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School try to put end to conflicts

Third member resigns board

ESSEX -- Despite the third resignation of a Regional School Committee member in less than a year, the superintendent of the Manchester Essex Regional School District believes a level of stability has settled in at the district.

"As people change, the blueprint is there on how to improve," said Superintendent Robert Shaps, when asked about the recent resignation of committee member Ed Neal of Essex, who cited family obligations when he resigned Nov. 18.

Candidates from Essex who wish to serve on the board can apply to the Essex Board of Selectmen. The selectmen and the two remaining Regional School Committee members from Essex will vote on Neal's replacement on or before Dec. 18. The new member will serve until May 2004, when a permanent replacement will be chosen in a town election.

Neal, who previously served on the Essex Board of Selectmen and Board of Health, was elected to the Regional School Committee in May 2001. He was reelected in 2002 and was in the middle of a three-year term when he resigned.

Over the last year, Neal has been a frequent critic of other members of the regional committee. In January, citing his displeasure with the way the three-year-old regional district's finances were being handled, Neal contacted the Department of Revenue and reported that the school district had failed to file annual financial reports from 2001 and 2002 to the state revenue and education departments, as required by state law.

Shortly after the revelations became public, Meredith Tufts, the committee chairwoman, resigned, citing the members' inability to work together. In March, as the committee was conducting an audit of the district, it voted to place former superintendent David Connolly on paid leave until June 30. Connolly was temporarily replaced by Eric Conti, who was subsequently replaced by Shaps, the district's former high school principal. In May, Susan Gould-Coviello also resigned, a year before her term was scheduled to expire.

"I regret all the fighting that took place but it never should have had to happen. It was because we couldn't get the accurate financial reporting," said Neal, who feels that his concerns have been addressed by Shaps and the board.

Since the spring, the district has submitted audits from fiscal years 2001 and 2002 to the state, and is finishing up the fiscal year 2003 audit. Also, the district has hired an assistant superintendent of finance and facilities to oversee the school's finances, and has moved to stabilize its administrative staff. Shaps's contract as superintendent runs until June 2005, and he has brought in former Swampscott High School Principal Peter Sack as principal of the regional high school.

In the wake of the administrative changes, and the rejection by Essex voters of a new $35.5 million middle and high school complex that caused bitterness in both towns, Shaps and the School Committee are beginning to formulate plans to unify the district's seventh- and eighth-grade classes. Manchester's seventh- and eighth-graders now attend the junior high school in Manchester, and sixth- and seventh-graders attend the Essex Elementary and Middle School, which serves kindergarten through Grade 8.

Another priority school officials will face is the prospect of drawing up a new junior and senior high school proposal that both towns will support. The School Committee is now looking for residents who want to serve on the new School Building Committee. The last building committee worked for two years to create a plan to construct a new junior and senior high school on the current school site on Lincoln Street.

Manchester residents overwhelmingly voted for the $35.5 million plan. But Essex residents rejected the plan, leading some Manchester residents to publicly call for the dissolution of the 1,252-student school district.

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