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Charlestown's possible withdrawal colors Fall Mountain session

LANGDON — At times during Wednesday’s school district deliberative session, the gym at Fall Mountain Regional High School seemed like an appropriate setting, filled with the exuberance of a sporting event complete with cheers from the bleachers.

But along with the typical dollars-and-cents discussions of these meetings, there were allusions to lofty ideals of truth and principle, contentious disagreements, and mumbling in the crowd about “these Charlestown people.”

With Charlestown’s proposed withdrawal from the Fall Mountain Regional School District on the table this year, the deliberative session was about far more than the individual articles on the warrant.

Impassioned speeches about unity also conveyed an underlying “us-versus-them” tone, and the divisions were clear in the crowd, with voters in favor of Charlestown leaving the district gathered mostly together in chairs on the court, arms crossed and brows furrowed.

In the highest section of the bleachers were rows of maroon and gray — voters decked out in Wildcats garb, whooping and hollering after any anti-withdrawal remark at the microphones.

As the meeting began, district Moderator Leroy Watson donned a bright orange safety vest, which he said later was a lighthearted gesture to acknowledge everything in the air — without disrespecting the meeting process, of course.

Speaking to the warrant article that would approve Charlestown’s departure were representatives from the majority and minority of the withdrawal study committee, which recommended the town's departure from the district by a 7-3 vote in October and submitted its final state-approved plan last month

For decades prior to the study’s commission, the crux of the debate has been Charlestown’s lower property values and median household income compared to the other four towns, fueled by its higher proportion of mobile homes, which bring in less tax revenue than houses and commercial units.

About 41 percent of the high school’s students are from Charlestown, which has the highest school tax rate of the member towns by a long shot. According to the district’s budget summary, Charlestown’s estimated school tax rate for next year is $20.17 per $1,000 of assessed value, with the next highest being Langdon at $15.55.

Charlestown Selectman Albert St. Pierre spoke on behalf of the study panel’s majority, but didn’t elaborate on the group’s findings aside from explaining how the committee functioned and directing people to the majority report available online.

By contrast, school board members Bill Stahl of Walpole and Vice Chairwoman Mary Henry of Langdon gave scathing reviews of the majority’s report. Calling the withdrawal plan vague, Stahl alleged that, in his conversations, not one school administrator in the district supports it.

Then school board Chairman Michael Herrington stepped up to the podium.

“This is a big one, isn’t it?” he began. “This is why everyone’s here, frankly.”

Herrington’s voice carried the weight of a church sermon as he, a Charlestown resident, explained his understanding of his town’s relationship with the district. A gym full of 300 people was silent while he said he voted for the withdrawal study last year as a way to get to the truth. But, he alleged, that wasn’t the goal of the study committee. He laid out the reasons why voters should reject the measure allowing Charlestown to leave the district.

To supporters who say the withdrawal is about money, Herrington argued, the plan calls for Charlestown voters to pay more in taxes to educate their kids. To those who say it’s about local control, he noted students would be tuitioned into the district’s high school, giving Charlestown less power than it currently has.

And if it’s not about money or local control, he asserted, then it has to be a general feeling of dissatisfaction that’s built up over the past 40 years: “It’s about ‘I’m angry and I’m done.’

“So if you’re angry and you’re done, vote to withdraw. As far as I can see, that’s the only reasonable and rational reason to vote for this,” he said. “But don’t lie about it. Don’t hide behind numbers, don’t hide behind facts that may or may not be true. Just say it.”

But the result, he said, would be layoffs across the district and an exodus of Charlestown teachers into other schools. The minority report by the study committee proposes staff and transportation cuts to help cover the cost to the remaining towns of Charlestown’s departure.

Herrington also claimed there was a predetermined outcome by the withdrawal committee.

“So what ends up here is the process was never intended to get truth. The process is fueled, in my personal opinion, by 40 years of anger, of distrust, fueled by a game of telephone between five towns …” he said. “I’m gonna tell you, it is not unlike my kitchen table around Thanksgiving.”

There’s been a breakdown in communication, he said, and as an olive branch, he apologized to St. Pierre for “putting you on the spot” at a meeting.

He then turned to the school board: “We need to do better.”

There was a standing ovation at the end of Herrington’s speech — but almost exclusively by the maroon-clad voters in the bleachers and a few loners in the front. A section of pro-withdrawal Charlestown voters delineated itself by neither standing nor clapping, just sitting after being publicly scolded in front of the rest of the class.

There were far more remarks made against withdrawal than for it, but Charlestown voters had their say on a spending measure.

Several articles, open only to voters in each of the district’s towns, seek to use one-time state funding to make capital improvements to schools.

Charlestown voters have two such articles to consider: one that would use $171,000 for security upgrades and asbestos abatement; another asking for $645,000 to build double-door entrances at the town’s three schools.

Jeremy Wood of Charlestown proposed amending both to zero, asserting that the district should instead go after state grants for the projects and let the one-time funding offset residents’ taxes.

James Fenn, the district’s chief financial officer, explained that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security offers safety recommendations and has suggested these changes for all Fall Mountain facilities, but Charlestown was the only town that received enough money from the state to cover it so soon.

Originally, Fenn said, the security upgrades and the new doors were presented as one article, but they were split in two in response to the budget hearing in January. The $171,000 is comparable to what’s being proposed for the other four towns, he said. Breaking out the higher price tag allowed voters to choose if they wanted to use the money for the door installations or apply it as revenue, which would give the equivalent of a $2.30 reduction in the school portion of the town’s tax rate.

Some voters expressed frustration over the presentation of the articles on the warrant, though, which called the measures “tax-neutral.” Patty Chaffee of Charlestown pointed out that, if approving or denying the article would move the town’s tax rate up or down, it doesn’t sound neutral. Other residents noted that this was the only article that specified on the warrant that there would be a tax impact.

Voters successfully amended the $645,000 article by a ballot vote of 65-46 — which means it’s now a null proposal on the warrant with no money allocated to it — but failed to alter the article for $171,000.

The remaining articles remained unchanged, despite some attempts at amendments.

Other town-specific articles also seek to use a combination of one-time state funding and capital reserve accounts for security upgrades: $35,500 for Acworth Elementary School; $109,500 for Alstead Primary and Vilas Middle schools; $8,500 for Sarah Porter School in Langdon; and $162,500 for Walpole Primary, Walpole Elementary and North Walpole schools.

Aside from a detailed explanation by the school board and administration, there was little discussion on the district’s proposed operating budget of $32,428,708, which is $1,203,908, or 3.86 percent, higher than the figure voters OK’d last year.

Operating budget comparisons do not represent the change in the amount that would need to be raised by taxes, which is also affected by spending requests in separate warrant articles and year-to-year changes in revenue.

The district will be asked to use $156,500 from a capital reserve fund for improvements to the high school, including a replacement outdoor scoreboard and getting restrooms in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Another article would move up to $500,000 from any surplus at the end of the year into a series of capital reserve accounts.

Another article would allow the school board to negotiate a land transfer to the town of Walpole, which already uses and maintains the district-owned parcel on Main Street next to the recreation area for parking.

Overall, an estimated 329 people attended Wednesday’s session from all five towns, according to checklist supervisors — which represents 3.87 percent of the school district’s electorate of 8,491 voters. From Acworth, there were 15 out of 671 registered voters (2.24 percent); from Alstead, 53 out of 1,349 (3.93 percent); from Charlestown, 115 out of 3,252 (3.54 percent); from Langdon, 30 out of 460 (6.52 percent); from Walpole, 116 out of 2,759 (4.2 percent).

Voters go to the polls March 10.

Editor's note: This article has been altered to remove errors made in editing pertaining to the residencies of people sitting in the bleachers and the chairs on the gym floor.

This article has also been altered to correct a reference to the withdrawal committee's vote in October, which was incorrect due to a reporting error.

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In book, Peterborough woman chronicles life with chronic illness

PETERBOROUGH — For years, Cameron B. Auxer felt alone as she dealt with her chronic illnesses.

Over the years, she has been diagnosed with several conditions, including osteoarthritis, joint subluxations, chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromuscular dysplasia. The latter is a very rare disease that causes progressive twisting of the blood vessels throughout the body, whereas subluxations are partial dislocations of the joints.

As she grappled with all this, Auxer, who now lives in Peterborough, also had cancer twice — of the breast and uterus — and survived four heart attacks.

“I was feeling so sick and tired,” Auxer, 65, said, of the mounting medical issues. “I couldn’t do much. I was getting fatigued, and I was getting very depressed.”

Searching for a sense of belonging, she turned to blogging about her experiences. And while the writing was therapeutic, she said the connections she made through her posts were the best part.

With that in mind, she created her own website — pajamadaze.com — in 2012 as a place for people to blog about their chronic illnesses and share information.

After three years of collecting these unique stories, Auxer took a step back and thought, “My God, there’s a book here.”

She self-published “When Bodies Break: How we survive and thrive with illness and disability” in December of 2018.

Earlier that year, Auxer — who’d long served as a caretaker for her father before his death in 2016 — moved to Peterborough from central Pennsylvania to be closer to her hospital, Massachusetts General in Boston. She’s also nearer to loved ones in Nashua and Massachusetts.

Auxer will sign her book at the Toadstool Bookshops in Keene and Nashua at to-be-determined dates next month. The Peterborough store hosted her for a similar event last year.

“When Bodies Break” — which can be purchased at Toadstool Bookshops and on Amazon — is a compilation of 32 stories of people from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, including Auxer, and how they have triumphed despite their illnesses.

The first section recounts their stories with diseases ranging from cancer to chronic Lyme disease while the second serves as a toolkit for self-care, handling emotions and being one’s own health-care advocate.

Though the book was written to assist people with chronic illnesses who are struggling, Auxer said it can also be used for loved ones to better understand the experience.

“One of the most poignant aspects [of the book] is that people don’t feel so alone. They can see they’re not the only one,” she said. “But also, the book helped me to live a better life and be able to say, ‘OK, let’s think about what I can do and not what I can’t do.’”

Auxer noted the book’s profits will go to support autoimmune disease research at the Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle.

Senate acquits Trump in impeachment trial; Romney breaks with GOP to vote for conviction

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday acquitted President Donald Trump of abusing the power of his office and obstructing Congress’ investigation into his conduct, ending the third presidential impeachment trial in American history.

Republicans and Democrats had appeared to be marching toward an entirely party-line vote. But Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the party’s presidential candidate eight years ago, became the only GOP lawmaker to join Democrats in voting to convict the president for what he called “an appalling abuse of public trust.”

For Trump, the Senate verdict allows him to declare victory as he turns toward a reelection bid. But unlike any president in modern history, he will run under the stigma having been impeached by the House — a move with unknown political consequence.

Moreover, although Romney stood alone among Republicans in voting to convict Trump, he had company among his party’s senators in rejecting Trump’s repeated claim that his actions were “perfect.” More than a half dozen Republican senators have said they believe Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine were wrong, although they felt the conduct should not result in his removal from office.

The Senate voted 48-52 on the first article of impeachment, abuse of power, and 47-53 on the second article, obstruction of Congress. Romney voted against the second article. Both articles required 67 votes for approval.

The House impeached Trump in December for withholding nearly $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine while pressing the country’s leaders to announce investigations into his political rivals, including former Vice President Joe Biden.

Romney’s decision allows Democrats to claim bipartisan support — thin as it may be — for convicting Trump, and prevents the president from claiming his party was united in eschewing impeachment.

“Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine,” said Romney, speaking on the Senate floor before the vote.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., the lead House impeachment manager who presented the case to the Senate, said that Democrats will remain “vigilant” in their oversight of the president.

“There is a risk that he becomes even more unbounded,” Schiff said of Trump in an interview with the Los Angeles Times before the vote. “We succeeded in exposing his misconduct and stopping the plot, but his plotting continues and we’re going to have to be vigilant.”

During his closing arguments earlier this week, Schiff had asked aloud if there would be even one Republican senator to vote for conviction. After Romney’s announcement, Schiff tweeted Wednesday: “And there is.”

Romney acknowledged that he could face the wrath of the president, his party and some of his constituents.

“Does anyone seriously believe that I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?” he said. Later, he told Fox News it was the most difficult decision of his life and predicted he would pay a political price. “It’s going to get very lonely,” he added, referring to the political backlash.

Democrats praised Romney’s decision. “Mitt Romney has restored my faith in this institution and my faith in the basic idea that political courage can exist in a polarized world,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.

The 12-day trial is the shortest in presidential impeachment history, and the only one that did not include subpoenas for witnesses or documents. Democrats say that exclusion delegitimized the process.

“If the president is acquitted with no witnesses, no documents, any acquittal will have no value because Americans will know that this trial was not a real trial,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. “It’s a tragedy on a very large scale.”

Trump and the White House stonewalled the House impeachment inquiry, refusing to allow administration officials to testify or turn over documents except for a memo of a phone call between Trump and the president of Ukraine. When the issue of subpoenas came to the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was able to keep enough of his Republicans together to oppose issuing them, arguing that the House — not the Senate — should have fought the court battle over whether Trump could block his aides from testifying.

Romney and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine were the only Republicans who voted to demand witnesses, along with all Democrats. But the motion was still two votes short of the tally required.

Trump’s Republican allies and his lawyers blasted the process, accusing House Democrats of pursuing a partisan impeachment out of spite for the 2016 election.

“I have such strong feelings about how unfair everything is and why it’s all motivated from hate. They hate him,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., said of House Democrats who pursued the impeachment inquiry.

Sixty-seven votes are required in the Senate to remove an impeached president from office — a bar Democrats knew they were unlikely to even brush up against. While two previous presidents have been impeached — President Andrew Johnson in 1868 and President Bill Clinton in 1998 — the Senate has never removed a president from office. President Richard Nixon resigned when it became clear he would be removed.

Like Johnson and Clinton, Trump’s legacy will now include impeachment — a descriptor even his acquittal in the Senate will not erase. He made no mention of the impeachment during his State of the Union address Tuesday, adhering to a request made by Senate Republicans to focus instead on a new agenda in an election year.

Republicans on Wednesday suggested that they will move on to policy items in the remainder of 2020, such as a long-delayed effort to pursue a bipartisan infrastructure package or a highway funding bill, seemingly impossible tasks in the wake of the partisan impeachment trial.

Republican allies expect Trump to tout the Senate vote, but Democrats say history is on their side.

“I guess Andrew Johnson was a winner at the time,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., of the 17th president, who survived a Senate impeachment trial but whose legacy was tarred. “I’m not sure the broad scope of history judges Andrew Johnson a winner in that fight.”

Senators on both sides of the aisle complained that they were being asked to make a decision based on an incomplete record. Republicans blamed the House for not fighting for the testimony and documents in court.

“Instead of using tools available to compel the administration to compel documents and witnesses, the House followed a self-imposed and entirely political deadline for voting on the articles of impeachment before Christmas,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Democrats blamed the White House for refusing to comply with congressional attempts to subpoena administration officials and documents, and the Senate for not calling witnesses.

“We robbed ourselves and the American people of a full record,” said Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats.