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Middle school supporters dominate Newfound 'where are we going?' session

by Thomas P. Caldwell

BRISTOL — The Newfound Area School Board heard plenty of opinions on Sept. 8 but gained very little help in coming to grips with the complexity of providing a sound education for students, fair pay and job security for the teaching staff, and an educational structure that is stable enough to keep the seven member towns in the cooperative school district.
Faced with declining student enrollment that reduces staffing needs and cuts state adequacy aid to the Newfound Area School District, as well as declining property values that push taxes higher, the school board has hired administrators willing to restructure the delivery of education and tighten up the business end of operations as the first step in stabilizing the district and bringing costs in line with other districts. Newfound's cost per pupil is among the highest in the state.
Meanwhile, voters in Bridgewater and Hebron have called for a study of the feasibility and desirability of withdrawing from the school district, while voters in Hill are considering withdrawing from Franklin and realigning with Newfound for the education of their middle and high school students.
A year ago, Danbury was considering withdrawing from Newfound but that town concluded that it made more sense to remain with the district, even though it is paying more money into the district than it receives from it.
One argument has been that Newfound maintains more school buildings than any other school district. As one possible solution, Groton member Jeff Levesque had called for the school board to consider closing Newfound Memorial Middle School in 2015-16 and taking the time to study the feasibility of making the closing permanent. To that end, the board held a public hearing on the issue Monday night, giving members of the public a chance to weigh in.
The overwhelming majority of the speakers supported the middle school, questioning why the board would even consider closing the school. While air quality and water in the basement were mentioned, many felt those were simply maintenance issues. One speaker commented that, a couple of years ago, "The building was fine when you wanted to send our fifth graders to the middle school."
At the heart of the issue is an ongoing debate over whether a middle school is better than a K-6, 7-8, and 9-12 configuration. Most speakers agreed that segregating 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds from older students is better, with many parents commenting that they would not want to have their seventh grader riding on the same bus as high schoolers, or dining in the same cafeteria.
A vocal group that supports separate K-6 classes with a junior high concept for seventh and eighth graders has pressed the school board to make the change but only 12 of them showed up for the meeting that drew close to 100 on Monday. Carol Huber of Bristol pointed out that many residents had attended such classes without harm, and Levesque agreed that "Both models work. We just need to pick one and do it."
Archie Auger of Bristol, who came to the district as a science teacher in 1963 and went on serve as assistant principal at the junior-senior high school until the district adopted a 4-4-4 educational structure with a middle school, said it took another couple of years to come up with the best configuration for the school system and he stands by the current middle school model.
School Board Chair Ruby Hill of Danbury said she believes it would cost $10 million to build the classrooms needed for a separate junior high wing at the high school. She said she thinks the problems at the middle school can be fixed, adding, "I would rather pay $10 million to fix the schools we have rather than to pay $10 million to build new."
Vice-Chair Vincent Paul Migliore of Bridgewater argued that closing the middle school would free up funds so the district could address educational needs, along with the staff unrest. He cited a letter from the Newfound Area Teachers Association in which the union had voted "almost unanimously" to stage a "rule to work" protest, doing only the minimum required by their positions, because of the voters' refusal to fund a new contract and the school administration's elimination of positions as part of the restructuring needed to stay within the district's tax cap. The teachers subsequently decided to launch a public relations campaign instead, but their objections remained.
Several teachers stood to say their complaints had nothing to due with money; rather it was the job uncertainty that bothered them, they said.
Migliore attempted to explain the complexity of the issues the school board is facing and Levesque also pointed out the budget problems due to the declining enrollments, but those in the audience largely dismissed those concerns.
Kevin Glidden of Bristol charged that the school board is afraid of the taxpayers and he said the board has done a poor job of educating the voters of the importance of passing the school budget. As for the middle school, he said, "Fixing a school is less than 10 percent of the budget. If we close the middle school, it will become the next mica building and it'll cost $15 million to tear it down." The comment was a reference to a condemned factory in downtown Bristol that was in litigation for years before the town was able to raze the building.
Terry Murphy of Bridgewater argued that the problem is not in the building. "We're not doing well with what we're doing now. Don't blame it on the building. The educational quality at the middle school is bad, and nothing has happened in 20 years to improve it."
Huber added, "The taxpayers already can't afford their taxes. And if some people think there aren't drugs in that building, there are."
The school board did not reach a conclusion on the issue, but voted to continue discussion at its Sept. 22 planning and dialogue meeting. Migliore suggested that voters do some research on the population and spending trends produced by the data task force which are available on the district's website, and he also suggested they watch the documentary "Communities and Consequences" that addresses the reasons for declining student enrollment and the divide between taxpayers and their schools and municipal offices.
When speakers in the audience objected to being asked to spend time doing research, the school board agreed to a suggestion that it put together a presentation with bullet points noting the key points they felt the public should know in weighing in on the questions raised. That fact sheet will be available prior to the Sept. 22 meeting.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 10 September 2014 01:42

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City Council gets briefing on fireworks laws & ordinances

LACONIA — After Mayor Ed Engler and several city councilors fielded complaints from residents about fireworks during the summer, City Manager Scott Myers briefed the council last night on the regulation of aerial displays in the city.

Myers explained that fireworks fall into two categories: "display" fireworks, which can only be purchased and displayed by licensed contractors, and "permissible" or "consumer" fireworks available to the general public. State law also prohibits the sale of certain sparklers, firecrackers and bottle rockets. Moreover, federal law, enforced by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, forbids the sale of particularly explosive fireworks, including M-80s, cherry bombs, large shells, aerial bombs and firecrackers with more than 50 milligrams of powder, which is about one-sixteenth the weight of an aspirin tablet.

The city, Myers continued, is bound by state statutes governing the sale, possession and display of permissible fireworks. State law authorizes municipalities to prohibit the sale, display or possession of permissible fireworks. "Display" is defined as "the use, explosion, activation, ignition, discharge, firing or any other activity which is intended to cause or which causes a firework to do what it was manufactured to do." State law restricts the possession and display of permissible fireworks to those aged 21 or older and confines their display to private property with either the consent or presence of the property owner.

In 2000, the City Council adopted an ordinance (Chapter 150) prohibiting the sale or purchase of fireworks in the city. However, the city neither prohibits nor regulates the possession or the display of permissible fireworks. Without a more specific ordinance, Myers said that the police are bound by state law, which he noted "leaves lots of gray area."

Police Chief Chris Adams told the councilors that complaints about fireworks represent "a very common type of call." He said that officers respond to complaints and, echoing Myers, agreed that because there are no specific restrictions, enforcement is difficult.

Myers said that the city's noise ordinance is also challenging to enforce. It reads that "It shall be unlawful for any person, firm or corporation to make, continue or cause to be made or continued or to allow to be continued any loud, unreasonable noise or any noise which would annoy, disturb, injure or endanger the comfort, repose, health, peace, safety, convenience, welfare and prosperity of a reasonable person" within the city limits. He recalled the concerns raised by hotel, motel and cottage owners about venues offering live music at The Weirs and the difficulty the Planning Board has encountered in prescribing appropriate noise levels.

Councilor Bob Hamel (Ward 5) noted that outdoor loudspeakers cannot be operated after 9 p.m. between Sunday and Thursday or past 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.and suggested similar restrictions could be imposed on fireworks. Myers said that the city could regulate the display of fireworks in a similar fashion.

Councilor Armand Bolduc (Ward 6) asked if the council could hold a public hearing on the issue of fireworks. Myers replied that if there were a proposal to adopt or amend an ordinance a formal public hearing would be appropriate, but in the meantime the council could simply place the issue on the agenda of a future meeting and invite the public to comment about it. The council took no action.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 10 September 2014 01:08

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Head on crash at dangerous Belmont intersection

BELMONT — Two young men were taken by ambulance to Lakes Region General Hospital with what police are preliminarily describing as serious but non life-threatening injuries after a two car crash at the intersection of Seavey Road and Rte. 106.

Police Chief Mark Lewandoski said, preliminarily, it appears a small silver sedan was making a left turn from Seavey Road on to Rte. 106 and was struck head-on by a Mercury Mountaineer headed south.

He said it appears the driver of the Mountaineer tried to avoid the crash by moving as far left as he could but was unsuccessful.

Lewandoski said it looks like impact spun the sedan around at least once while the Mountaineer went off the road about 50 feet south of the crash site.

He said the driver of the sedan had to be removed by emergency responders from the car while a front seat passenger was found lying on the road next to the car. Since the accident had just happened, Lewandoski said police hadn't determined if the young man was able to get out of the car by himself or if the door flew open and he fell out.

A third young man was in the back seat of the sedan and he was able to get out of the car on his own and declined to be taken by ambulance to the hospital.

The two men in the Mountaineer also declined transport to the hospital.

Lewandoski noted that this is one of the more dangerous intersections in Belmont and is scheduled to be reconfigured by the N.H. Department of Transportation using federal highway safety money.

He said one of the changes will be turn out lane on either side of Rte. 106.

CAPTION: Belmont Police Chief Mark Lewandoski investigates a two-car crash at the intersection of Rte. 106 and Seavey Road that sent two young men to the hospital by ambulance. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Gail Ober)

Last Updated on Wednesday, 10 September 2014 01:03

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Mayor casts deciding vote for police contract

LACONIA — The City Council last night approved the collective bargaining agreement negotiated with the Laconia Police Officers Association by the Police Commission as Mayor Ed Engler cast the deciding vote when the councilors divided evenly for and against the contract.
With councilors Henry Lipman (Ward 3) and Ava Doyle (Ward 1) absent, councilors David Bownes (Ward 2) and Brenda Baer (Ward 4) voted to approve the contract while councilors Bob Hamel (Ward 5) and Armand Bolduc (Ward 6) dissented. Two weeks ago, after appearing preparing to approve the agreement, the council unanimously rejected it. Last night, before the vote, City Manager Scott Myers, when questioned by Bownes assured the councilors that three items in the agreement had been adjusted.
The compensation and benefits provided by the contract with the police mirrors those the City Council awarded to city employees who are not members of a union as well as those of contracts with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Local 534, which represents some 15 non-managerial employees at the Department of Public Works, and the Local Professional Firefighters, Local 1153 of the International Association of Firefighters already approved.
The agreements are for three years. Employees will receive cost of living adjustments of 2 percent, 2.25 percent and 2.5 percent in each year of the contract. Employees will no longer have a choice between two health care plans. The so-called "HMO High" plan, which has a $500 deductible and $10 office visit copay and requires a 15 percent premium contribution from employees, has been eliminated. The so-called "HMO Low" plan, with a $2,000 deductible and $20 copay, remains.
While employees have contributed 6 percent to the premium of the "HMO Low" plan, under the new contracts they contribute 8 percent the first year, 9 percent the second year and 10 percent the third year. The wages of employees will be supplemented by an annual payment of $250 in each of the next three years and the city will contribute $1,000 to the Health Reimbursement Account of each to be applied against their deductibles. Any unused funds may be carried forward to subsequent years.
The contracts also include language to forestall liability for the so-called "Cadillac Tax," a 40-percent federal levy on the value of health insurance benefits exceeding specific thresholds — $10,200 for an individual and $27,500 for a family — imposed on January 1, 2018 by the Affordable Care Act. The city and the unions agreed that if new contracts are not agreed when the current contracts expire, steps must be taken to ensure that the cost of health insurance is below the thresholds. The contracts require the city and unions to either negotiate a health insurance plan or accept a plan reached through binding arbitration that makes the minimal changes to benefits required to keep the cost below the threshold.
Negotiations with the State Employees Association, Local 1984 of the Service Employees International Union, representing employees at the Department of Public Works, have reached impasse. Myers said that the city and the union are awaiting the report of a neutral fact finder, who will consider the differences between the two and make recommendations for resolving them.
Neil Smith of the SEA, who is negotiating on behalf of the employees, said that the differences turn on the amount and duration of the city's contribution to the Health Reimbursement Account. Stressing that he represents relatively lower wage employees, he said that the amount of the contribution is the same for all employees regardless of how much they earn, but the impact of the higher deductible weighs most heavily on those earning the least. Moreover, he said that contribution expires with the contract in three years with no assurance that the city would be willing to include it in a subsequent agreement.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 09 September 2014 01:04

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