By Thomas P. Caldwell
HILL — Following an inconclusive public hearing at which residents were divided over which option to recommend, the Hill School Board voted on Dec. 10 to pursue a tuition agreement with the Newfound Area School District, to begin with the 2015-16 academic year.
Hill residents had earlier voted to investigate ending their longstanding Authorized Regional Enrollment Area (AREA) agreement with Franklin due to a perceived lack of academic rigor and the financial pressure on the schools from the city's tax cap. Hill would plan to remain with School Administrative Unit 18, but would send students to another school district if it proved feasible.
Initially showing an interest in accepting Hill students were Newfound, Merrimack Valley, and Franklin. Winnisquam did not submit a letter of interest because of time constraints but subsequently indicated an interest in accommodating Hill. Merrimack Valley, however, dropped out of the running.
Newfound had presented the most comprehensive package and the Hill board was leaning toward that district due to geographic proximity and existing connections — Hill families participate in activities at Bristol's Tapply-Thompson Community Center and know many of the families there.
Just prior to Wednesday's meeting, however, the board received bad news financially: Tuition to send 65 Hill students to Newfound would cost $839,917, with tuition to the middle school being $12,294 per student and the high school tuition being $13,243 per student. Hill currently pays $11,191 in tuition for Franklin Middle School and $9,089 for students at Franklin High.
Even more disturbing was the figure coming out of Franklin. Because of an overall decrease in the number of students in Franklin schools, combined with an increase in the operating budget, Franklin's middle school tuition next year would be $11,564.71, while the high school tuition would be $14,195.90, resulting in a total tuition cost of $864,847.32 — the highest of the three districts competing.
Winnisquam came in significantly lower, at $712,918, with tuition rates of $11,953 at the middle school and $10,484 at the high school.
Looking at it from a purely financial angle, Hill resident Paula McDonough said Winnisquam's offer would make the most sense. She noted that the majority of Hill residents are older and on fixed incomes and she said they probably would turn down a proposal that involved Newfound or Franklin.
Others in the audience were more concerned with academic offerings, athletics, and the percentage of students going on to college from the three school districts. When the school board was unable to answer many of the questions, people suggested postponing a decision until representatives from the various schools could be there to answer them.
Chair Shelly Henry pointed out that time constraints make that difficult, since they need to have a tuition agreement ready for budget purposes by mid-January, and to have a warrant article for the school district meeting just weeks later.
Board members later said they also wanted to avoid a "dog and pony show" where the various school districts would be trying to "sell" their schools.
Hopes for some kind of consensus in the audience to help make the school board's decision easier soon faded as speakers chose different schools to support. Many said that, for all its problems, Franklin still provided a good education and that many graduates went on to college and to good careers.
Others supported Newfound for its modern facilities, broad curriculum, and the best test scores of any of the three districts under consideration.
Winnisquam test scores are only marginally behind Newfound's, and the school offers a wider range of classes and more sports than Newfound. While it is more distant than Franklin or Newfound, that additional distance is not much more than a mile.
Some parents were concerned about moving students to a new district. Hill wants to allow students in grades 10, 11, and 12 to remain and graduate from Franklin High if they wish, while students in grades 6 through 9 would be required to attend the new school district. That troubled some who said it would be a big adjustment for the younger children to be thrust into an entirely new environment.
It was for that reason that many supported going with Newfound, since they already have some ties with the Newfound towns. Another reason is a longstanding rivalry with Winnisquam that might make integration there more difficult.
Those concerned about school safety pointed out that both Franklin and Winnisquam have school resource officers, while Newfound does not.
Nancy Coffin, vice-chair of the school board, said having an education leader was important and she noted that Winnisquam's superintendent has been there six years and just signed a new, two-year contract. Franklin has had several superintendents over the past few years and is doing a new superintendent search now; while Newfound's superintendent is in her second year there.
"The stability of the educational leader is important," she said.
Noting that she works at Winnisquam, Coffin said she nevertheless originally supported Newfound. "But I did not expect Winnisquam to come in this low. And they do offer the most educationally."
Resident Gerard Desrochers commented, "In the entire history of the AREA agreement, I've never seen a 50 percent increase. But I have to wonder about Winnisquam's tuition rate, long-term. I'm concerned that their proposal allows for a rate change after their school district meeting. We'll have developed a budget based on the tuition rate they quoted, and if it goes up, what are we to do?"
Desrochers continued, "I'm also concerned about Newfound. Franklin has had a tax cap for years, while Newfound has been under a cap for only two years. They had some severe decisions to make at the start of the year, and were saved because the revenues increased, but that might not happen in the coming year. Their tax cap is not tied to the cost of living, so it could be a big problem."
He concluded, "Maybe the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know."
A straw poll of the audience, after several Franklin supporters had already left, showed six supporting Franklin, nine supporting Newfound, and six supporting Winnisquam.
Superintendent Robert McKenney later addressed Franklin's increase, saying, "I sit here stunned. If we were going to fudge the numbers to win your support, we wouldn't have come up with this."
He said he went over the numbers with Business Administrator Amanda Bergquist to be sure they were right, and then again with Mike O'Neill, the former business administrator, and was assured that the calculation was correct, according to the existing AREA agreement.
Board member December Fortin commented, "I think there's more potential with Newfound. I don't see that emotional connection with Winnisquam."
When Henry finally made the motion to enter into negotiations with Newfound, all three board members voted in the affirmative.
Last Updated on Friday, 12 December 2014 01:22
LACONIA — "I've been here for 21 years," Police Chief Chris Adams said yesterday, "and its been at least that long since there has been an officer involved shooting."
Adams explained whenever an officer applies force, which includes manhandling a suspect, displaying a weapon and firing a gun, a report is filed and reviewed. Each year all such incidents are compiled in a "use of force report" for the Police Commission.
Captain Bill Clary said that in 2013 there were 121 reports filed, 23 of them arising from incidents involving more than one officer. Some measure of force was associated with 2.5 percent of the nearly 1,400 arrests made that year. What he called "open hand," or manual force, accounted for 56, or almost half, of the incidents in which force was used. Tasers were displayed on six occasions and firearms were drawn at 36 incidents. The only shots fired by officers in 2013 were to kill seven animals.
Clary said that firearms were most often displayed when several officers were arresting a felon with a recorded propensity for violence or believed to be in possession of weapons. He said that two officers would hold the suspect at gunpoint while third handcuffed him.
Clary anticipated the report for 2014, which will be presented to the commission in January, will contain similar numbers, though with some 200 fewer arrests the percentage accompanied by use of force could increase. He said that while he had not compared the data with that of other departments, he believed the number of times officers use force is "very low."
Adams stressed that officers are trained to take steps to avoid violent confrontations. "We call it 'verbal judo,'" he remarked, referring to the practice of dissuading suspects against provoking a confrontation. "The goal is always for nobody to get hurt," Adams said.
Likewise, Clary emphasized that "we are trained to deescalate incidents." He said that the threat of force has lessened the need to apply it, noting that since pepper spray and tasers (electric stun guns) were introduced their use has diminished as their effects have become known. What Clary dubbed "drunk muscles," the tendency of some to seek confrontation while under the influence of alcohol, accounts for many cases where force is used. "If we follow our training, everybody gets to walk home," he said.
But, Adams acknowledged that because police work can be dangerous and not all conflict can be avoided, officers also train to respond to threats to themselves and others. Several years ago the department, with grant funding, purchased a laser-activated simulator that presents officers with different scenarios requiring them to respond with appropriate levels of force, including deadly force, "There are some dangerous people out there," the chief said. "police officers can't wait to become victims."
Last Updated on Friday, 12 December 2014 01:17
GILFORD — With its significant investments in snowmaking, the crew at Gunstock Mountain Resort has stockpiled snow at the summit, will groom the terrain today and open two routes from the summit first thing Friday morning.
"Gunstock believes in burying a trail with snow before we open it," said general manager Greg Goddard. "We have been diligently investing in our high capacity,m energy efficient snowmaking system every year," he continued. "It's when variable weather like we have had over the past several days we see the payoff in opening new trails after a storm."
Goddard said that Dan Carbonneau, who supervises snowmaking operations, and his crew have been amassing snow on the mountain, which with the passing of the rain will be moved to open the two routes from the summit. They are also working on Red Hat and Tiger in anticipation of opening the Tiger lift as well as at the Nordic Center and Tubing Hill.
Seven trails — Daisy, Peepsight, Misfire, Try Me, Smith, Upper Smith and Tiger — have been open since last week.
Last Updated on Thursday, 11 December 2014 02:51
BRISTOL — The Newfound Area School Board has sweetened the pot for the Hill School District, backing out some of the costs that were built into a proposed tuition calculator in an effort to present a figure that is palatable enough to keep the negotiations going.
Hill is seeking to withdraw from its Authorized Regional Enrollment Area (AREA) agreement with Franklin and send its middle and high school students to another district. Newfound, Winnisquam, and Merrimack Valley are under consideration, with Franklin hoping to persuade Hill to stay there. Newfound had met with the most favorable response, until Hill learned that Newfound's tuition would be more than $1,000 per student more than the other contenders would charge.
Hill currently sends approximately 90 grades 6 through 12 students to Franklin. Students in the current sophomore and junior classes at Franklin High School would be given the option to complete their secondary education at that school.
Benjamin LaRoche of Bristol, a member of the Newfound board's Hill subcommittee, proposed on Dec. 8 that the board approve a revised tuition calculator developed by Business Administrator Michael Limanni that backed out school board and central office costs from the calculation. Doing so brings the base tuition close to $13,000 per student, in line with what Hill currently pays to Franklin.
Jeff Levesque of Groton objected, saying it would be unfair to taxpayers in the Newfound Area School District who bear those costs.
Don Franklin of Hebron, also a member of the Hill subcommittee, countered that Hill would not have a voice on the school board and that the cost of operating the central office would be the same whether or not Hill students were attending local schools.
School Administrative Unit 4 Superintendent Stacy Buckley pointed out that, under the plan, Hill would remain a member of SAU 18 and would be paying Franklin for central office support. She said issues with Hill students would be handled by the Hill School Board and Franklin's superintendent.
Limanni also pointed out that any costs incurred by Hill students would be billed to them. Hill students participating in the summer program or after-school events would pay for them separately.
The tuition agreement also would exclude transportation costs, as Hill would pay for its own busing; and Hill would be responsible for any special needs costs for its students.
Vincent Paul Migliore of Bridgewater, serving as chair in the absence of Danbury's Ruby Hill, said he objected to the tuition agreement on a number of points, from the cost differential with what local residents pay to the "gray areas" in the agreement that could lead to problems down the road.
Migliore compared the administration of the complex tuition agreement to the handling of the grant for Project Promise, an after-school program. Poor oversight had resulted in a breach of the Project Promise grant terms and the school district is having to repay much of the grant funding as a result. Migliore said a 10-year tuition agreement, with the probability that there would be different board members and different administrators handling it before it comes up for renewal, could prove to be another expensive mistake for the school district.
Having supported an effort to establish full-day kindergarten next year and hearing objections that moving forward that quickly was not feasible, Migliore observed that no one was objecting to quickly cobbling together the Hill tuition agreement in time for a vote in March.
Buckley took issue with the comparisons, saying Project Promise was a grant program that came with stipulations that should have been followed but were not. The tuition agreement, once crafted, will determine the costs and a change in leadership will not affect that, she said.
As for the other point, Buckley noted that allowing students to attend Newfound does not change the programs or require any reconfiguration of classes. Full-day kindergarten, on the other hand, would require staffing changes and classroom realignment, a much more complicated undertaking.
Limanni reiterated that any final agreement would incorporate safeguards to ensure that Hill would be paying for any new or unanticipated costs associated with its students attending Newfound. "This tuition calculator, coming in not much over $13,000, would get our foot in the door with good faith and still let us justify it by asking if we're being fair to our taxpayers," he said.
Just before the vote, Levesque said he still objected to leaving off the cost of the superintendent's office, but he said the value of having an agreement that would bring in approximately $800,000 in revenue exceeds the $60,000 difference in the tuition calculation.
In the end, the school board voted, 5-1, to direct the Hill subcommittee to enter into negotiations with the Hill School Board, using the tuition calculator as presented by Limanni as the basis for a tuition agreement.
Last Updated on Thursday, 11 December 2014 02:48
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