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Several Keene neighborhoods to change wards under proposed boundary shifts
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Properties on more than 60 Keene streets are looking at a possible district change as city councilors consider an ordinance that would redraw the boundaries of the city’s five wards.

The proposed ordinance was introduced to the City Council during its meeting Thursday night, where Mayor George Hansel referred it to the council’s Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee for further discussion. According to a map included in the agenda packet for Thursday’s meeting, seven neighborhoods will be moved to different wards if the ordinance is approved.

Keene’s wards are being redrawn as part of the 10-year redistricting process required by law of communities across the country. This is the first time the City Council, instead of voters, will approve the new ward lines after Keene residents approved the change via a ballot question at the municipal elections earlier this month.

Under the proposed new boundaries, only Ward 1, in the south and southeastern parts of Keene, would not lose any territory, and it would gain parts of Wards 2 and 5. The southernmost portion of Ward 2, along with neighborhoods toward its western border, would move to Ward 1, as would the southeastern corner of Ward 5. This includes portions of Winchester Street, Ralston Avenue, Emerald Street and Base Hill Road.

Ward 2 would pick up a small portion of what is now Ward 3, including parts of Washington, High and Cross streets. Ward 3 would gain part of what is currently Ward 4 (the only ward not set to gain any new territory under the proposal), including parts of Court Street, Allen Court and Evergreen Avenue.

Ward 5 would gain a small part of what is now Ward 4, including parts of Park Avenue and Summit Road. A full list of addresses that would change wards and the proposed new ward map can be viewed on the city’s website in the council’s agenda packet (https://bit.ly/3oCThNS).

The purpose of redistricting is to create wards that are similar in population size, and the city uses information from the U.S. Census Bureau to do that.

A redistricting committee of former and current elected officials and party representatives was assembled to begin determining the new ward lines after the census data was released Sept. 30. The committee’s goals included designing wards to follow physical features, maintaining a population deviant from the ideal number of 4,609 residents per ward of less than 1 percent (and not any higher than 2.5 percent) and avoiding the need to move any polling places or election officials out of their wards.

As proposed, no polling places or election officials would be removed from their ward. Though not identified as a goal, the proposed new boundaries would also keep all sitting councilors in their current wards. The changes brought to the council Thursday are all within a deviation range of 0.2 to 1.4 percent from the 4,609-resident target.

The FOP Committee will discuss the new ward proposals at its meeting Dec. 9, following a public hearing during the council's meeting Dec. 2 at 7:20 p.m.

No traction for election complaint

In other news, the council voted unanimously Thursday to dismiss a complaint from Mark J. Zuchowski — a candidate for mayor in Keene’s municipal elections earlier this month — who contested the election because the city did not host a candidates night beforehand.

However, his argument failed to persuade the council’s Planning, Licenses and Development Committee, which voted unanimously last week to recommend that the full council take no further action on his complaint. City Attorney Tom Mullins told him at that session that he wasn’t sure the city even had the authority to host a candidates night, adding that it’s “not the city’s role.”

Hansel won re-election in a landslide, 2,133-212.

This article has been changed to clarify when the Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee will discuss the proposed new districts.

Bill would let school districts divert local tax money to private education

For decades, “public education funding” has carried a simple connotation: money, raised by state and local taxpayers, going to local public schools.

But Rep. Kevin Verville sees that as a flawed definition. And he’s betting that his fellow Republican legislators do, too.

“When I hear the term public education, I hear that we are going to educate the children of a community using public money. That’s what I hear,” he said in an interview. “Some people want to say public education means that we are going to build and staff a school, we are going to offer a one-size-fits-all solution. And if you don’t like that, then after you pay for that you can choose to pay for a second school on top of that.”

Verville, a Deerfield Republican, is the architect of a bill that would bring the state closer to that alternate vision of education funding. Months after passing a program to allow state education funding to go toward private school tuition and homeschooling costs, Verville and Republicans on the House Education Committee want to expand that model to local tax dollars.

The bill, House Bill 607, would create an opt-in, local version of the “education freedom accounts” program passed this summer. Under the proposed law, parents in participating towns could access thousands of dollars of a town’s portion of public school tuition and use it for private school or homeschooling expenses.

The process laid out in HB 607 would require local approval; residents in school districts would need to opt into the program. The bill requires three-fifths of voters in the district’s annual meeting to choose to create the localized savings account program.

But Verville says he believes some communities would come on board.

“I’m optimistic that there are communities that will take this up and run the experiment,” he said. “You know, don’t forget the United States is based on federalism, and the states are supposed to be the laboratories of democracy. And so when a state gets it right, those are the things that you share out to the rest of the country. And this program is one of these little experiments in democracy.”

House Bill 607, which drew heated debate during a committee session Tuesday, is the latest in a Republican-led proposed shift in education funding toward school choice. This year’s budget trailer bill, House Bill 2, created the statewide savings account program, allowing state adequacy public school funding to be used toward private school or homeschooling expenses.

Democrats have blasted the efforts as attempts to upend the public school funding system; school administrators have worried the new accounts could force further cutbacks in budgets and programs.

On Tuesday, the House Education Committee voted to advance the bill, 10-9, on party lines.

By some measures, the proposed local education savings program could provide more public funding than the existing statewide program.

The bill would allow parents to access 80 percent of the locally raised tuition amount that goes to public school children — minus the amount the district spends on special education. That amount can range from around $5,000 to around $20,000 per year, depending on how much the district spends. The program would not be available to families that already participate in the statewide savings account program, which gives out an average of $4,600 per year.

Once a district did join the program, the superintendent of the school district would be required to allocate the savings accounts based on a formula set out by the proposed law. The superintendent would take the total approved district budget, subtract any federal grants or state funding, reduce the total amount by 20 percent, and divide it by the average daily membership of students in the district. That number would determine how much each student could receive in the savings account, the law states.

The money could go toward private school tuition, textbooks, tutors, laptops, uniforms, learning materials, transportation, and standardized test entries.

Unlike the state’s existing “education freedom account” program, the newly proposed local program would not include a cap on income. The existing program allows only families making 300 percent or less of the federal poverty level, or $79,500 for a family of four.

And the bill includes “grandfathering” provisions that would allow a family that received a certain amount the first year — based upon the local per-pupil formula for that year — to continue to receive that set amount, even if the per-pupil spending changes.

The bill allows a school district to reverse its decision with another district-wide vote — provided the no votes also clear the 60 percent threshold. But any families that were benefiting from the program would still be grandfathered in until their child graduated high school, even if the program were disbanded.

“The naysayers that say that this will spike education costs and we’ll bury property taxpayers alive,” Verville said. “I would say that they are absolutely incorrect. If their prediction is correct, then communities will repeal this program very, very swiftly because that’s what voters do.”

The proposed local program differs in its financial details from the statewide program; money from the state education trust fund is primarily funded by business taxes, while the local program would receive funding entirely from local property taxpayers. The state program, meanwhile, has exceeded expectations for take-up this year, with 1,600 students currently enrolled.

Verville said that despite the increased interest, he didn’t see a budgetary risk for towns.

“New Hampshire public schools by far and large are excellent schools that serve the vast majority of students very, very well,” he said. “And anybody that says a program like this will cause a mass exodus out of a school I think should be held to explain how and why that would be.”

Still, Verville said that the bill is not intended to save money, but to shift the focus.

“I have critics on my own side, they look at this and they go, ‘Well, this isn’t a tax-saving bill,’ ” he said. “And I say, ‘No, it’s not.’ This is not a money-cutting — this is not a tax-cutting bill. This is (about the) best education for the child.”

Debating the bill Tuesday, Republicans and Democrats embraced what have become increasingly divergent visions of education.

Republicans on the committee called the bill a “win-win” for districts and an expansion of the “school choice” movement that could allow families to receive assistance for education. And they noted that the high 60 percent voting threshold meant that only districts whose voters felt especially strongly about passing the program would be able to participate.

Rep. Erica Layon, a Derry Republican, said that towns should be given the option. “There are some towns that this could benefit,” she said. “And I think giving the towns the choice and the availability to the towns and cities is important.”

And Rep. Ralph Boehm, a Litchfield Republican, argued most towns likely wouldn’t go for the program as enacted.

“Sixty percent would have to vote for it,” he said. “I don’t know any town that would. If they did, they’d have a really bad public school system.”

But Democrats assailed the bill, which they said would enable residents to vote in a dramatic siphoning of local tax dollars away from public schools.

Rep. Linda Tanner, a Sunapee Democrat, noted that Democrats have long warned that if kids leave school districts to take programs such as EFAs, fixed building and maintenance costs mean that school districts can’t shrink accordingly. “This is upping that ante even further,” she said.

Tanner added: “I hope the rationale isn’t to get rid of ‘lousy school systems’ as was quoted from Rep. Boehm,” she said. “I hope that what we’re trying to do is support all of our public school systems, but I’m not sure that we’re really going to do that.”

Other Democrats argued the proposal was being advanced out of the committee without sufficient discussion. The bulk of the bill first appeared as an amendment to an existing bill during a Nov. 10 meeting; it hasn’t received a hearing.

The committee discussion turned at times heated — and profane.

“This is a retained bill, so you’ve had the bill for six months,” said Rep. Gregory Hill, a Northfield Republican, addressing Democrats. “So I don’t know why (these concerns are) coming up now.”

“That is bulls--t,” yelled Rep. Dave Luneau, a Hopkinton Democrat, pointing a finger. Several colleagues pulled him back into his seat.

Following the vote, the bill will move forward to a vote in the full House when it meets again Jan. 5 and 6.

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Franklin Pierce to have new marching band in 2022

What does it take to start a college marching band?

Confidence, a decent budget, enthusiasm — and maybe a little bit of Beyoncé.

Franklin Pierce University recently announced the creation of the Ravens Marching Band, which is expected to start performing next fall.

The program will be one of only a few collegiate marching bands in the state, according to a news release from the university, and only the second in the Northeast-10 Conference.

Lou Bunk, a Franklin Pierce music professor and one of the driving forces behind the marching band’s creation, said the university’s decision to go forward with the program speaks to the “institutional confidence” of Franklin Pierce.

“It doesn’t matter that we’re a small school and most schools that have marching bands are big schools,” Bunk said. “We think this is a good idea that fits us — and let’s try to do something a little extraordinary here.”

Just over three years ago, when the university had its first football season, Director of Athletics Rachel Burleson reached out to Bunk to ask what it would take to bring live music to games. A pep band was the logical first step, he said, and after seeing the success of that effort, it became evident a larger ensemble would be possible.

“I think that the collaboration between an academic program, like music, and the athletics program makes this a unique kind of project,” Bunk said.

George Robinson was hired to direct the pep band at its inception, and under the newly created title of director of athletic bands, will additionally lead the marching ensemble.

Pep bands are more stationary than marching bands and are also typically smaller, according to Robinson. As a student at Londonderry High School, he said, he was one of about 350 performers in the school’s marching band. But at Franklin Pierce, which has about 1,600 students, Robinson said he’d be thrilled to see 20 to 25 students join — “small but mighty,” as he put it.

But the Ravens Marching Band won’t be a scaled-down version of the bands seen at many large state schools, Robinson noted. The ensemble will aim to get the crowds on game day moving with songs spectators are familiar with, he said, rather than playing only traditional and symphonic pieces that some marching bands focus on.

Robinson is reaching out to schools across New England to start recruiting performers, and the university has scholarships available for some students who plan to join the band.

And while the new ensemble won’t be performing for another several months, there’s plenty to keep Robinson busy in the meantime. He is working with the administration to order uniforms and buy instruments, he said, and there’s plenty of creative brainstorming to do, too. He and Bunk are drawing inspiration from many sources, pinging each other with YouTube videos of New Orleans marching bands and referencing Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella performance.

The University of New Haven in Connecticut is the other institution in the Northeast-10 Conference with a marching band, Robinson said, and has served as a source of encouragement as he’s noticed it grow rapidly over the past several years.

Olivia Lavoie, a sophomore from Hudson, said she jumped out of her seat when she read that Franklin Pierce would soon have a marching band.

“Marching band was my world in high school,” Lavoie said, adding that she’s missed playing instruments over the past couple of years.

Lavoie — who is majoring in criminal justice and emergency medical services with a minor in sociology and certificate in women in leadership and gender studies — is not one to be defined by any single label. That’s reflected in her musical repertoire, too, as she played flute all through high school and has experience with the bassoon, trombone, piccolo and oboe.

While she’s not currently planning a career in music, Lavoie said there are many other reasons being in an ensemble is important to her. She sees an opportunity for personal growth, to show up each day and perform a little better, not in competition but for the sake of self-improvement, and it’s a chance to build relationships with students of all backgrounds she may not otherwise cross paths with.

“[A marching band is] that neutral ground for everyone to just enjoy something together,” she said. “It doesn’t define a group of people; it allows those different groups of people to come together and work together.”

Sununu slams conservative group's $500 reward for reporting critical race teachings: 'Wholly inappropriate'

Last week, New Hampshire’s Department of Education made it easier for citizens to help enforce a law passed this summer that restricts how teachers can discuss race in the classroom. A new online questionnaire can now prompt investigations that could lead educators to lose their licenses.

Days later, the state chapter of conservative nonprofit Moms for Liberty, which advocates for parental rights in schools, sweetened the deal by offering a cash reward.

“We’ve got $500 for the person that first successfully catches a public school teacher breaking this law,” the group tweeted on Nov. 12. “Students, parents, teachers, school staff ... We want to know! We will pledge anonymity if you want.”

But Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who ultimately signed the law passed this summer, is not happy about the contest. On Thursday, he denounced Moms for Liberty’s incentive to report teachers.

“The Governor condemns the tweet referencing ‘bounties’ and any sort of financial incentive is wholly inappropriate and has no place,” Sununu’s spokesman said in a statement to The Associated Press.

Sununu signed the law, known as Right to Freedom from Discrimination in Public Workplaces and Education, in late June as part of the state’s budget. It bans any lessons that involve a “divisive concept,” such as “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” and “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.”

New Hampshire is one of more than two dozen states that has passed or introduced legislation banning critical race theory, an academic framework that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism. Condemnation of the intellectual movement has become a rallying cry for Republicans, who insist that systemic racism does not exist and falsely claim that schools are trying to indoctrinate students by teaching them otherwise. (The Washington Post has reported that critical race theory, a college-level academic framework, is not taught at the K-12 level.)

Most of Sununu’s diversity council quit in protest when the governor signed the bill into law. In their resignation letter, the 10 employees said the new restrictions harm efforts to advance “equity and inclusion in our state.”

“Governor, we feel obligated to inform you that — contrary to your recent public statements — systemic racism does in fact exist here in New Hampshire,” the former members said.

Sununu, in response, called the resignations “politically charged.”

On Nov. 10, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut announced the new website where parents can easily report teachers. The complaints will be reviewed by the state Commission on Human Rights.

Carl Ladd, executive director of the N.H. School Administrators Association, wrote that the website is turning schools into the “commissioner’s political punching bags.” Until changes are made, “educators will work under a cloud of uncertainty that they will be reported to the state, triggering a sham investigation, all without evidence or transparency,” he said.

Deb Howe, president of the state’s second-largest teachers union, called the new effort a “war on teachers,” the Register Citizen reported. The union and Ladd want the governor to remove Edelblut as commissioner.

Edelblut has since said the website should be used in “rare instances.”

“We know that here in New Hampshire, teachers do their best to treat everyone equally, and genuinely strive to communicate with both dignity and respect,” he said in a statement to the Register Citizen.

The New Hampshire chapter of Moms for Liberty’s tweet came two days after the website went live. There are at least 135 Moms for Liberty chapters in 35 states, with 56,000 members, The Post reported last month. The organization has become an outlet for conservative mothers who feel their voices are being ignored by school boards, teachers and public school administrators.

Moms for Liberty has protested mask mandates in schools and questioning whether certain books in libraries are inappropriate. The chapter in New Hampshire this week called school mask mandates “unconstitutional and ineffective.”

Rachel Goldsmith, who leads the chapter offering the $500 cash reward, defended the move this week, telling WJLA that even teachers want to report problems they see with school curriculums.

“The point of this is to incentivize folks to find problems in the system,” Goldsmith said.