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Red Cap Run draws hundreds to support Keene family

After a day of snow, freezing rain and power outages, the sun came out on a chilly Saturday morning and so did 370 runners and volunteers for this year’s 5K Red Cap Run in Keene. The race benefited Bella Melendy, 7, of Keene and her family.

The annual run, organized by the Body & Soul Runners of Keene, is now in its sixth year. In 2015, the first Red Cap Run started as a fundraiser for the family of Keene resident Kenneth C. “Kenny” Valenti Jr., who was killed in a work-related accident in Troy in 2014.

Last year, Bella sustained a traumatic head injury after a sledding accident in February. She had to wear a neck brace for months and take the rest of the school year off. She has since gone back to school, but continues to have effects from the injury.

Because Bella is sensitive to crowds and loud noises, instead of clapping for the winners of the race, spectators waved both hands in the air to congratulate them. Bella was able to watch the festivities as the celebration was kept at a low volume.

Organizer Sara Alderfer, owner of Body & Soul Personalized Fitness in Keene, asked runners to look around at one another at the start of the race at the Courtyard by Marriott in downtown Keene. “Everyone here is a good person,” she said. “Take a moment to appreciate each other’s efforts.”

Ahead of the event, Alderfer and other organizers, traveled to elementary and middle schools in N.H. School Administrative Units 29 and 93 to talk about the importance of helmet safety, with Bella and her mother, Crystal Melendy, able to join them at some stops.

In the wake of this year’s Red Cap Run, Nelson School has created a new policy requiring students to wear a helmet when sledding at the school. It will go in effect after February break.

Schools were given papers with helmets on them for students to color in. The finished products were hung around the event room at the Courtyard Marriott, where pre- and post-race festivities were held.

The Keene Kiwanis Club gave away free helmets to kids at the event.

Keene Mayor George Hansel applauded the community of runners and volunteers. “This event, and the DeMar marathon and everything else that people in this room participate in,” he said, “you have proven that the city of Keene is a city that runs.”

More than 90 local businesses sponsored the event, with 30 donating prizes.

“To have people that don’t me, that don’t know my children, especially Bella, to have all of this outpouring love and support for something that could have turned out so horrible, you guys are all amazing,” Crystal Melendy told the crowd after the race. “The kids, you guys rock.”

Each of the participants received a heart-shaped chocolate “medal.” Race medals were given to the runners with the top three times in each age category, as well as to the top three winners of a children’s mile race.

Thomas Paquette, 28, of Keene was the fastest overall male with a time of 17:42, and Erica Boutilette, 30, of Spofford was fastest overall female with a time of 21:14.

New Hampshire searches for a moderate to love

MANCHESTER — Before he strapped on a Mardi Gras mask and tossed beads into the crowd, Democratic strategist James Carville asked a room of moderate voters to imagine an election-night miracle.

“Turn on MSNBC, and you’re gonna see Rachel [Maddow], Brian Williams, Ari whatever,” Carville said. “They’re saying Bernie Sanders and Mayor Pete are locked in first place. Warren’s in third. And then: Hey, somebody recheck this: The Michael Bennet numbers are coming in! He’s really coming on strong at the end!”

Bennet, a senator from Colorado who has not qualified for the party’s televised debates since the summer, is polling between zero and 1 percent in New Hampshire, the state where he has campaigned the most.

But Joe Biden’s fourth-place showing in Iowa, and an ensuing dip in the polls here, has put many centrist voters back on the market, unsure which Democrat could run strongest in a general election — and which one could push past Sanders, whose age and left-wing politics make them nervous about how he’d perform in a general election.

“There was a movement to Biden, thinking that he was the way to stop the Bernie movement,” said Will Kanteras, 67, who had hosted house parties for Bennet. “Now there are questions about Biden’s viability, so we’re getting another look.”

Biden, who had struggled here even when seen as the race’s front-runner, has been showing signs of a New Hampshire collapse. While events in the primary’s final days are often clogged with tourists, Biden has drawn smaller crowds than Sanders, Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. or Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. Bennet’s buzzy rally with Carville packed more than 100 people into a downtown restaurant; some had moseyed over from a Biden stop that was a few blocks away and only a little bigger.

The former vice president has looked rattled by his changing fortunes, trading his old criticism of Democratic “circular firing squads” for attacks on Sanders and Buttigieg. At the party dinner, Biden walked away from notes that had been placed on a lectern, ditching his usual talk about electability and optimism to describe what he had seen at a bread line that morning.

“Hundreds and hundreds of people in that bitter cold with nothing, nothing, nothing to look forward to in their mind, just to get a little sustenance,” Biden said. “You know, one of the guys walked up to me, and it was so cold, he gave me a skullcap. And I thought to myself, why do I have this skullcap? I gave it to one of the kids! Think about it! New Hampshire! The United States of America! A line that lasted and lasted and lasted with no hope in sight for these people!”

Biden brought the crowd to its feet with a new closing line, evoking the deaths of his wife, first daughter and first son in a series of tragedies: “I’ve lost a lot in my life, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to lose an election to this man.”

But his supporters were outnumbered by supporters of Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and even former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, whose campaign had purchased more than 800 tickets — another moderate-lane candidate trying to introduce himself to up-for-grabs voters.

“People here are less decided than they were six weeks ago, than they were six months ago, than they were a year ago,” Bennet said at a news conference before the dinner. “The principal reason for that is they are concerned about whether the leading candidates can actually beat Donald Trump. I share that concern.”

In 2016, when Sanders won the primary in a landslide, 26 percent of Democratic primary voters said they were “very liberal,” while 32 percent identified either as moderate or conservative. That second number could jump this year, with the state’s 415,871 “unaffiliated” voters, free to vote in either party’s primary, likelier to choose a dogfight on the Democratic side over a sleepy coronation on the Republican side. And since 2016, Democrats have made gains and conversions among centrist Republicans who worry about their party’s direction under President Donald Trump.

Some conservatives are trying to boost that turnout, with an anti-Trump effort affiliated with Bill Kristol making calls to unaffiliated voters, urging them to vote for “a responsible and electable candidate in the Democratic primary.”

But even this vote, if organized effectively, could scatter. Kristol told The Washington Post that the effort does not specify any Democrat in particular, leaving it to the voters to navigate the moderate candidate muddle. Jennifer Horn, a former New Hampshire GOP chairwoman who works with the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, said she was not involved in the calls and personally “would like to see the Democrats nominate Amy Klobuchar,” who has polled well-behind Buttigieg and Biden.

Both Buttigieg and Klobuchar tell audiences that they’re concerned about massive new government spending, a way of wooing independent voters.

“I see what’s happening under this president — a $1 trillion deficit — and his allies in Congress do not care,” Buttigieg said Sunday in Nashua. “So we have to do something about it.”

A defeat in New Hampshire for Sanders would raise questions about his viability going forward, but moderates may be too divided to make that happen. Voters who are deciding between the moderates remain unclear on who could win, or at least come out of their primary with credibility as the anti-Sanders. Some of them said they could support former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, who will not appear on the ballot here and who looms for whoever does make it to Super Tuesday.

“My idealistic self would like Bernie or Elizabeth, but you’ve really got to go with somebody who is willing to work with both sides,” said Kent Carlson, 57, as he waited for the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s pre-primary dinner to begin Saturday night. His own decision, he said, had come down to Buttigieg or Bloomberg, but he’s a Massachusetts resident who has to wait a few weeks to vote on Super Tuesday. “I was originally more of a Joe [Biden] supporter, but I’d like somebody a little younger than that.”

For now, less than 48 hours before they make a decision, all New Hampshire’s moderates know is that Biden is slipping. A tracking poll from CNN and the University of New Hampshire found the percentage of voters here who expect Biden to win the state dropping from 22 percent before the Iowa caucuses to 9 percent now.

None of the candidates who voters see as moderates broke out of single digits. To argue that they’re on the verge of a breakthrough, they’re pointing to atmospherics — the swelling crowds at Buttigieg’s rallies, the new crowds and donors for Klobuchar, the tracking polls that appear on nightly news. Klobuchar will tell crowds that she is “surging,” while Buttigieg recalls just how scrappy his campaign was when it began, giving the impression of unstoppable, one-way momentum.

Polling, which slightly missed the mark in Iowa, has found Buttigieg far ahead of the other moderates here. Some tracking polls have found last-minute movement toward Klobuchar. While Sanders opponents have already begun spinning a possible win here as a fluke, likely far below his 2016 numbers, none are clearing out of the way. Bennet, who told The Washington Post last month that he was aiming for a top-three finish in New Hampshire, called Carville’s support “incredibility validating” and argued that there was time left for him to become the latest alternative for Sanders skeptics.

“We’re going to surprise a lot of people,” Bennet said, “and it won’t take much to surprise them.”

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School board criticized on tutor contract in Keene district

Voters at the Keene School District’s deliberative session Saturday morning expressed dismay at the school board’s opposition to a proposal that would increase pay and benefits for tutors.

They passed nearly all of the warrant articles onto the March ballot unchanged, aside from a slight increase to the operating budget.

The tutors’ warrant article comes more than a year after the board and the Association of Keene Tutors reached a stalemate, rather than a new contract.

The district employs about 100 tutors who offer direct support to special education students as outlined in their individualized education program, or IEP, according to a union handout from the meeting.

The warrant article would raise $339,938 in taxes to cover wage and benefit increases in the first year of the contract, which includes retroactive pay to when the previous contract expired on June 30. By the end of the four-year agreement, tutors would also get one personal day (which could be rolled over and accumulated for up to three in one year), two additional holidays, more tuition reimbursement for continuing education, and a slight increase in sick day accrual.

The cumulative cost of salary and benefit increases in the proposed contract, which would last through June 2023, is estimated at $1,792,233.

Negotiations between the school board and the Association of Keene Tutors first stalled last January, when the union rejected 3-percent annual pay increases. The association’s president, Kathy Twombly, told The Sentinel then that the proposed raises were an average, not a 3-percent bump across the board, and that they weren’t competitive enough to keep tutors in the district.

Keene tutors have since been working under an agreement that was approved by voters five years ago and expired last June.

After the two sides found no consensus, they turned to a fact-finder, a neutral third party who steps in during labor disputes. On Jan. 4, the fact-finder issued a 76-page report with recommendations, which drove the article on this year’s warrant.

The association asserts in the report that the average tutor wage of $13.29 an hour is more than a dollar below the lowest custodian wage. Such low pay is to blame for Keene’s high turnover and vacancy rates of tutors, the union argues, especially when most nearby districts offer benefits and better wages.

The school board alleges in the report that the cost of the union’s proposal would be “intolerable to the voters,” and considered its 3-percent offer generous relative to the national average raise for education employees, which is 2.4 percent.

But Michael C. Ryan, the fact-finder, says in his recommendation that he isn’t convinced “that the District cannot afford such a wage increase nor that the voters would reject it.” He acknowledges that the “strikingly high turnover rate of Tutors is undisputed” and includes testimony from teachers, as well as a former tutor who left the district because of the low pay.

Seventy-one registered voters attended Saturday morning’s session — a dismal turnout for a city with approximately 19,000 registered voters — and several spoke in favor of the proposed agreement with the tutors union.

State Rep. William Pearson, D-Keene, said people can send messages through their vote of what their community values.

“I think education is one of those values that Keene should come out strongly for,” he said.

Other voters called it shocking and wrong for the board to put its recommendation against the article on the warrant, though the district’s attorney, John Wrigley, explained that’s required by state law.

When Twombly, the tutor union’s president, told the board members they “should be ashamed” of themselves, Moderator Kathleen O’Donnell interrupted and instructed her and other speakers to be respectful.

William Gillard, president of the Keene Education Association, which represents the district’s teachers, pointed out the legal costs that stack up on both sides when negotiations are unsuccessful. He also noted, as the tutors’ union has, that there are typically around two dozen tutor vacancies in the district because the wages aren’t competitive.

“First and foremost, this could have all been settled during the negotiating process if the board had been more reasonable,” Gillard said.

Board member Kris Roberts’ hand shot up after Gillard’s remark, indicating to the moderator his urgent intent to speak. During his turn at the mic, he underscored the need for qualified people in the positions and not just “babysitters,” implying the vacancies are due to a lack of adequate applicants, rather than the pay.

Since that was the last article on the warrant and voters can’t amend proposed union contracts, the meeting wrapped up once everyone had said their piece.

The operating budget was the only item changed Saturday morning. Marie Duggan made a motion to add $10,000, which she said she’d like to see used for Keene Middle School’s Gifted and Talented Program.

Her amendment passed, and the operating budget now on the table is $68,684,935.

The operating budget figure doesn’t include separate spending measures, such as the cost to approve the Keene tutors agreement or the other three union contracts on the warrant: the Keene Educational Office Personnel Group, the Keene Clinical Service Providers and the Keene Custodians.

If voters approve all spending measures on the warrant, the district would need to raise $69,151,916 in 2020-21.

Keene voters from all five wards will cast their ballots March 10 at the recreation center on Washington Street from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.