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Staff bonus & public input issues still boiling at Newfound

by Thomas P. Caldwell

BRISTOL — A state representative who also serves on the Newfound Area School District Budget Committee is alleging that the bonuses awarded to three administrators last month violated the Municipal Budget Act and could lead to the dismissal of the school board members who approved them.
Meanwhile, the new agenda format that allowed the board to make a hasty decision on the bonuses generated more than an hour of discussion on Monday night before a split board left it in place.
Rep. Harold "Skip" Reilly of Alexandria asked the Newfound Area School Board for permission to speak to the district's attorney about the bonuses before possibly proceeding to file litigation against the school district. He said that, while the budget committee had discussed the matter, it had not yet made a decision about what to do, so he was appearing only as a resident to seek redress of what he maintains was an unlawful act.
The board responded that a private citizen could not seek advice from the district attorney.
Reilly cited provisions of RSA 30 that he argued had been violated by granting a $5,000 bonus to Lori Lane, director of the After School 21st Century Learning Grant program, and $2,500 bonuses to Business Administrator Michael Limanni and Student Services Coordinator Anne Holton. Reilly said there was no line item in the budget for bonuses and therefore they failed to meet the law's requirement that money be spent for a specific purpose for which a provision had been made. He also noted that the expenditure had not been discussed in a public hearing and that the budget committee had not been apprised of the possibility of the bonuses being given.
School district administrators maintain that the bonuses are legal, as they fall under the salaries category in the budget.
School Board Chair Ruby Hill of Danbury noted that other school districts often award bonuses to their staff members without it being listed in a separate line on the budget.
Word of the bonuses created backlash in the district, coming as it did immediately after voters had turned down a negotiated collective bargaining agreement with the teachers' union and on the heels of a decision by the school board to eliminate a number of guidance and paraprofessional positions.

The money for the bonuses became available when voters at the annual school district meeting increased the budget amount recommended by the budget committee. Insurance costs also came in significantly below projections.
Susan Colby of Bristol stood to voice her displeasure with the decision, saying she was disgusted by the bonuses. "We have other non-union staff members and paraprofessionals who do way more than they were hired for, but instead of bonuses, they're getting pink slips," she said.
In recommending the bonuses last month, Superintendent Stacy Buckley said the three had put in exceptional effort and had saved the school district money through efficiencies and restructuring.
Residents and staff members were particularly upset with the largest bonus going to Lane, who had been with the district only a few months and who resigned immediately afterward without returning the bonus.
Just as controversial was Hill's decision in April to dispense with the agenda format that had been in place for many years. In an attempt to simplify the agenda and to more closely follow board policy, Hill had limited public comment to the beginning and end of the meeting and for agenda items only. In the past, town officials and members of the public could bring up any issue at the beginning of the meeting, although no action could be taken on items that were not on the agenda. The second public comment session had been after the school board had discussed all agenda items but before any vote was taken.
Former Chair Vincent Paul Migliore had objected to the change, saying that hearing from the public before voting had proven to be very valuable and, in some cases, led to him changing how he intended to vote. That break between the discussion and the vote also gave board members time to fully consider the issues, he said.
At Monday's meeting, Migliore asserted that eliminating that period to think about the agenda items was partially responsible for the approval of the bonuses. Other board members agreed, noting that there had been no real discussion before the vote.
Bob Brooks of Hebron took Hill to task for the agenda change, asking, "Was there any discussion among the board, or a vote taken, about the removal of that public comment portion of the school board meeting, or was it just decided upon by the newly elected chairperson, Mrs. Hill? ... If things can be changed without any prior discussion, then do you, Mrs. Hill, intend on running this board ... as your own personal fiefdom, or will you listen to what the public feels about this issue and any others that might come before you?"
He continued, "In your short rule as chair, you, in my opinion, are starting out at 0-2 with the first item under your reign being immediately challenged (the agenda), and also with the terrible decision made about the bonuses. Since Mr. Migliore seems to be the only member actually listening to or caring about his constituents' opinions (voting against the bonuses as one example), therefore to me being the only voice of reason, or if you will the conscience of the board, I would hope that more of the people who occupy the seats on the board remember that they are there because they got elected by the people, who also voted down any excess spending, and follow what I think, anyway, is his right way of thinking."
Hill said she did not intend to limit public comment, except as required by board policy which had not been followed under Migliore, and she noted that this month's agenda restored the public comment periods at the beginning and just before the vote. But she said if the board intended to continue allowing comment on non-agenda items, the board should amend its policy to reflect that.
When taking up the agenda change at the end of the meeting, Migliore spent a great deal of time explaining why his format had been adopted and why he felt the board should return to it. In addition to giving the board time to think before voting, the old format contained a checklist to make sure procedures were followed and that minutes were accurate. He noted that the board had to spend a long time Monday night correcting errors in the minutes which canceled out the savings a simplified agenda was supposed to create.
Saying he could understand Hill's concern about not following policy, he proposed a "board philosophy" stating that, if the school board chose to do something contrary to existing policy, it should be understood as superseding that policy and that the policy committee would as soon as practical amend the policy to reflect that change.
Don Franklin of Hebron objected, saying such a policy would allow the board to do anything it pleased.
Most board members agreed with Migliore on one point or another, but they were unable to come up with a replacement policy that all could agree with. Sue Cheney of Alexandria suggested using Hill's simplified agenda for posting the meeting, while using the old format to check off items as the board took them up. Another suggestion was to have a short list appended to the front to alleviate confusion while utilizing the old agenda format.
When, after more than an hour of discussion, it came time to vote on returning to the old format, Migliore and Ben Laroche of Bristol voted in favor, Cheney, Hill, and Franklin voted against the change, and Jeff Levesque of Groton and Christine Davol of New Hampton abstained.

Last Updated on Thursday, 15 May 2014 12:40

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1 child = 1 laptop: Inter-Lakes schools invest $300k in devices

MEREDITH — The Inter-Lakes School Board on Tuesday night approved a $292,816, 39-month lease for Chromebooks, laptops and desktop computers which will enable the school district to provide every student in grades 4-12 with technology which will allow them to access information, resources and materials through the school district's computer system.
The district is leasing 450 Chromebooks, 162 laptops and 77 desktop computers with monitors for a three-year period according to Superintendent of Schools Mary Ellen Ormond, who says the funds for the lease are included in the school district budget which was approved by voters in March.
The district is implementing a 1:1 computing program which enables all students to have access to this technology whether or not their parents can afford it.
''It will be one child, one device,'' says Ormond, who said that the school district conducted a pilot program at the Sandwich Elementary School last year.
She said that the Google Chromebooks provide an inexpensive option and that the district already uses Google educational applications which involve ''cloud-based computing'' in which there is no on-site storage of data or programs. These are accessed remotely through the Google education websites.
She said that students will have remote access from their homes through the school's system and will be able to work on projects whenever it is most convenient for them.
A Chromebook is an internet access device running Google Chrome OS as its operating system. The devices, typically the size of a laptop, are designed to be used while connected to the Internet, though there are some apps that can be run offline. All the data is stored in the "cloud" accessed by an Internet connection. Chromebooks sell for around $150 to $300 and as of last November represented 21 percent of the laptop market in the United States.

Last Updated on Thursday, 15 May 2014 12:22

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Lily Pond park idea advances

GILFORD — The Board of Selectmen last night encouraged a group of private citizens to proceed with exploring the development of 2.9 acres along Rte. 11-C (Lily Pond Road) at the northeast corner of Lily Pond as a park.

Attorney Doug Hill of the Conservation Commission explained that the parcel is one of four totaling 145 acres, which in 2006 were placed under conservation easements to mitigate or offset the loss of wetlands incurred by the expansion of the Laconia Municipal Airport runway. The property is owned by the City of Laconia, but lies in the Town of Gilford, which holds the easement, and falls under the joint authority of the city and Laconia Airport Authority in accord with the rules and regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The New Hampshire Department of Safety once used the parcel as a fire training facility. The land was cleared and stumped and a graveled access road and parking area constructed, along with three buildings, which have been removed.

Robert C. Brown, who with Steve Whalley of HK Powersports and Diane Terrill, manager of the Laconia Airport, is pursuing the project, told the board that his intention is to provide an alternative to the strip of shoreline to the south, which shoulders Lily Pond Road and is directly in line with the airport runway, where people congregate to fish and sail model boats. He said that with parking on both sides of the road and people crossing the road underneath the flight path created a very unsafe situation.

The conceptual plan for the park includes several fishing piers, a launch ramp and restroom, but leaves most of the parcel as open space with picnic tables. An off-road parking lot would be placed on the opposite side of Lily Pond Road.

Hill stressed that the plan is only conceptual, but said that any development of the parcel would require amending the conservation easement, which in turn would require the approval of the N.H. Attorney General. "There are a whole bunch of steps," he said, noting that the city, town, N.H. Department of Environmental Services, Attorney General and perhaps the FAA all have an interest in the property. Hill told the board that Conservation Commission, which administers the conservation easement, last week voted in principle to amend the easement to further the project.

Although Selectman Richard Grenier said "I have concerns," neither of his colleagues — Gus Benevides and John O'Brien, who chairs the board — expressed reservations. "The majority recognizes you can move forward," O'Brien said.

Earlier this week, Mayor Ed Engler of Laconia, who also serves as chairman of Laconia Airport Authority, outlined the project for the city councilors, which raised no objections to pursuing it.

Last Updated on Thursday, 15 May 2014 01:25

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Judge rules prosecution failed to connect woman to Barnstead marijuana plants

LACONIA — Judge Jim Carroll this week dismissed a case against an alleged Barnstead marijuana grower after her attorney successfully argued that the prosecution couldn't connected her to the pot found in a vacant apartment.

Ashley Wittham, 27, of Northwood, was one of two people charged by the Belknap County Sheriff's Department with one count of possession of marijuana and one felony count of manufacturing marijuana after two deputies found pot plants and growing equipment in a 10 Barnstead Drive apartment the two formerly occupied.

The deputies were there to followup on an eviction notice issued to Wittham and her roommate David McNeil, 29, also of Northwood.

The sheriff's found the home had been vacated.

According to testimony offered in the 4th Circuit Court, Laconia Division Monday by one of the sheriff's office deputies during her probable cause hearing, the two found the landlady and a locksmith waiting for them.

Testimony indicated they knocked and got no answer. They announced themselves and entered to make sure no one was there. The testifying deputy said they cleared one side of the house but when the went into the right side of they found a closed closet door.

When they checked the closet to make sure no one was in there, they found seven marijuana plants each about three feet tall and some growing equipment along with fertilizer, books about growing marijuana and other items consistent with pot manufacturing.

The sheriff's left a Barnstead officer there to got to the police station and get a search warrant.

Wittham's attorney Stephen Jeffco waived cross examination of the sheriff's deputy and instead made a verbal motion to dismiss the felony manufacturing charge saying the sheriff's department couldn't connect his client to the person who was renting the apartment.

Carroll agreed and dismissed the case saying the sheriff's department never linked Wittham to the marijuana or the apartment.

The case against McNeil was not prosecuted.

Both cases can still be considered by the Belknap County Attorney's Office and presented to a grand jury for possible indictment.

Last Updated on Thursday, 15 May 2014 01:16

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