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Voters to decide Charlestown's fate in Fall Mountain school district

To leave or not to leave? That is the question going before Fall Mountain Regional School District voters.

A years-long effort to pull Charlestown out of the district could finally happen this year.

In a 7-3 vote in October, the Fall Mountain Regional School Board Withdrawal Study Committee recommended that Charlestown leave the school district. In December, the N.H. State Board of Education refused to allow the measure to go before voters, saying too many details were missing in the plan and to return with more specifics.

The Fall Mountain board passed a subsequent plan, 6-4, and on Jan. 9 the state board determined the plan meets the proper standards for withdrawal under state law, giving voters the final decision. If they approve withdrawal, a target date of July 1, 2021, has been set for the new Charlestown district to become operational.

Voters in the district — which covers Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, Langdon and Walpole — will first weigh in at the district’s deliberative session Feb. 5 and go to the polls March 10. The committee included one school board member and one selectman from each of the five towns.

According to opponents, the district’s largest town leaving could have deep repercussions for the high school, where about 41 percent of students come from Charlestown.

The moves are the latest chapter in a longtime saga of many Charlestown residents wanting their own school district — the first withdrawal study dates back to 1984.

This study was borne out of a contentious deliberative session and town meeting vote last year. At the February deliberative session, pro-withdrawal and anti-withdrawal Charlestown voters could not agree on the plan’s financial feasibility, and the effects a separate school district would have on residents.

The crux of the debate centers on Charlestown’s lower property values and median household income relative to the other towns in the district. Complicating matters, 40 percent of Charlestown’s tax base of single-family units are in mobile homes, which bring in less tax revenue than houses and commercial units.

In a minority report authored by withdrawal committee members opposed to Charlestown leaving, the authors write that Charlestown’s property tax revenue would not be enough to cover existing debt obligations, labor agreements and other non-negotiable factors that would result in far fewer educational resources than the students currently enjoy at Fall Mountain.

The majority report outlines how an independent Charlestown School District would operate, taking on existing employment agreements and contracts while entering a tuition agreement for students to stay at Fall Mountain Regional High School.

The minority report also cites logistical and financial burdens withdrawal may cause at Fall Mountain.

Instead of just one budget and annual meeting, the new setup would require School Administrative Unit 60 to deal with three budgets and three annual meetings: one for the Charlestown district, one for the Fall Mountain district, and one meeting for Unit 60 itself.

In addition to cutting district staff, according to the proposal, Fall Mountain would also have to sell five buses, lay off four bus drivers and cut special education transportation by two positions. It would also have to sell two district-owned minivans.

Charlestown would also need to sort out its own transportation situation through a third-party contractor or by buying its own bus fleet.

Financially, Charlestown’s withdrawal would increase costs on the four remaining towns in the district, according to the minority report. It also questions whether Charlestown taxpayers would see any savings from withdrawing, and could instead face higher cost with fewer services.

The majority report says there are no plans for Charlestown to leave SAU 60 if it starts its own district, though it doesn’t offer details. Unlike the minority report, the majority one does not end in a written conclusion, instead ending on data sets for expenses.

In an addendum from the minority report, its authors take issue with how the pro-withdrawal advocates presented their case.

“Regardless of cause, the errors evidenced in the Charlestown Withdrawal Committee report demonstrate that committee’s tendency to rearrange facts to suit their purpose,” the Jan. 7 letter reads. “The minority view continues to be that Charlestown’s separation from FMRSD would be costly and educationally damaging to the four remaining towns in the cooperative.”

The district’s deliberative session Feb. 5 starts at 6:30 p.m. and will be held at the Fall Mountain auditorium.

For the withdrawal to pass, a majority of the district’s voters on March 10 must approve it.

This article has been updated to correctly describe a suggested tuition agreement.

Brattleboro Students want to honor black soldiers

When the town of Brattleboro put up a Civil War monument more than a hundred years ago, it didn’t include the black soldiers who served in that war. Now some local students want to change that.

The people of Brattleboro put the monument up on the town Common in 1887. It occupies a pretty prominent space in the park, with a bronze statue of a Union soldier standing on a hefty 20-foot-high granite base.

On one side of the monument, there’s a bronze plaque that commemorates 385 local residents who enlisted in the Union Army. It reads:

This monument commemorates the loyalty and patriotism of the men of Brattleboro who fought for liberty and the Union in the Great Rebellion of 1861-1865. Enlisted 385. Died In Service 31.

Not among those 385 soldiers: The black citizens of Brattleboro who fought and died in the war.

Priya Kitzmiller was in 7th grade when the Brattleboro Area Middle School social studies class visited the monument last spring. She told her teacher that it wasn’t cool to forget the black soldiers who served.

“And right then and there I told him that I wanted to do research on this and be the person that helps it change,” Kitzmiller said in a recent interview.

So when school opened up this fall, Kitzmiller said the students started organizing. They contacted the Brattleboro Historical Society, got them on their side, and are now preparing to go before the selectboard.

“It’s important to show that everyone is equal,” Kitzmiller said. “And that something as unimportant as the color of your skin shouldn’t affect someone as a person, or make it so that they aren’t even a person anymore. Just because of what color they are. So we need to show that everyone is equal no matter what you look like or where you come from.”

Kitzmiller and her classmates are students in Joe Rivers’ class, which he’s been teaching for about 40 years. Rivers is big proponent of place-based learning, and he said you can read about racism, slavery and war in books, or you can walk through the streets, hills and buildings around Windham County to learn the local stories.

“It has more of a long-term impact to have students learn about their own place and then be able to apply those things to the greater world as they’re introduced to them,” Rivers said. “So that’s what I’ve been trying to do for a while.”

Rivers and his students first learned learned about the black Brattleboro soldiers five years ago, during the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. The local VFW asked the class to do a little research, and they tracked down military logs that weren’t available when the monument first went up.

Rivers said over the past five years, the students just kind of accepted the injustice and figured there wasn’t much they could do. But this class, he said, wouldn’t let it go.

“Black Lives Matter happened, and people started thinking about the past a little bit differently,” Rivers said. “So students who might have sat with that information before sat, but it irritated them. It wasn’t something that would just sit and go away, it was something that festered.”

As the students got more interested this year, they dug deeper.

They learned about Charles P. Smith, who was born in Brattleboro in 1842 and enlisted when black men were allowed to join the Union Army, and about Isaac Sawyer, an escaped slave from Virginia, who enlisted in April 1863.

“We need to move forward in the way we think,” said 8th-grade student Annabelle Thies. “We’re all human beings, and we all need to be accounted for.”

Thies is one of the students who counted up the Brattleboro soldiers in books and on websites before comparing them to the number of soldiers on the plaque. She said even though the soldiers and their families are long gone, historians like her have a responsibility to help us all learn from the past.

“If we’re righting wrongs, then we’re paving the way for future generations to also make the right decision,” Thies said.

The students haven’t exactly figured out what might happen if the selectboard agrees to right that wrong, whether the town will replace the plaque on the monument, or maybe put up a new plaque.

They haven’t yet started to raise money, either, but they’ve already received $125 from a Facebook post they put up about their work.

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Keene councilor questions meetings between mayor, committee chairs

Closed biweekly meetings between the mayor and committee chairpersons have at least one Keene City Councilor questioning whether they should be open to the public and minutes kept.

Councilor Randy L. Filiault submitted a letter Jan. 1 to the council and Mayor George S. Hansel “in opposition” to these regularly scheduled meetings that involve some city councilors but aren’t open to others or to the public. Also, minutes are not taken. In the letter, Filiault asked Hansel to stop the practice, which began under a former mayor and city manager who aren’t named in the letter.

The City Council took up the request at its Thursday meeting — its first with the newly inaugurated members in place — and Hansel began by explaining that these biweekly gatherings are “administrative in nature.” He said that is both his and the city manager’s prerogative.

“We get together to run through the agenda for the committee meetings, and in order to improve communication we’ve included other people in those meetings,” he said, referring to staff members.

Because a majority of the council is never present at these meetings, Hansel pointed out that there are no requirements to take minutes or meet other rules under New Hampshire’s Right-to-Know law. If a majority of a public body is present for a meeting, the statute (RSA 91-A) stipulates that the public must be properly notified and allowed to attend and someone has to take minutes, which will be made available for inspection.

“So I’m not really sure what the council would be able to do with these communication,” Hansel said. “It’s not really in their purview to tell the mayor or the city manager who they can and cannot meet with, but I do recognize the issue that Councilor Filiault’s bringing up.”

Hansel said he planned to accept the letter as informational — an endpoint for communications that receive no further action by the council — and turned the floor over to Filiault for a chance to elaborate on his request.

Counter to his letter, Filiault said he wasn’t trying to shut down the meetings. He explained that he wasn’t questioning the legality of the practice, acknowledging that these meetings fall outside of the requirements of the Right-to-Know law. He said he was fighting for transparency, which he argued can be achieved voluntarily and doesn’t need to be compelled by law.

Filiault asserted that the meetings with committee chairpersons are different than other administrative meetings because they aren’t spontaneous but rather regularly scheduled.

He also alleged that past meetings haven’t stayed on topic.

“One of the reasons that I bring this up tonight is because last year it was brought to my attention, under the previous mayor, that a couple of these meetings strayed from the issue of agenda into personnel, namely me,” Filiault said. “My name was brought up. I can’t prove or disprove it. Why? No minute-taker.”

Hansel agreed that it would be inappropriate to “orchestrate a vote” but that allowing anyone into these meetings would limit his authority as mayor.

“There is a certain amount of ‘taking-my-word-for-it’ that we’re not going to stray from that,” Hansel said of sticking to agenda items, “but I think it’s very difficult, and it would be very difficult, to legislate a way for people not to talk behind your back, you know, to take away that as a possibility.”

With the goal of having minutes taken at such meetings, Filiault made a motion to challenge the mayor’s ruling.

Though Hansel said it would need a two-thirds majority, there’s a contradiction in the city code: Another section says only a simple majority is required to overrule the mayor. City Attorney Thomas P. Mullins declined to comment on the discrepancy when reached by phone Saturday.

Regardless of which rule might have prevailed, Filiault failed to get either majority, with eight of the 15 councilors supporting Hansel’s ruling: Kate M. Bosley, Mike Giacomo, Stephen L. Hooper, Janis M. Manwaring, Raleigh Ormerod, Thomas F. Powers, Mike Remy and Catherine I. “Catt” Workman.

Seven councilors opposed the mayor’s ruling, including Filiault and Bettina A. Chadbourne, Terry M. Clark, Mitchell H. Greenwald, Gladys Johnsen, Philip M. Jones and Robert C. “Bobby” Williams.

After the vote, Greenwald stood and made one last appeal to the mayor, asking that the city clerk keep “high-level minutes” at these meetings “to make everyone happy.” As the chairman of the finance, organization and personnel committee until Dec. 31, Greenwald participated in these meetings under then-Mayor Kendall W. Lane.

Hansel again said it’s his prerogative, calling it a slippery slope.

“... No one has convinced me what differentiates this meeting from the other scheduled meetings that I have all the time. Where does it stop?”

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Charges filed in Keene stabbing in November

A man who police say was stabbed in November after drunkenly entering the wrong home turned himself in Sunday on recently filed misdemeanor charges, according to Keene police Lt. Steven Tenney.

Keene State College student Ridge Olsen, 22, of North Attleboro, Mass., was charged with criminal mischief, criminal trespass and simple assault.

Olsen was walking to what he believed was a friend’s house on Nov. 10 at 49 Water St. after the college’s annual Pub Crawl.

When he arrived, Olsen was told by the tenant Cory Harris, 30, his friend didn’t live there, but Olsen persisted, according to Tenney.

He forced himself into the home and after an altercation between the two, Harris stabbed Olsen in the lower abdomen.

Olsen was taken by ambulance to Cheshire Medical Center in Keene and then airlifted to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.

Harris was not charged, Tenney said, because it his actions were considered self-defense.

Olsen’s arraignment is scheduled for March 31 in the 8th Circuit District Division in Keene.