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Hill says it needs to realign itself to provide better educational opportunities for its children

by Thomas P. Caldwell

HILL — The State Board of Education has encouraged the Franklin and Hill school boards to get together and try to resolve some of the questions surrounding Hill's request to withdraw from its Authorized Regional Enrollment Area (AREA) agreement with the Franklin School District, according to Assistant Commissioner of Education Paul Leather.
Specifically, Leather said, the state board questioned whether the a study committee formed in Hill late last year met the expectations outlined in state statute, and questioned whether the potential costs of withdrawing from the AREA agreement were adequately addressed.
Hill is looking into severing its ties with Franklin but would like to remain with School Administrative Unit 18, which governs the Hill and Franklin school districts. Voters at a special town meeting on Nov. 19 approved an article calling for the formation of a study committee to consider the feasibility and suitability of withdrawing from its current agreement which would allow Hill to send its students to either Winnisquam or Newfound for middle and high school classes.
The study committee, comprising two members of the Hill School Board, two Hill selectmen, former Superintendent Maureen Ward, who retired in December, and Interim Superintendent William Compton, met in December with no representation from Franklin. Leather said that the attorney representing Franklin at the March 26 hearing in Concord said the district's non-participation was due to the short notice which did not give the city time enough to designate any representatives.

Hill took Franklin's non-participation as a refusal to take part in the study and, as a result, asked the state board for an expedited review of its report, completed in January.
The study committee was able to complete its report in such a short time frame because this is not the first time Hill has considered withdrawing from its AREA agreement. The issue has arisen several times for more than a decade, with parents expressing concerns about the quality of education in Franklin schools. Franklin's dropout rates once were the highest in the state, students have had to share textbooks, and teachers have had to purchase many of their own materials because of financial pressures on the city's school system. Recent years have seen improvements in dropout rates but Franklin still lags behind Winnisquam and Newfound in both graduation rates and the percentage of students going on to higher education.
The study focused on the backgrounds of the potential host communities, including population trends, tax rates, and school enrollment, as well as data on student-teacher ratios, dropout rates, cost per pupil, and test results. There also was a comparison of the courses of instruction at each of the schools.
The committee found that Newfound has a significantly higher cost per pupil than either Franklin or Winnisquam, but stated that Hill would attempt to negotiate a tuition agreement that would take into account the district's increased costs for student transportation and special education. "Various charts found in other parts of this study show the benefits offered to students in both Winnisquam and Newfound School Districts that are not offered in Franklin," the report states.
Discussing standardized test scores, the report found, "In Reading, Newfound School District exceeded the state average five times in 6 years. Winnisquam exceeded the state average eight times in 6 years and Franklin exceeded the state average only once.
"In Math, Winnisquam exceeded the state average five times in 6 years. It should be noted that both Winnisquam and Newfound School Districts exceeded Franklin's scores."
In comparing courses offered at the high school level, the report stated that Winnisquam offers 119 courses, including honors and advanced placement, while Newfound offers 49 courses and Franklin 46.
Winnisquam offers 14 athletic opportunities and 21 clubs while Franklin offers 12 sports and 11 clubs and Newfound offers 11 sports and 10 clubs.
For middle school students, the report found that Winnisquam offers more honors courses; Newfound and Winnisquam offer World Languages; and all three offer technical education.
Franklin has the lowest number of teachers with advanced degrees of the three districts, and the greatest number of teachers that do not fall into the highly qualified category.
"In analyzing the educational benefits of the withdrawal of Hill students from Franklin," the report states, "the committee found a consistent and recurring theme. Hill parents and School Board want to improve the quality of education and the quantity of available courses to maintain a consistent excellence in education for all students. Both Winnisquam and Newfound School District offered more Honors courses, Running Start Programs, and Advanced Placement opportunities. ... Student achievement in both Winnisquam and Newfound School Districts is consistently higher than that of Franklin."
If approved, the plan calls for Hill withdrawing from Franklin on July 1, 2015, but allowing current students in the Franklin schools to remain there if they wish until graduation from high school. Hill would continue to pay their tuition, but transportation would be at the family's expense. "Given that Hill students would not all leave Franklin at the same time," the report states, "the loss of revenue would not occur in one year but would be phased out over a three to five year period. This time frame gives ample opportunity for Franklin School District to plan for the change."
In reviewing the report on March 26, the state board found it lacking in detail on the disposition of property and the handling of liability should the districts end their agreement, said Shelly Henry, the chair of the Hill School Board. She said the state board also wanted the committee to spell out in detail the financial and educational consequences of such a move.
"I felt it went well," Henry said, "but had hoped it would be better." She noted that, although the only speakers were attorneys representing the two districts, there were several representatives of both Franklin and Hill schools attending the session in Concord.
The study committee plans to meet on April 7 to take up the outstanding issues with Franklin so it can go back to the State Board of Education for a decision on the request. Henry said they can still meet their target date of July 2015, but "time is ticking and we still need to reach out to the other districts. Everybody will be working like busy little bees."

Last Updated on Wednesday, 02 April 2014 12:28

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Victim said to have been selling pot at time of armed robbery

LACONIA — The victim of an armed robbery on Joliet Street at 4:09 p.m. on March 25 was allegedly in the process of selling pot to a friend of the man who is accused of robbing him.

According to testimony offered in the 4th Circuit Court, Laconia Division yesterday at a probable cause hearing for accused armed robber Joshua McNeil, 31, police said the victim admitted the alleged perpetrator had come to his apartment to purchase some marijuana. The robbery then allegedly occurred at gunpoint.

Police testified that the victim said he had gotten a text message from McNeil asking to buy some pot from him and that McNeil met him and his passenger in a downtown parking lot.

The three men allegedly then went to the victim's apartment on Blueberry Lane, got some marijuana and were driving across town to sell it to one of McNeil's friends.

A Laconia officer testified that the victim told him somewhere along South Main Street, McNeil put a gun to the back of his head and told the passenger to keep his head between his legs and not look up. The victim said he was told to stop at the bottom of Pine Street where the passenger was ordered out of the car.

Police said the victim told them that McNeil ordered him to turn right on to Baldwin Street and then right on to Joiliet Street. At this point, the victim said he was trying to convince McNeil that he didn't have any money and said he gave his wallet to McNeil to prove it.

He told police that McNeil stole the marijuana and "pistol whipped" him in the head. The victim said he ran to one of the residences for safety on Joliet Street and the resident called the police for him.

Two police officers spoke separately with the victim and his former passenger and both picked McNeil from a photo lineup. The testifying officer said he included McNeil in the photo array because the victim told him McNeil's first name was Josh, had described tattoos that the officer knew were similar to those McNeil had, and that he knew McNeil had friends and/or family in that South End neighborhood.

The officer said at no time were the victim and his passenger in the same room during their contact with police so they could not have concocted the story they both told separately to two separate police officers.

Under cross examination, McNeil's attorney elicited from the officer that the victim had asked the Joiliet Street resident who called the police to hide a marijuana pipe for him because he was afraid of getting in trouble when the police came.

Neither the victim nor his passenger called the police but did cooperate when police arrived.

When asked if the officer was familiar with the victim and his alleged marijuana activities, the officer testified that he had never met or heard of the victim until he first encountered him on Joliet Street.

He also said that the next morning a woman who had some relationship with McNeil called the Laconia Police and told the sergeant in charge that McNeil had used a BB gun but that he no longer had it.

The officer testified that the sergeant encouraged the woman to get McNeil to turn himself in, which he did on March 26 around 8 p.m.

McNeil's public defender argued that the credibility of the victim and his passenger were suspect and since a gun hasn't been recovered there isn't enough evidence to sustain the charges of armed robbery.

The city prosecutor argued the credibility of the victim and the witness are matters for trial.

Judge Jim Carroll agreed with the prosecutor and found probable cause for the charges. McNeil continues to be held on $100,000 cash-only bail.

The case will be bound over to the Belknap County Attorney for possible indictment.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 02 April 2014 12:20

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Laconia presents lawmakers with other side of campground trailer taxation issue

CONCORD — City officials appeared before the House Municipal and County Government Committee at the Statehouse yesterday in opposition to legislation —Senate Bill 333 — that would exempt from property taxes recreational vehicles stored or placed on a rented campsite at a recreational campground or camping park year around.

In January, SB-333 carried the Senate by a unanimous vote of 24 to 0. Nevertheless, a crowd of more than 150, dominated by campground owners, filled the committee room to overflowing for the hearing that ran for almost two-and-a-half hours.

After the Senate passed the bill officials in Laconia and Bristol were quick to raise concerns. Jon Duhamel, the city assessor, has counted 423 recreational vehicles parked at a dozen campgrounds year around with an aggregate assessed value of $9,994,500. They have been taxed for years, but would become exempt from property tax if the bill were enacted. He estimates that the city would forgo more than $220,000 in revenue, which would add 10 cents to the property tax rate.

At Bristol Shores there are 183 recreational vehicles with a total value of nearly $8 million representing some $160,000 revenue, in foregone revenue to the town.

The statutory definition of a recreational vehicle includes motor homes, vans, pickup campers and tent trailers as well as recreational trailers of 400 square feet or less. The definition includes so-called "park models," which may be 12-feet and 36-feet long with pitched roofs and gabled windows that resemble miniature cottages with room to sleep as many as 10 people. Unlike other recreational vehicles, park models cannot be registered as motor vehicles or transported on public roads without a special permit.

The issue of taxation arose in the wake of two court decisions. In 1999, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that a truck trailer could be assessed and taxed as a building "if by its use it:  (1) is intended to be more or less permanent, not a temporary structure;  (2) is more or less completely enclosed;  (3) is used as a dwelling, storehouse, or shelter;  and (4) is intended to remain stationary." Two years later the Belknap County Superior Court applied this standard to eight trailers at the Hack-Ma-Tack Campground at The Weirs, confirming the city's authority to tax eight trailers on the property as buildings.
On the strength of the court decisions, the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration (DRA) urged municipalities to apply the criteria strictly. Some, like Laconia did, but others found the cost of assessing the units and billing their owners, many of whom reside outside the state, outweighed the revenue collected.
Sen. Jeanie Forrester (R-Meredith) introduced the legislation at the request of the New Hampshire Campground Owners Association, whose members, together with some municipal officials, were troubled by the inconsistent application of the law. Some are taxed as real estate while others are not. Some municipalities bill the owners of the recreational vehicles while others, unable to identify the owners, bill the owners of the campgrounds.

The bill was intended to mend what Forrester called a "crazy quilt" and introduce consistency in the treatment of recreational vehicles by local assessors by clearly distinguishing them from "manufactured housing" and simply exempting those in campgrounds from property taxation.

However, in response to the concerns expressed by Laconia and Bristol, an amendment, crafted by the Henry Veilleux, the lobbyist representing the campground owners and sponsored by Representatives Jeffery Shackett (R-Bristol) and James Belanger (R-Hollis), was presented to the House committee yesterday.

Veilleux told the committee that the amendment would exempt only those recreational vehicles less than eight-feet, six inches in width, leaving all wider units liable to property taxation, effectively authorizing municipalities to tax only the "park models," which represent the bulk of the assessed valuation of recreational vehicles. He estimated that the amendment would enable Laconia to recapture at $6,568,000, or 66 percent, of the assessed valuation. The amendment would leave all the units at Bristol Shores taxable.
Mayor Ed Engler of Laconia described the goal of exempting recreational vehicles as "admirable," insisting that "Laconia does not tax recreational vehicles and no one else should either." However, he said that the bill, by exempting units permanently situated on campsites from taxation, turned campgrounds into "safe harbors."
Distributing photographs of recreational vehicles embellished with porches and decks sitting on landscaped sites and surrounded by outbuildings, Engler said "these are not intended to be moved." He read from the ruling in the Hack-ma-Tack case, where the judge held "these trailers are more akin to a summer camp dwelling than to a camper intended for travel. A summer camp dwelling is a building."
Engler recommended that the committee revisit the definition of a campground, questioning whether it was intended to apply to recreational vehicles that were improved and never moved.
City Manager Scott Myers said that while the city "appreciated the amendment," it would still leave $3.5 million in property tax revenue on the table. He explained that the city does not tax any recreational vehicle registered as a motor vehicle or trailer or an unregistered recreational vehicle that has been moved within six months.
"We have had very few complaints in Laconia," Myers said, implying that the city has complied with the court decisions without encountering the issues that appear to have bedevilled relationships between local assessors and campground owners in other municipalities.
For example, Neal Cass, the town administrator in Hopkinton, said that it is difficult to identify and track the owners of recreational vehicles in order to bill and collect property taxes, especially when units change hands, since no deed is recorded.
Kevin LeCasse of New Hampton, who owns a campground in Effingham , said the local assessor handed him a stack of tax bills for the owners of recreational vehicles in his campground, expecting him to collect the taxes. When the owners questioned their bills, he said they approach him, not the town officials who assessed the property and prepared the bills. Moreover, state law stipulates that the owner of the campground may be assessed for the taxes left unpaid by the owner the recreational vehicle left on the property.
Robert Bradley of Epsom was among several campground owners who feared that taxing recreational vehicles left on campsites year round would have adverse impacts on their individual businesses and the tourist industry. One owner said that he lost a quarter of of his seasonal campers when the property tax was first levied.
Sylvia Leggett of Robert's Knoll Campground in Alton, said that allowing campers to store their vehicles was part of her business plan, but since the town began taxing recreational vehicles she had begun to fear losing her customer base.
Joe Lessard of Municipal Resources, Inc. hearkened back to the comparison with a summer camp, cautioning the committee that the bill, with or without the amendment, would lead to "inequitable treatment of similarly used properties," a constitutional question. He conceded there was some confusion in administering the tax as directed by court, but said the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration is seeking to resolve the problems. He recommended the committee report the bill "inexpedient to legislate."

Last Updated on Wednesday, 02 April 2014 01:24

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Parent-excused absences said a big problem at LHS

LACONIA — High School administrators reported last night that from 2011 to 2013 the number of students who were truant or absent from school without a reason has dropped by nearly 50 percent.

In 2011 the district reported 1003 truancies while in 2013 there were 456.

Administrators told the School Board last night that positive interventions and improving the school culture were some of the leading reasons for the improvements in attendance.

As to the number of students who needed to be disciplined, the number of out-of-school suspensions dropped from 72 in 2011 to 52 in 2013. The number of in-school suspensions had also dropped from 364 in 2011 to 203 in 2013.

Administrators said they added an administrative detention period in 2013 as well as a student support system that helped 535 students overcome some issues that they were having either in school, at home, or otherwise.

"It's all about climate, culture and consistency," said Principal Jim McCollum who took over as high school principal in the 2012-2013 school year.

McCollum said the biggest problem facing the high school right now is excused absences and those are more difficult to control. In 2013 there were 2,596 excused absences.

For the purposes of record keeping, and excused absence is defined as a student missing one or more blocks of school with parental consent or a student that is more than one-half hour late for school again with parental consent.

He said that if a parent calls the school and notifies it that their son or daughter will be absent or late, then there's not much the school can do about it.

McCollum said the part of the positive behavior intervention system at the school constantly reinforces the notion that a student has to show up in order to be productive.

He said statistics show that overall a student who misses six or fewer days in a school year will have a grade point average of 3.3 or higher. A grade point average declines as the number of absences — excused or unexcused — increases.
"It's what we hear from employers and it what we hear from the community college. You have to show up," McCollum said.

Commenting from the audience, retired civics teacher Richard Coggin said that was the best presentation he's heard in about five years.

Coggin called out some of the existing board members for letting good attendance records slide and and disciplinary incidents increase under the administration of former Principal Steve Beals.

Long-time member Joe Cormier said he didn't necessary agree with Coggin stating that his view was "skewed."

However Coggins assessment got a back-handed approval from the newest board member Mike Perssons, who said that the recent increase in the number of programs and academic offerings as well as the leadership of the current administrative team at the high school have made a big difference in the truancy and discipline issues.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 02 April 2014 01:08

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