County union negotiations stuck at starting line

LACONIA — Negotiations between the the Belknap County Commission and the State Employees Association (SEA) over a collective bargaining agreement are at what Commissioner Hunter Taylor (R-Alton) yesterday called "an unfortunate impasse", with the two parties unable even to agree on the ground rules for conducting talks.

The SEA represents some 100 employees of the Belknap County Home, Department of Corrections and Sheriff's Department, who have been without a contract since the last collective bargaining agreement expired at the end of 2012. Twice, in 2013 and 2014, the Belknap County Convention has refused to ratify negotiated agreements, which a majority believed failed to require employees to shoulder a sufficient share of the cost of their health insurance.

Taylor, along with Dave DeVoy, chairman of the commission, Debra Shackett, the county administrator, and Roger Grey, a member of the Sanbornton Budget Committee serve on the negotiating team for the county. He said that the SEA objects to two ground rules proposed by the team. First, the SEA has rejected a proposal that negotiations be "transparent", not secret, and negotiators not be bound to keep proceedings confidential. Second, the SEA has challenged the presence of Grey, who while a resident and taxpayer, has no official relationship with the county.

Yesterday the commission sought to address the position of Grey by voting to create a position of "negotiating agent" with an annual stipend of $1 and reimbursement for mileage.

Neil Smith of the SEA, who negotiates on behalf of the employees, said that strict confidentiality is essential to successful negotiations. Collective bargaining, he said, always leads to disagreement between the parties, but confidentiality ensures that the dispute is confined to those with the authority and capacity to resolve it. Without confidentiality, he claimed, other parties and interests become engaged in the negotiations, lessening the likelihood of reaching agreement. "What is said in the room, stays in the room," he said.

The presence of Grey on the negotiating team, Smith argued, would be inconsistent with the certification of collective bargaining unit by the Public Employee Labor Relations Board, which designates the Belknap County Commission as "the employer". He said that by including a private citizen, the commission was delegating responsibilities exclusively reserved to it, which cannot be delegated to others.

At the same time, Smith said that the SEA is troubled that the commission is contemplating changing its health insurance carrier without consulting the union, as the collective bargaining agreement requires.

On September 2, the commission voted to contract with InterLocal Trust, which partners with Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare to serve local governments, beginning on January 1, 2016. HealthTrust, which has carried the county's plan, was informed of the decision.

Although the collective bargaining contract expired in 2012, the county and union are in so-called "status quo", which requires that apart from pay raises, the remaining provision of the expired contract remain in effect. One of these stipulates that before changing the health insurance plan the county and the union "must mutually agree that benefit levels are substantially similar in advance of any change."

Smith said he was aware the commission was exploring alternative health insurance plans, voted to switch to InterLocal Trust and informed Health Trust. "We expected a proposal, but there has been no proposal from the commission. They've provided no proposal for the union to review."

DeVoy acknowledged that the commission voted to switch and informed HealthTrust, then explained that it learned that InterLocal would raise its rates two percent after the first six months of the year. At the same time, HealthTrust told the commission that it would announce its rates for 2016 next months as well as indicate the amount it would refund to the county for excessive premiums paid in 2015. He said "we plan to go with InterLocal, but we're waiting to hear from HealthTrust. We 're hedging our bets."

DeVoy said that the SEA must agree to any change of health insurance carrier and noted when the commission met with Rick Stone of InterLocal yesterday he asked for a letter affirming that its plan is "substantially similar" to what Health Trust has provided.

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Laconia deputy fire chief running for city council in Concord

LACONIA — Shawn Riley, the deputy fire chief who oversees emergency medical services at the Laconia Fire Department, has announced his candidacy for an at-large seat on the city council in his hometown of Concord.

As one of five candidates vying for the two at-large seats, Riley said yesterday that he expects a very competitive race. The most prominent of his rivals in Steve Shurtleff, the minority leader in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, who is seeking his third term on the city council.

Riley, who has lived in the city since he was a student at the New Hampshire Technical Institute in the late 1980s, said that he has no quarrel with the way the city has been been governed and explained "I have always wanted to be part of the process." He noted that his late wife, Stephanie, also spoke often of running for public office.

"Concord," Riley said, "has always been a safe, clean city and a good place raise a family, buy a home and start a business and I'd like to keep it that way."

"I've been thinking about this for a long time and only decided last weekend," Riley remarked. "It feels like the time is right."

If successful, Riley would become the second Laconia firefighter to hold office in another municipality, joining Captain Chris Shipp, who chairs the Board of Selectmen in Moultonborough.

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Positive behavior program in Laconia schools said to be paying big dividends

LACONIA — In September of 2014, said Middle School Vice Principal Jim Corkum, there were an average of four "major" referrals to his office each school day — meaning four times a day he dealt with a reasonably serious school infractions. This month his average is .3 "major" referrals a day — meaning he can typically go as long a three or four days without one.

Corkum and his team of guidance councilors attribute much of this positive change in student behavior to PBIS or Positive Behavior Intervention and Support.

"PBIS is a philosophy," said McKenzie Harrington-Bacote — the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMSHA) coordinator who is in charge of managing a five-year federal grant focused on student behavior.

Laconia School District was awarded the $2.15-million federal grant in 2014 and was one of three New Hampshire School District to receive it. An additional $1.1-million School Climate Transformation Grant followed.

At the elementary level, all three city schools have a PRIDE — or personal responsibility, respect, involvement, discipline free, and excellence — mascot. At Woodland Heights "Mr. Wiskers" is the mascot while "Pride the Panther" fills the same role at Pleasant Street and "Paws" the Tiger inspires Elm Street. These mascots, said Woodland Heights Principal Eric Johnson help the younger students show school pride at assemblies and during sports and other events.

At the Middle and High Schools — it's Sachem Pride and the wall of both schools are plastered with PRIDE posters with set behavioral expectations.

"I want our kids in class, I don't want them here," Corkum said his arms pointing around to his spartan office.

He said part of the behavioral accomplishments have come from redefining what a major or minor infraction is. He noted that if a child forgets a pencil, he or she shouldn't be sent to the office and further, that as part of being good students, someone should offer his or her classmate a pencil to use.

Through a year-long PBIS training program, Harrington-Babcock said teachers and classroom assistants have been trained to handle life's little episodes internally and not refer every issue to the guidance or vice principal's office.

He said the school uses general classroom behavior strategies that have cut the major incidents down to more than half than in previous years.

"The results are keeping their classes more focused and having more students in the classroom at a time," Corkum said.

He also said that through the early intervention program afforded by PBIS, there is more "one-on-one" time for students and school staff — especially for those who don't play sports.

"We make sure there is one teacher or staff member who each student can trust and talk to," Corkum said.

Harrington-Bacote said one of the most important things PBIS does is to provide a structure where the students all know and understand what is expected of them.

Assistant Superintendent Kirk Beitler said positive behaviors have always been taught a part of an education but with PBIS, "they are purposefully taught."

All three agree that perfect behavior from all students is an unrealistic expectation on their part, but one of the benefits of the five-year PBIS grant is that a framework is being created for dealing with the few students who need some extra assistance for a variety of reasons.

Harrington-Bacote said all of the administrators went to a conference last year that included full-days of training, workshops and speakers. Accompanying the grant that allowed for the conference is a partnership with Plymouth State University that allows those teachers who participate in PBIS programming to earn a 20-credit graduate certificate.

She also said that the grant covers the entire school district and there is an additional School Climate Transformation Grant that was made available to only 100 schools in the nation. SAMSHA also provides for a train-the-trainer type grant where people who take the formal training are equipped to train those who remain back home.

Corkum quipped that the goal of the training program is to "push (Harrington-Bacote) out of her job".

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