Shadow of poverty - Demography is subtext of Laconia school budget debate


LACONIA — As the School Board wrestles with the 2016-2017 school district budget, the challenge posed by the demographic profile of the student population is emerging as a prominent theme among school officials, school board members and parents.

When the board met last week, Mike Persson, who serves on its Budget and Personnel Committee, stressed that "This budget crisis is happening under the backdrop of an increased need for quality services" and highlighted the "increasing number of children living in poverty."

In a letter to the City Council, Geoff Grey wrote, "I have a pit in my stomach over the future of our city" and asserted that "Our schools are already in trouble and have been for a while." He noted that Zillow, a real estate website, rated two Laconia schools 2, two more 3, and one a 5 on a scale of 10. The number of students taking free and reduced priced lunch he described as "staggering," adding that "the home lives that these children live has a direct impact on their schooling."

Another parent, Aaron Jones, told the councilors that, as the county seat, "Our city is a destination for people in need of services" and noted the "tremendous increase in low-income and subsidized housing" in the last 10 years. "While these services are valuable and important," he continued, "the developments in our city raise questions about plans for the future."

Sean Valovanie, who returned to Laconia 13 years ago to raise a family, was most concerned that "As we continue to choke our city budget, working class families will continue to live elsewhere," and warned that "Retirees and low socioeconomic families cannot sustain a city."

These concerns are starkly reflected by estimates released by the United States Census Bureau in December, 2015. The bureau estimates that the portion of the population with incomes below the federal poverty level climbed from 12.1 percent in 2010 to 15.9 percent in 2014, or from 1,886 to 2,545 individuals.

The number of families and families with children in poverty also rose sharply. In 2014, the incomes of 13.9 percent of all families fell below the poverty line compared to 8.1 percent in 2010. The share of families with children 18 years old and younger in poverty nearly doubled, jumping from 12.5 percent in 2010 to 23.4 percent in 2014. Among families headed solely by women, the portion in poverty climbed from 20.7 percent to 29 percent while those with children 18 and younger leapt from 29.2 percent to 43 percent.

In 2010, children born in poverty represented nearly a third of all births in the prior year, a number that rose to 68 percent by 2014. In 2015, the census reported that more than half the births in the prior 12 months were to unmarried women, with those aged between 15 and 19 accounting for 6 percent and those aged between 20 and 24 accounting for 12 percent of all births. Of all unmarried mothers, 85 percent were high school graduates without further education.

Between 2010 and 2014 the the number of residents receiving food stamps and cash assistance increased 13.7 percent, from 1,441 to 1,639, or about 10 percent of the population.

These statistics are reflected in the number of students who were eligible for the free or reduced program lunch program in the School District when the school began. Altogether 58 percent were eligible at Elm Street School, 50 percent at Pleasant Street School, 68 percent at Woodland Heights School, 53 percent at Laconia Middle School and 48 percent at Laconia High School.

Furthermore, a Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted at Laconia High School in 2015 reported that the prevalence of risky behaviors among students was greater than their counterparts at other high schools in the region and the state. Nearly a third of students reported using marijuana and more than a third reported drinking alcohol. Almost half said that they had engaged in sexual intercourse while 15 percent replied that they were victims of sexual violence and 10 percent responded that they were physically forced to have sexual intercourse.

More than one in five students said they had seriously considered suicide and one in 10 admitted to to attempting to take their lives. Almost a fifth of students said that a family member was serving a sentence in jail or prison, more than a fifth "saw or heard" domestic violence in the home and 45 percent lived in a household where a member abused alcohol or drugs.

When Jim McCollum, the principal of Laconia High School, presented the findings to the School Board this month he said, "This is a picture of our community. This is how our kids live day to day. It is a serious situation."

Interim School Superintendent Phil McCormack said that the district has mounted "a tremendous effort to meet the needs of all children, including those with special needs." He stressed that the district has been fortunate to supplement tight budgets with grant funding.

The district is in the third year of a four-year $2.2 million SafeSchools/Healthy Students grant by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration of the United States Department of Health and Human Services to promote the mental, emotional and behavioral health of students, including substance abuse, while also providing services to their families. The same agency awarded the district $100,000 to train personnel to address the mental health needs of students. And a five-year $1 million "School Climate Transformation Grant" from the United States Department of Education to pursue the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) program in all five schools.

On the other hand, when the School Board proposed replacing the child care center at the Huot Technical Center with two half-day preschool programs, one parent said the change would benefit only the poor and the wealthy, not middle-income families with two working parents. Another suggested the preschool programs encourage more subsidized housing projects, which would lead the school district to depend more heavily of federal programs to assist low-income familes. Valovanie said that attracting more low-income residents would drive middle-income families to live elsewhere.

McCormack allowed that the magnitude of the budget reductions the school board is facing could limit access to students in needs, but insisted that "people in the schools are committed to doing the right thing and we will meet the needs of these kids."

Goal reached - Boys & Girls Club completes $500,000 tax credit drive

LACONIA — The Boys & Girls Club of the Lakes Region has successfully completed an effort to raise $500,000 in pledges for New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority tax credits, which will help it continue to make renovations to the former Saint James Episcopal Church, which it acquired as its permanent home three years ago.
Chris Emond, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central New Hampshire, said that the club faced a deadline of March 31 to obtain the pledges and was about $118,000 short less than a month ago when it started running an ad in The Laconia Daily Sun asking for assistance in meeting its goal. Companies which buy the credits receive a 75 percent state tax credit.
Thanks to a $100,000 pledge from CruCon Cruise Outlet of Moultonborough and additional pledges from AutoServ, Eastern Bank and The Laconia Daily Sun, he said the goal has been met.
"We've achieved that goal and are moving ahead with renovations and will continue to expand our programs," said Emond, who said that recently the club has extended its hours until 8 p.m.
"We serve about 100 kids a week, and on an average day there are 80 to 90 here. But we see having something for teens is one of the big needs we have in the city," said Emond.
This Friday night, the club will be joined by the Appalachian Mountain Teen Project in hosting the first Teen Night for students in grades 7 to 12. The event will feature a karaoke and open mic night theme, games and a dinner served by the New Hampshire Food Bank.
The club is currently working on the second phase of renovations to the former church, which will see the entryway to the building redone and a large reception area created at the front of the building as well as commercial upgrades to the the kitchen which will allow it to host an evening meals program. There will also be a new teen center, as well as updated homework and art rooms. The number of children being served is expected to increase from 86 currently to more than 150 next year.
Emond said that starting this fall, when the commercial kitchen is competed, the club will offer meals five days a week in cooperation with the Food Bank, which will be similar to a program offered in Concord which serves between 80 and 100 children a day.
The Lakes Region club as been affiliated with the Boys & Girls Club of Central New Hampshire for nearly two years but continues to have a separate board of directors. The Boys & Girls Clubs of Central New Hampshire, formerly the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Concord, was named the 2015 nonprofit of the year by Business NH Magazine.
The Lakes Region Boys & Girls Club is the successor to the Laconia Teen Center, which opened in the basement of the Laconia Community Center in 1999 and was founded following the murder the previous summer of 14-year-old middle school student Robbie Mills.
Laconia Assistant School Superintendent Bob Champlin organized a Saturday morning meeting to deal with the issues of violence shortly after the murder. Some 200 people showed up and a consensus was developed that a teen center was needed to provide a healthy place for teen activities.
Over the years, the center relocated to Sacred Heart Church parish hall, where it became affiliated with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and later to Our Lady of the Lakes Church in Lakeport, and then at the former federal building on North Main Street, which is now owned and largely occupied by Lakes Region Community Services.
Three years ago, the club launched a $2.4 million fund drive to buy and renovate the church building; $700,000 for purchasing the building, $700,000 for renovations and $1 million for an endowment fund.
Those fund drives were aided by the efforts of Anthony and Gladys Sakowich, who were successful business pioneers, philanthropists and longtime residents of Governor's Island in Gilford.
Bob Smith, co-founder of the Sakowich Capital Trust, and Emond unveiled a plaque last fall with images of the Sakowiches which will grace the new entryway of what will be known as the Sakowich Building. The multipurpose room at the club is named for Robbie Mills, whose mother, Wendy, has been active in fundraising efforts for the club.

Shaker officials address drug use


BELMONT — For the past three years, Shaker Regional School District Superintendent Maria Dreyer has written letters to orthopedic doctors in Gilford and Concord requesting they reduce the number of pain killers they issue to students who are injured during athletics.
She said nobody in particular has asked her to do this but she took it upon herself because of her fears of opioid dependence in young people. She didn't say if she got any replies but said, as an educator, she felt it was her responsibility to let them know her position.
At Tuesday's School Board meeting, Dreyer was joined by at least two parents and members of the Belmont/Canterbury community who have joined in her anti-drug and alcohol message by creating independent but somewhat overlapping organizations of their own.
Donna Iacopucci is the president of the PTO at Belmont High School and her group has formed "It Takes A Village." She said they have joined sessions at Stand Up Laconia and on April 21 they have a special mini-dinner beginning at 5:30 p.m. at the Belmont High School to attract as many community members as they can to join them.
Iacopucci said Dreyer has made a few donations for some gift cards for a raffle and said the 50-minute movie "The Anonymous People," which is a feature film documenting the 23 million Americans who are recovering from substance abuse, will be shown after dinner. After the showing, there will be a panel discussion with other members of the community.
Darcy Ess, also a parent, is the only "lay" representative to a recently formed a drug and alcohol task force in Belmont that includes Police Chief Mark Lewandoski, Welfare Director Donna Cilley, Dreyer and other members of the anti-drug community.
Ess told the School Board that while she knows their coalition needs a catchy name, she said they are meeting in the morning of April 21 at the SAU offices in Belmont at 10 a.m.
Working together, they are all trying to combat the effects of drugs in the Belmont/Canterbury communities.
Dreyer, who recently received this year's results from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey taken earlier in the year by 82 percent of the Belmont High School student body, said the results were alarming.
She said she if particularly concerned with heroin and opioid and said administrators are starting to see some evidence in Belmont High of increased usage.
The results show that 16.5 percent or 67 of those who took the survey currently use marijuana and 2.7 or 11 of the students admit to trying heroin. She said 2.1 percent or nine students said they have used methamphetamine and 15 or 3.6 percent had said they used ecstasy.
Fifty students, or 12.2 percent, said they had been offered or sold drugs on school property and 13.4 percent said they had taken drugs that were not prescribed by a doctor.
Especially disturbing to Dreyer was that 14.3 percent said they didn't see anything wrong with taking drugs prescribed to someone else and 31.2 percent said they easy or very easy access to prescription drugs.
About half said they don't see anything wrong with using marijuana but Dreyer attributed the decline in the number of student who use it to to widening availability of other drugs and the expense of marijuana relative to opioids.
The School Board encouraged parents and others in the community to become more involved with "It Takes a Village" at the High School PTO or the task forced being formed by key members of the town of Belmont.