step above the entry level paraprofessional position and a step below the “BST paraprofessional” which requires certain specialized training certificates. What this means is that not only was Benard qualified for the position, she was well qualified enough to be placed in the advanced Paraprofessional II position.
Of course, there are “paper qualifications,” which she easily meets, and there are practical qualifications that come with the experience of having, on some level, done the job. As someone who has volunteered in elementary school classrooms at Green Acres School over many, many years while her children were in school there, Benard possesses those practical qualifications not only in abundance but also excellence. According to one person familiar with her abilities, Benard “is a genius at teaching kids how to read.” This person, who is familiar with Benard’s rejection by the board, would only speak to Girard at Large on the condition of anonymity.
Benard applied for a position at Parker Varney School because she knew and was familiar with Principal Kelly Espinola from her time as assistant principal at Green Acres. Espinola enthusiastically welcomed Benard’s application, knowing the good work she did with students while at Green Acres. In addition to having Espinola’s support for her application, Benard had references from two teachers familiar with her work at Green Acres and an advocate for special needs children who’d also worked with her. Benard has a special heart for children with special needs given that three of her four children have needed specialized help while in school.
She also applied because the district had 83 vacant paraprofessional positions at the time of her February 8, 2022 application submission; a number that represents a 20% vacancy rate. Today, there are 92 paraprofessional vacancies. So desperate is the district to fill these positions, it’s paying a $1,000 hiring bonus and a $500 retention bonus after six months.
Despite her abundant qualifications, years of experience and the desperate need for people to fill these positions, board Vice Chair Jim O’Connell (D- at Large), pulled her name from the personnel agenda and brought her candidacy into a non-public session where Girard at Large has learned her reputation was trashed by several board members. (Click for: Benard’s application, cover letter and resume.)
RSA 91-a, the state’s Right to Know Law, allows boards to go into non-public session to discuss personnel matters that might affect the reputation of an employee or an applicant. However, it also provides the person who is to be discussed the opportunity to have that discussion in public. Benard was deprived of that opportunity inasmuch as the board discussed her without her knowledge. She found out about the non-public session the next day in a phone call from Ransdell.
Following that conversation, Benard sent a Right to Know request seeking minutes of the discussion about her. Her request was denied by district legal council Katie Cox-Pelletier, who wrote the minutes could not be released because the board had voted to seal the minutes of the non-public session. Benard would have to ask for the minutes to be unsealed if she wanted them, according to Cox-Pelletier. Those minutes were unsealed on May 9, 2022. Despite this, Benard has yet to receive a copy and they have not been posted to the district’s Web site as of this writing. In response to a Right to Know Request for the minutes, Girard at Large received an updated version of the minutes that included the following:
Girard at Large has learned that the board rejected Benard’s application not because of any concerns over her qualifications but because several members, including Mayor Joyce Craig (D-Ward 1), Dr. Nicole Leaply (D-Ward 11), Jason Bonilla (D-Ward 5) and Karen Soule (D-Ward 3) objected to some of Benard’s social media comments. Some members read various social media posts from Benard they objected to. According to sources, those comments were often critical of the district and the board for decisions made that Benard believed did little to help children learn. She has often brought the district’s woeful student proficiency scores to the board’s attention, paying special attention to the even more dismal performance of special education and English Language Learner students, and often battled board members like O’Connell on social media for their refusal to acknowledge the district’s poor performance and emphasize courses of action that have little or nothing to do with improving student achievement.
Only Committeeman Peter Perich (D-Ward 8) stood by Benard. His motion to approve her hiring after the non-public session went un-seconded, thereby failing to even get voted on. Mysteriously, following Benard’s rejection by the board, all of the paraprofessional positions listed for Parker Varney School were removed from the district’s Web site, begging the question as to whether or not there are more than 92 vacant paraprofessional positions.
For those “in the know,” the irony of these actions by the board is thick.
For example, the district’s then Human Resources Director Christopher Cody banned the use of on-line searches to vet district job applicants. Sources familiar with the decision tell Girard at-Large that he did so for purposes of “equity.” “Cody told everybody that since we don’t do on-line searches for every applicant, we can’t do on-line searches for any applicant,” said the source, who, like so many others, spoke only on condition of anonymity. That rule was discovered some time ago when we looked into the hiring of Erin Murphy as a Network Coordinator. Turns out Murphy had been disciplined and removed from her position as an elementary school principal in Cleveland for a post she published on Facebook. The ban on on-line searches prevented district officials from knowing about Murphy’s transgressions. Incidentally, it seems that same lack of professionalism has followed her to Manchester. Central High School was removed from the network she oversaw after administrators and staff there refused to work with her following a number of “inappropriate” comments and for “unprofessional” behavior.
Though O’Connell used his position to help deprive Benard of a job she was well qualified to hold, his son Liam O’Connell, as previously reported, has been working as a long term substitute teacher at Hillside Middle School since school reconvened in January, a position for which he is unqualified for by either education or experience. Following our initial report, Girard at-Large was told that administrators were scrambling to obtain an “emergency certification” from the state for Liam O’Connell. As of this publication, he remains uncertified and otherwise unqualified to teach the middle school English class he’s teaching; a class for which he has no academic background or teacher training.
Unfortunately for the children of the Manchester School District, Benard found a job in another community that helps adults with disabilities. While that job provides better pay and more hours, the benefits aren’t as good and she’d rather work with the children to whom she has volunteered her time to help and for whom she has been a tireless advocate for many years. Sadly, this is just another poignant example of how Manchester’s school children lose when its politicians play their personal, petty political games in the hope of declaring victory against an opponent, who is vilified for having a different point of view.
Patrice Benard was “canceled” for what she believes and a lot of kids will go without her willing and excellent services as a result.