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Superintendent Malay on school reopening: 'incredibly challenging'

Gov. Chris Sununu is ordering all New Hampshire schools to reopen fully, five days a week, by April 19. School leaders were caught off guard by this decision last week, and some districts are scrambling to make sure they’re fully prepared to meet that deadline.

Robert Malay is the superintendent for N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, which covers Keene and six surrounding towns. NHPR’s Sarah Gibson spoke with him about how his SAU is handling the change.

Sarah Gibson: So what do you make of the governor’s, essentially [it’s a] mandate, for schools to fully reopen? Are you prepared to do so?

Robert Malay: I think it’s going to be incredibly challenging to overcome some of the logistical obstacles ahead of us. But I am very confident with the staff that we have that whatever the obstacle is, we’ll be able to overcome it. The additional time for us to make sure our staff were through that vaccination period would have been incredibly helpful on that end. But it would also have been incredibly helpful in terms of making the shift from a hybrid model to a five-day-a-week model in terms of instructional planning and preparing for students.

Sarah Gibson: Well, let’s talk about teacher vaccinations, which you just mentioned. Some school leaders are concerned that their teachers won’t be fully vaccinated by the governor’s deadline of April 19. What’s the situation with your SAU?

Robert Malay: That is going to be a reality in our schools as well. We began in earnest with our staff receiving their vaccinations on March 13. And it has taken a couple of weeks for us to get everyone who wanted to become vaccinated through that process of receiving their first dose. We know that second doses for many of our staff members won’t be until April 17. And then it’s a two-week window after that, before you have reached what is considered full vaccination, if you will. I think the ability to staff both an in-person model as well as a remote model is an obstacle that we’re working to overcome.

Sarah Gibson: Well, I’m curious about that specifically. Are you planning to continue offering a fully remote option to all families who opt for that for the rest of the semester?

Robert Malay: So what we’re looking at is for the folks who have opted into the remote-only program from the onset of the school year to be able to continue to the end of the school year and how we’re going to be able to pull that off. We know that we’re going to need additional staff to make that reality happen. And so those are some of the logistical things that we’re working through on how we’re going to get the additional staff. Where are they going to magically appear from? And we’re working with all of our building leaders to see what we can and what we cannot do. And so it’s a really complicated conversation to be able to provide for our families who began the school year with the intent of going through the school year in a remote-only program while we were in the middle of the pandemic, while we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.

Sarah Gibson: So I do have a question about the distancing requirement — 3 feet. And there’s been a lot of debate about this. But ... Gov. Sununu’s office shared an FAQ on his reopening order in response to concerns that some schools cannot maintain 3 feet in the classrooms if fully open. The governor’s office said, “The benefit of full time in-person education to the mental health and the overall health of the child far outweighs the risk of being within three feet of space during certain times of the day.” So how do you make sense of this? Is this a departure from 3-foot distancing guidelines?

Robert Malay: Well, it sounds like it is a little bit of a departure from that guideline. And, you know, it’s probably fair to say until somebody becomes sick and then has to miss an extended period of time from school, and then they’re back isolated from their peers as well. So folks are making a lot of decisions with the information they have on hand. And I think everyone’s trying to do the best that they can. And that’s the same for all of my colleagues around the state. They’re doing the best they can with the information that they have to make decisions that are in the best interest of students.

And 3 feet of distancing has ample amounts of study that that is suitable for a school setting. When everybody is facing the same direction, they’re wearing masks and what have you with regard to safety procedures. And so if we do away with that, then are we saying that we don’t need masks and we don’t need distancing and everything should be open? I don’t think we’re ready for that yet, and I don’t think there’s evidence that we are ready for that yet.

Harrisville’s Carol Garcia Landry came upon this unexpected sight during a forest hike in her town Sunday.

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Peterborough gun club yet to make court-ordered payments, attorney says
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PETERBOROUGH — The Monadnock Rod and Gun Club has not yet begun paying the nearly $650,000 that a court ruled it owes abutters to the club’s Jaffrey Road property, according to the abutters’ lawyer.

Judge David A. Anderson of Hillsborough County Superior Court’s northern branch in Manchester ordered the gun club last year to compensate Bridgette and Scott Perry, who own 49 acres northeast of the club, for having unlawfully encroached on a portion of their property.

That judgment, in March 2020, covers the costs, as estimated by consultants, of remediating soil contamination, restoring wetlands and removing soil from the site, which the gun club started using over a decade ago for part of its outdoor shooting range and archery trails. It followed a court ruling the previous year rejecting the club’s attempt to claim that portion of the Perrys’ property.

The gun club has yet to make payments toward the $648,402 it owes the Perrys, according to L. Phillips Runyon III, the Peterborough attorney representing the couple.

Runyon said Tuesday the club had not indicated how or when it intends to compensate the Perrys and that neither he nor his clients had heard from club officials since Anderson’s ruling last year. The couple may request a court hearing to arrange those payments, Runyon said, but will likely wait until the resumption of in-person hearings. Most hearings have been held remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’d like to be able to have a live hearing on that issue, which really isn’t feasible at this point,” he said.

Since the club did not participate in a hearing last year to determine compensation for the Perrys, when it had a chance to submit information about its finances, Runyon said he is unfamiliar with the club’s ability to make those payments. (With no testimony from the gun club, Anderson approved compensation worth the full cost of what three consultants estimated would be needed to address environmental damage caused by the club’s use of the Perrys’ property.)

Reached Wednesday, Monadnock Rod and Gun Club President Ken Caisse declined to confirm that the club has not yet paid the Perrys and hung up when asked about the organization’s financial situation.

Runyon said the club could consider selling its 21-acre property — which is appraised at $187,800, according to municipal records — if it cannot otherwise make the court-ordered payments to the Perrys.

The gun club, a nonprofit, did not pay property taxes in 2019 or 2020, according to Peterborough Tax Collector Beth Marsh.

Marsh said those obligations total more than $5,400, before calculating penalties and accrued interest. The town placed a lien on the club’s property last year after it failed to pay taxes in 2019, and the organization has until June 2022 to pay off the outstanding amount before Peterborough can seize its property, she said.

The Perrys were granted a separate lien on the gun club’s property, as part of Anderson’s ruling in March 2020. That means proceeds from a sale of the site would go toward satisfying the club’s obligation to the Perrys, if that issue has not yet been resolved and funds remain after reimbursing the town for any outstanding property taxes, according to Runyon.

Runyon added, however, that the couple has “not made any effort, at this point, to force a sale.”

The dispute dates to May 2018, when the Monadnock Rod and Gun Club sought a court ruling that it had acquired several acres of the Perrys’ property by “adverse possession.” Under certain circumstances, that doctrine allows someone to claim ownership of another’s land after using or occupying it in an obvious way for a long period of time.

Anderson ruled several months later, however, that the club failed to prove it had been using that land for the required duration to claim adverse possession.

In response, the Perrys filed counterclaims against the club seeking compensation for what they said was the impact of its use of the land, including lead and other soil contamination, wetland alterations and shell debris from the shooting range.

Scott Perry told The Sentinel last April that since Anderson had declined to order the gun club to pay the couple’s legal fees, they were still out a substantial sum.

“It’s not like we’re getting $650,000,” he said. “That’s to clean up the land.”

The gun club faced a separate lawsuit in 2018 in which Peterborough officials alleged that the club had expanded its outdoor shooting range, filled in wetlands and built a shooting pavilion without the required approvals. In a ruling last December, Anderson ordered the club to pay the town $3,575 for those violations.

The gun club has not yet made that payment, Town Administrator Nicole MacStay said Wednesday.

The N.H. Department of Environmental Services has also instructed the gun club to restore wetlands on the Perrys’ property, which regulators say the club altered without approval, violating state law.

However, the club has not yet submitted a restoration plan for agency review and claims it does not have permission to access that site to complete its proposal, according to DES spokesman Jim Martin, who said regulators are discussing what measures to take against the gun club if it continues to fail to comply with DES’ directive.

The club’s shooting range has not been in operation since 2018, when Peterborough issued a cease-and-desist letter to the organization after discovering the zoning violations, according to MacStay.

Saying legal fees had taken a “harsh toll,” the gun club launched an online fundraiser in August 2018 to help cover those costs. In a description on the GoFundMe page, the club rejected the town’s allegations that it violated municipal zoning regulations.

“We have encountered a situation where a group of people are using local government in an attempt to attack our club in efforts to close us down,” the description states.

Caisse, the club’s president, told The Monadnock Ledger-Transcript last week that the organization had not yet decided how to proceed with payments to the Perrys and the town. Members will discuss those payments at a club meeting April 12, he said.

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Swanzey to consider several options for Upper Wilson Pond Dam
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SWANZEY — Town officials in the coming months will consider several plans for the future of Upper Wilson Pond Dam, which the state has deemed deficient, before moving ahead with construction on the project no earlier than next summer.

Specifically, Swanzey is looking at rehabilitating the town-owned dam to maintain its current water levels, partially removing it and lowering the level of the pond, or completely removing the dam and draining the pond. Charles Johnston, an engineer at DuBois & King, the Randolph, Vt.-based firm the town has hired to handle the engineering for the project, presented these options during a public information meeting Wednesday evening.

The project is necessary, Johnston said, because the N.H. Department of Environmental Services Dam Bureau has determined the Upper Wilson Pond Dam is a “high hazard.”

“Basically, there is a potential for loss of human life downstream,” he said during the meeting, which was held in Whitcomb Hall and also broadcast via Zoom. “We imagine the downstream area of that dam, if it was to breach, would flow through the culvert or over the road, and you have several houses in the inundation area that would be impacted by that potential breach wave.”

Upper Wilson Pond Dam is a 40-foot long and 16.5-foot high earthen embankment, with two concrete core walls within the embankment, on Swanzey Factory Road, according to Johnston’s presentation. It was built in the early 1900s, according to the town.

Swanzey has received several letters of deficiency from the N.H. Department of Environmental Services in the past decade spelling out necessary actions to bring the dam into compliance with state safety standards. The most recent of them, last June, requires the town either to reconstruct the dam to meet those requirements, remove it or modify it so that it would no longer be considered a high-hazard dam by October 2023.

Johnston, whose firm also led the project to repair Lower Wilson Pond Dam in 2018 and 2019, said Wednesday that the town could remove a portion of the upper dam while still maintaining the primary concrete spillway, which creates a waterfall effect at the outlet of the pond.

Elizabeth Richardson, one of only a few residents to speak during the roughly 30-minute meeting, said she lives across the street from the spillway and wants to see it preserved.

“I can see it from all the windows in the front of my house, and hear it when it’s time to open the windows,” Richardson said. “And I think it’s very beautiful, and if we can make the structure safe, I would love to try to see the waterfall remain.”

Johnston said DuBois & King still needs to gather more information, including a field survey of the dam area and wetland delineation (a procedure that determines the location and extent of wetlands on a property) before developing specific proposals for the town to consider.

“Once we have that pulled together ... we’re going to go and present this back to the town and get some public input and see where the people around the pond are leaning towards, where the town would like to go, and then work through the process of selecting which one the town would like to move forward with.”

The next public information meeting on the project will likely take place in late May or early June, when DuBois & King should have more specific plans and costs estimates, Johnston said. The plan is for the Swanzey selectboard to settle on a proposal in June, so the project can move to final design and permitting with the goal of completing construction next summer.

Swanzey has received a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to cover 65 percent of the cost of the engineering work. Town Administrator Michael Branley told The Sentinel last week that the town plans to apply for another grant to help offset the costs of construction.

The town also has funds remaining in a capital reserve for the dam, which the selectboard can spend unilaterally, Branley said Thursday morning. However, the rehabilitation project will need voter approval if it involves raising taxes or issuing a bond to fund the work, he said.

Sentinel Staff Writer Paul Cuno-Booth contributed to this story.

In party line vote, NH House passes state budget built on tax cuts

The N.H. House has passed its version of the state budget, a $13.6 billion dollar spending plan that Republicans call a prudent response to the pandemic and which Democrats say will harm the vulnerable.

This plan passed along party lines, and includes several policies dear to conservatives. That includes a range of tax cuts: to state business taxes, and the tax on rooms and means. The House budget also orders state health officials to find $50 million in unspecified savings over the next two years.

Rep. Ken Weyler, who leads the House Finance Committee, told fellow lawmakers Wednesday that the budget was crafted for this moment.

“It was balanced with the money the Ways and Means Committee gave to us,” Weyler said. “It reflects the difficult times we are in. It reduces the total of the present budget, and it does not add any new taxes.”

Democrats took a different view, criticizing — among other things — the elimination of more than 200 vacant jobs in the Department of Health and Human Services.

“The next state budget could, could help to build an equitable and inclusive and sustainable recovery, but HB 1 as amended does not do that,” said Manchester Rep. Mary Heath.

Republicans said spending growth on human services was unsustainable and that tax cuts would help businesses and boost the economy.

GOP leaders also larded many non-spending items into the budget, including limits on executive branch emergency powers and a ban on allowing tax dollars to flow to entities that teach that race or sex makes people inherently oppressive or victimized. The stated goal was to ensure the budget would get enough support within the Republican caucus.

The approach, which Gov. Chris Sununu criticized as “off the rails,” appears to have worked. The budget now moves to the Senate, where it is expected to see significant changes.