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School bus driver strike looms, schools ask parents to plan


LACONIA — As a possible school bus driver strike looms, Superintendent Branden Minnihan said Tuesday he has reached out three times to parents to identify those students who have no way to get to school if First Student drivers go on strike.

He said the district owns a few small buses and vans and he hopes that by using them, plus having parents use creative solutions to get their children to school, the district can continue to operate.

"My understanding is that they authorized a strike but that nothing would happen until Thursday at the earliest," Minnihan said. "We do plan on opening."

Several media agencies have reported that union representatives of Teamsters Local 633, which represents the drivers of the First Student facility in Belmont, have voted to strike the company, but are still in negotiations.

The Belmont facility is negotiating a contract and is apparently at an impasse over contributions to the retirement plan. In a suit filed in U.S. District Court, District of New Hampshire, the company reported that it had failed to make required matching contributions totaling $27,961.84 on behalf of 110 covered employees. It also reported that it had misdirected $34,535.28 in employee elective deferrals into a First Student-sponsored plan rather than the Teamsters Plan.

On Nov. 10, the Gilford School District sent a letter to families saying that should the drivers strike First Student, parents and students will be responsible for getting to school. He said the district has a plan to stay open, but parents and students will be responsible to arrange for transportation.

Beitler said a work stoppage will mean there will be no ability to transfer students to the Huot Technical Center and all field trips and sports activities requiring buses will be canceled.

Inter-Lakes Superintendent Mary Moriarty said their students take buses from the Moultonborough First Student facility and they have a contract that includes a "no-strike" clause.

She said she doesn't anticipate any interruptions to Inter-Lakes service but said that if the drivers strike in Belmont, parents should wait with children in case there are unplanned delays. She also said parents should have a contingency plan to get their children home from school.

On Nov. 8, Shaker Regional School Superintendent Michael Tursi told the School Board that without any buses he doesn't see how the schools in the district can open.
A Twitter message went to parents Tuesday morning telling them that school buses will be running at least until Wednesday.

Gilmanton Elementary School will depend on parents to bring their children to and from school in the event of a strike. Students can be dropped on between 8 and 8:30 a.m. only, and release times will be staggered from 2:30 p.m. when kindergartners through second graders will be released, and 2:50 p.m., when third-, fourth- and fifth-graders will be released. Students in grades 6 through 8 will be released at 3:10 p.m. Students with younger siblings will be released at the same time as their youngest sibling.

Principal Carole Locke and Superintendent John Fauci asked that parents not accompany their children into school in the morning and not enter the school in the afternoon to pick them up. This is to avoid foot traffic and congestion.

Locke has posted all of this and additional details on the school website and has sent a letter home with each student.



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Hutchins resigns

Planning Board chairman quits ‘hostile environment’


LACONIA — A divided City Council this week resolved to withhold further funding for preparation of the Master Plan after expressing concern that the Planning Board will fail to endorse a plan that addresses the major challenges facing the city.

Immediately after the council voted, Warren Hutchins, chairman of the Planning Board, submitted his resignation in a brief, terse letter to City Manager Scott Myers, saying he would no longer serve with the council and mayor in a "hostile environment of their creation."

The council split evenly over the resolution with Councilors Henry Lipman (Ward 3), Brenda Baer (Ward 4) and Bob Hamel (Ward 5) voting in favor and Councilors Ava Doyle (Ward 1), David Bownes (Ward 2) and Armand Bolduc (Ward 6), who first indicated he would vote in favor, voting against, leaving Mayor Ed Engler, who said he cast his deciding vote "without reservation," to break the deadlock.

The resolution expressed doubt that the Master Plan would tackle "the significant demographic and economic issues" facing the city, particularly the shrinkage of the middle class population and the diminished commercial tax base. Moreover, it pointed to the unwillingness of the Planning Board to engage in "a reasonable public discourse" about a proposal, initiated by the mayor and endorsed by he council, to make changes to the zoning in the Commercial Resort District at The Weirs.

Lipman introduced the resolution on the heels of the Planning Board's decision earlier this month to summarily reject the council's zoning proposal, which widened the rift between the council and the board. But, he said the issue was not confined to zoning at The Weirs, but included the Master Plan. He said that Mayor Ed Engler "tried to demonstrate leadership" by offering the proposal as a step toward righting the imbalance in the tax base, mitigating the aging population and overcoming the poverty of the city, reducing the relatively high cost of housing and creating incentives for investment. By spurning the council's request to collaborate, he said, the Planning Board made "a mistake. I don't think we do a very good job in the way of planning," he continued."The resolution sends a message to get in sync for the benefit of the public."

Hutchins staunchly defended the position of the Planning Board, stressing that at three separate meetings altogether 29 people spoke "far more negative than positive" against the council's proposal and the board voted unanimously to scuttle it. "You really need to understand what we're doing and that we are acting in the best interest of the city." He called the resolution "the latest bomb," which he found "very disturbing." He told the councilors that the Master Plan was not something done in the council chamber or "the back office of The Laconia Sun" referring to the mayor's position as president of this newspaper, "but done in the public with all the members of the community invited to participate."

Saying that he ws "amazed" and flaggergasted," Hutchins said, "Today it's the Planning Board you don't like. Tomorrow what's it going to be, the Library Trustees? We need to stop this hostile environment," he added, then eying Hamel, said "Go ahead, smirk if you want," and returned to his seat.

Hutchins was echoed by fellow board member Hamilton McLean and Michael Foote of the Zoning Board of Adjustment. McLean, who was critical of the zoning proposal, said "It is ill-advised to start that conversation at this particular point in the Master Plan process." As for the Planning Board's decision to reject the proposal, he said that "it is rather sophomoric to come back and say I don't like this and I'm taking my ball and I'm going home. I thought better of you." Like McLean, Foote, holding a copy of the state planning statutes and regulations, emphasized the importance of completing the Master Plan before proceeding with any proposals to change zoning in the city.

Doyle found the resolution in "very poor, very poor taste" and "insulting" to the volunteer members of the the Planning Board. The message it sent to other volunteer boards, she said is "If you give us an answer we don't like, we're going to overrule it." She warned that some members of the Planning Board may choose to resign, suggesting that perhaps that is what some councilors want them to do. "I implore you to please reconsider this," she said. "It's only going to make matters worse."

"This is not a new situation," Baer said. She noted that in 2006 a team sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended redrawing the zoning district at The Weirs and more recently the council asked the Planning Board to reconsider the Commercial Resort District. She said that the major elements of the council's zoning proposal were discussed and adopted when the councilors and other city officials held a "goals setting" earlier this year. She said the councils elected by the voters to set public policies for the city and the work of the Planning Board, including changes to zoning, should serve those goals and policies.

Hamel said the last Master Plan is seven years late and "not worth the paper it's printed on." In the meantime, he said, a trailer park was developed overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee and devaluing the lot across the street, which has lain fallow for a decade. "Since then," Hamel said, "I've heard not one suggestion of 'let's fix this problem because we don't want this on another spectacular view of the lake.'" He noted that while nothing has been done to forestall a similar development anywhere at The Weirs, the Planning Board and its Zoning Task Force spent months discussing the keeping of chickens in the city.

Bownes sought to bridge the breach. "There are too many people in this room who are behaving badly," he said. "The opportunity we should be embracing here is not yea or nay, but what other ways can we explore." Scolding the Planning Board, he said that rejecting the council's proposal out of hand is not engaging in a discussion. Nor, he continued, was the answer "I'm going to take away the money." Instead, he urged both sides to "open your minds folks. Engage in a discussion."

Engler reminded the councilors that when, by a majority of five-to-one, they adopted the zoning proposal, they understood it was "a work in progress." He said that initially there was talk of a joint meeting between the City Council and the Planning Board, but that was deemed too unwieldy, Instead, City Manager Scott Myers suggested discussion begin in a smaller group of six members, three from each body. But, when the suggestion was presented to Hutchins he "flatly rejected" it.

Engler said he presented the proposal to both the Zoning Task Force and the Planning Board, noting that he met with no criticism and answered few questions. Subsequently, the Planning Board held a public hearing on the proposal, after which Hutchins delivered a harsh critique and the board voted to reject the proposal. "There were two speeches but no dialogue whatever," the mayor said. "This is no way to conduct policy.''

The mayor said when the Planning Board rejected the zoning proposal, speakers and members repeatedly stressed that any change in zoning should be deferred until the Master Plan is complete, for without there would be nothing to guide zoning decisions. But, he said no one — not the Planning Board, not the Master Plan Advisory Committee, not the Zoning Task Force — had been briefed about the plan.

The Planning Board, Engler explained, intends to contract with the Lakes Region Planning Commission to complete the plan by writing the chapters on land use, housing, community facilities and services and transportation. Yet, he said, no one can explain what information or direction has been provided to the commission. The mayor likened the situation to asking the Wizard of Oz to write the Master Plan. "We know it's going to be wonderful," he remarked, "because he does wonderful things."

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Woman escapes Weirs Boulevard standoff by climbing out window


LACONIA — Police arrested a city man on Tuesday morning, alleging he assaulted a woman at his home and threatened to kill her if she attempted to leave. 11-15 James Patrick CunninghamJames Cunningham, 60, of 223 Weirs Boulevard, was taken into custody at about 10:15 a.m. on Tuesday morning, following a two-hour stand-off with police.

Laconia Police Capt. Matt Canfield said that the alleged victim, a woman in her 20s, called 911 at 7:49 a.m. on Tuesday and stated that that she had been assaulted several times during the night. Canfield said she told police that Cunningham had an array of weapons in the home, including knives, a sword and several firearms, including a shotgun.

Cunningham was known to police as a member of a gang, said Canfield.

Cunningham refused to leave the home when police first arrived, resulting in a stand-off situation that involved the activation of the Belknap Regional Special Operations Group. Laconia Fire Department was also on scene. Three nearby homes were evacuated, and traffic on Weirs Boulevard was rerouted onto White Oaks Road.

Canfield said that there was no evidence that the alleged victim was being physically restrained, yet said, "She was afraid to leave" due to threats of physical violence. "He said he'd slit her throat." The woman, in a room in the rear of the home, stayed on the phone with emergency dispatchers while police surveyed the home. When the situation seemed safe to do so, about a half-hour after police arrived, the woman climbed out of a window and into the protection of waiting officers.

While Cunningham was uncooperative with police, Canfield said that officers were able to contact Cunningham's attorney, who eventually persuaded Cunningham to exit his residence. However, Cunningham allegedly continued to resist attempts to arrest him, requiring police to use a Taser in order to arrest him.

Canfield said there was no evidence that Cunningham used any of the weapons in an illegal manner, though he confirmed that he had access to them.

Cunningham was charged with domestic violence simple assault, felony second degree assault – domestic violence, criminal threatening and resisting arrest. He is currently being held at Belknap County Jail.

11-15 Cunningham standoff

James Patrick Cunningham was arrested on Tuesday morning after a two-hour stand-off with Laconia Police who were responding to a report of domestic violence. Weirs Boulevard was closed to traffic as Laconia Police and members of the Belknap Regional  Special Operations Group surrounded the home where a 911 call originated. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)

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