Support for WOW Trail plan strong, Pitman’s objects

By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN

LACONIA — Support for blazing the second phase of the Winnipesaukee-Opechee-Winnisquam (WOW) Trail along its planned route was near unanimous among those who filled City Hall to the gills for a public hearing this week.

The City Council scheduled the hearing when the WOW Trail committee requested it eliminate the dedicated right-turn lane from New Salem Street to Main Street and a dozen parking spaces on New Salem Street.

Allan Beetle, president of the WOW Trail committee, opened the hearing by tracing the route from the Laconia Public Library to the Belmont town line. He explained that where New Salem Street parallels the railway line below its intersection with Pleasant Street, there is not enough space between the roadway and the track to accommodate both the 12 parking spaces the 10-foot-wide trail. He said that eliminating the dedicated right-turn lane from New Salem Street on to Main Street, is necessary to ensure a safe crossing of Main Street linking the first and second phases of the trail.

Beetle acknowledged that the city must address the long-term need for parking downtown, but insisted "the fate of 12 parking spaces will not make or break downtown Laconia.

Most agreed. Pat Wood of the Downtown Tax Increment Advisory Board, who at an earlier meeting noted the board was divided over the parking spaces, said that "the 12 spaces are important, but there are solutions."

Likewise, John Moriarty of the Main Street Initiative, who earlier said that 68 of 70 people he asked replied "under no circumstances should parking spaces be reduced," made no mention of his prior survey, but instead noted that less than a handful of two dozen speakers questioned the route of the trail and invited the crowd to express their support for the project with applause.

A number of downtown business owners, including Rueben Bassett of Burrito Me, David Kennedy of the Holy Grail, Ted Roy of the Water Street Cafe, Miles Chase of MC Cycle & Sport, and Penny Pitou of Penny Pitou Travel, all expressed support for the trail with no mention of the need for the parking spaces. In a letter to the mayor and council, Robert Curtis of the Bank of New Hampshire said the loss of the parking spaces would have "minimal impact on our employees and customers while the benefits from the trail would outweigh any adverse effect of removing the spaces.

Richard Mitchell, owner of Pitman's Freight Room, presented the strong dissent in the form of a letter read by Maureen Bieniarz-Pond. He explained that the trail will pass 12 feet from the front steps of the front door to his club as well as a consume a stretch of the railroad right-of-way where he has parked 40 cars. In contrast to other business owners, who said that the trail would boost the economy of downtown, Mitchell warned "This poorly placed trail will throttle it."

Conceding the impact on Pitman's Freight Room, Beetle suggested he negotiate arrangements with his neighbors, whose parking lots are empty after working hours. He was echoed by Craig Beane, who owns property across the street from the venue, who said he has never been approached by Mitchell, but would be willing to grant the use of 30 to 60 spaces as long as he is insured against liability.

The City Council is expected to address the request to eliminate the turn lane and parking spaces when it meets on Monday, May 23.

Beetle said that if work begins on the trail early in July, the project can be completed in October.

Protesters: Save Hess - Students and teachers pack Shaker meeting

By GAIL OBER, LACONIA DAILY SUN

BELMONT — High school students and their parents packed the Shaker Regional School Board meeting last night to protest the administration's decision not to renew a beloved English teacher's contract.

For reasons that are yet unknown, teacher Scott Hess's contract for next school year was not renewed. His participation in Freshman Academy was also curtailed in January according to those who spoke at the meeting.

"I know Mr. Hess to be a dedicated and gifted teacher, who truly cares about all his students and has the ability to inspire them," said parent Rebecca Becker, who presented the board with a petition with 170 signatures asking that the board review its decision not to renew Hess's contract.

The non-renewal of Hess's contract comes at a time of relative upheaval at Belmont High School as Principal Dan Clary will retire, Assistant Principal Rick Aquilano will go to the Gilford School District and district Superintendent Maria Dreyer will also retire.

While there have been many changes over the past year, none was more controversial than that of the board's deciion to change the grading system from letter-based traditional grading to competency-based grading. Adding a new computing system to assist teachers with competency-based grading was not performed to many parents' and teachers' expectations, and the potential lack of a curriculum coordinator moving into next year has parents asking about teacher training.

Despite Board Chairman Sean Embree's decision to limit public comment to 10 minutes total and to tell the crowd that the board would not discuss any personnel decisions with them, many of Hess's former and current students were given the opportunity to speak. Eventually, Embree extended public comment five more minutes to give each student who wanted to say something an opportunity to do so while the adults in the room ceded their time to the students.

The 2015 Class President Ashley Fenimore led the students, saying that Hess goes out of his way to put the students above himself.

 

Another young man spoke of how he was one of the baseball coaches last year and said Hess was "everything you could ask for in a staff member."

"We need teachers like him," said Aidan Rupp, the student representative from the Belmont Middle School to the board last year.

Rupp added that removing from Hess from Freshman Academy wasn't fair either.

Other students lauded Hess's club called Students Against Deadly Decisions, and club co-president Elizabeth Nix said Hess spent hours and weeks coordinating safety programs for the students.

Another freshman noted how Hess had made his transition from middle school to high school easier, telling the board Hess was able to help struggling students without holding back the rest of the class.

At the end of the comment session regarding Hess, Becker told the board that the campaign to get him a new contract would not end with the statements made that night but would continue.

05-11 student for Hess

2015 Student Council President Taylor Becker speaks on behalf of teacher Scott Hess, whose contract was not renewed by the Shaker Regional School District. (Gail Ober photo/Laconia Daily Sun)

Proposed Laconia school budget cut by $1.7M, including staff

By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN

LACONIA — "We're starting to tread in a dangerous area," said Ed Emond, referring to reductions in classroom teachers and staff in Laconia schools. Emond, the business administrator of the School District, and School Superintendent Phil McCormack presented the proposed 2016-2017 budget Monday to the City Council.

The budget includes $1,747,545 in reduced expenditures, $522,696 more than required to comply with the city tax cap in order, Emond explained, to provide funds to negotiate collective bargaining agreements with the unions representing the teaching and support staff and as well as other unanticipated expenses. The largest share of the reductions personnel costs represent the largest share of the reductions, which include eight teaching and three special education positions, three administrative positions and nine secretarial and support positions.

By contrast, the controversial decision to schedule band as an after-school program spared $50,000 in costs. McCormack said the decision is intended to serve academic purposes by enabling students playing in the band to also enroll for Advanced Placement classes, which will be offered in the fourth block, the time slot band traditionally met. At the same time, sports practice will begin at 3 p.m., enabling students to play both in the band and on the field.

The school district faced a decrease of $683,338 in revenues from sources other than property taxes, of which the a drop of $455,338 in state aid is the most significant. The tax cap allows the school district to raise $410,944 in property taxes, reducing the net revenue shortfall to $272,394.

Meanwhile, expenses are projected to rise by $1,143,255, with anticipated jumps of $660,000 in special education costs and $390,000 in health insurance costs accounting for most of the increase. Seven retirements will spare $190,800, trimming the growth of expenditures to $952,445.

To offset the loss of revenue and meet the rise in expenses while budgeting within the limits of the tax cap, the school board identified reductions of $1,224,849.

McCormack told the councilors that rising and unanticipated special education costs are driving increases in the budget. He said that the proportion of students with special needs is 5 percent above the state average. This year, there were 197 students with special needs enrolled in the three elementary schools, 127 of them at Woodlands Heights School, where 45 were enrolled in its preschool program. The total number students with special needs in the elementary schools is projected to rise to 203 in the next school year. There are 81 special-needs students currently enrolled at the middle school, a number expected to increase to 86 in 2016-2017. Likewise, the number of special-needs students at the high school is projected to increase from 86 to 96.

McCormack stressed that the costs are difficult to forecast from the numbers alone, explaining that if a student must be placed in either a daylong or residential program, the cost of tuition and transportation can range from more than $30,000 to more than $100,000 per student.

Emond emphasized the importance of negotiating a contract with the teachers. He noted that the average salary in the district is below the state average, while salaries in neighboring districts, including Inter-Lakes Cooperative, Gilford, Plymouth and Pemi-Baker Regional are above it.

"We're losing teachers to these other districts," he said. "We don't want to go without a collective bargaining agreement."