Finding lifeguards for area swimming spots was never easy. Local parks and recreation directors have often had to compete over the same pool of candidates, which is usually small to begin with.
But this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of qualified lifeguards in the Monadnock Region — and the nation — has been exacerbated.
“This is exceptional,” said Lisa Betz, Peterborough’s parks and recreation director. “I haven’t had to sweat it like I am now. I haven’t had to potentially close [Cunningham Pond] to lifeguarding or put it at ‘swim at your own risk’ because we may not have lifeguards.”
There are a few reasons for the nationwide shortage, according to the American Lifeguard Association.
Lifeguards must be certified, which includes 30 hours of training and a swim test. Training and certification programs, however, have been backlogged because the pandemic resulted in class cancellations. And even when classes are available, the programs cost hundreds of dollars.
Travel restrictions have also limited the number of college and foreign-exchange students who are looking for lifeguarding work. Along with high-schoolers, they typically make up a good portion of the applicant pool.
Betz said she typically hires 19 lifeguards to staff Cunningham Pond and Adams Pool. On a normal day, she said, four would be on duty at the pool and two or three at the pond.
As of Thursday, Betz said three lifeguards had agreed to come back, and an additional nine had been hired. However, the new hires still need to complete their certifications.
The pond opens to the public this weekend, but lifeguards will not be staffing it, according to Betz.
“That’ll be every weekend until we have the staff to do so,” she said.
The pool is scheduled to open with lifeguards June 17, once local students get out of school.
In Jaffrey, Contoocook Beach — also slated to open this weekend — will start out with visitors warned they are swimming at their own risk, according to interim Parks and Recreation Director Sarah Hooper.
About nine lifeguards are typically hired, she said, but only two people had applied as of last week.
“Normally by this time we already had our full staff,” Hooper said. “At this point we can’t run the beach with two lifeguards.”
Samantha Hill, Chesterfield’s parks and recreation director, said the town started offering to pay for recertification and new certifications to recruit more staff in 2019.
“If you were becoming a lifeguard for the first time, we’d pay for half of the session and we’d pay for the rest of it if they come back,” she said.
But unlike in other towns, Hill said hiring has been easier this year, in part because many people who worked as lifeguards before have returned.
This is also due to a slight change to how Wares Grove Beach on Spofford Lake will be manned, according to Hill.
Seven to 10 lifeguards were usually hired to work from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but Hill said it’s difficult to get staff to stay for that long, especially when they’re high-school or college students.
To help with that, the beach will be without lifeguards from Memorial Day to June 21, when lifeguards will start staffing the beach Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Any other time, visitors will be swimming at their own risk, Hill said.
Because of this, she said, Chesterfield needed to hire only four people for the beach.
Keene is also offering to pay for certifications for lifeguards at its public pools — at Wheelock and Robin Hood parks — according to Andy Bohannon, parks and recreation director.
“You gotta go out and pay anywhere between $300 and $400 to become certified, and think about it — when you were 15 or 16, did you have $300 or $400 in your pocket?” he said. “... So we gotta find ways to gain good employees.”
Keene usually hires about 17 lifeguards for its pools, and has already had trouble in years past with recruitment since it’s competing with places like the Keene Family YMCA and local country clubs.
“It’s hard when you have ... a very small area that is competing against itself for one particular employee,” Bohannon said.
As of last week, about 11 people had been hired so far this year, which he said is enough to staff one of the pools.
“Can we open two pools? If we can’t properly staff them, the answer is no,” Bohannon said. “And then do you flip from one pool to the other? But then operational costs become a consideration.”
He added that the nation is also facing a chlorine shortage, so that could also affect whether both can open. At the very least, Wheelock’s pool will open June 22, Bohannon said.
“It provides a challenge,” he said, “but we all seem to be able to do it.”
Despite Cheshire TV going off the air late Friday as its contract with Keene expired, both the station and the city say there are several paths forward as they consider the future of public access programming in Keene and surrounding communities.
Dave Kirkpatrick, CTV’s executive director since January, said Monday that even though the nonprofit organization lost the vast majority of its funding when its contract with Keene ended this past weekend, Cheshire TV isn’t going anywhere just yet. While there’s a chance the organization could dissolve, Kirkpatrick also said it could continue under a revised mission.
“We live in a world that is dominated by the Internet, we have a website and a Facebook page and YouTube channel, we could create and broadcast content [online] without a lot of overhead,” Kirkpatrick said. “What the physical nature of that business might look like is up in the air.”
Founded in 2005, CTV was originally funded by a portion of franchise fees paid by cable subscribers, which were given to the city of Keene, which in turn paid them to the public access station. But in January 2019, the city executed a new agreement, in which Cheshire TV received a flat rate of $15,150 each month, or $181,800 annually.
That makes up the bulk of CTV’s budget; without it, Kirkpatrick said, the organization won’t be able to maintain a staff, and its future may be all volunteer. But he also said CTV does still have some income from donations and membership dues for people who don’t live in the three communities CTV originally served: Keene, Swanzey and Marlborough. (Members from these communities don’t pay for their membership.)
“We won’t come out of this with much,” he said, “but we won’t come out with nothing.”
However, City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said that while an agreement wasn’t reached on CTV’s past contract, the city’s still open to working with the organization again looking ahead.
“We are no longer negotiating the continuation of the contract with CTV,” she said in an email Monday. “We will however consider any proposals CTV has moving forward and be happy to have their input as we explore models for PEG (Public, educational, and government) access into the future.”
Dragon said the city recognizes the important role of public access television. She said she has had discussions with Mayor George Hansel about creating a committee to explore other public access models and that one option could involve working with the Keene School District. If this happens, Dragon encouraged anyone who has been involved with CTV to come forward with ideas when this process begins.
According to Dragon, the money Keene was paying CTV will go toward any future public access projects and also to cover the cost of continuing to live-stream city meetings, a function that had been performed by CTV. Kirkpatrick had mentioned potentially continuing those services on a temporary basis to help the city transition to a new set-up, she said, but the CTV board voted against doing so, and she said she had to bring someone else on board.
Reaching an impasse
The uncertainty surrounding CTV comes about four months after Dragon announced that Keene would end its agreement with the station after the organization’s membership — people who are involved with the organization and vote on some business but are separate from its board of directors — voted out most of the board. Some members expressed concern, at the time, about the board’s treatment of CTV’s bylaws, including its handling of elections to fill board positions.
Shortly after the board turnover, both Keene and Swanzey, which had been providing a smaller amount of funding to CTV, announced they would be ceasing payments to the station — Swanzey immediately, and Keene after a four-month notice. Marlborough stopped providing funding several years ago.
In a Jan. 22 letter to CTV, Dragon said Keene’s contract with the organization, and its funding, would end in 120 days, unless CTV agreed to change its governing documents to make municipalities that support it the governing members. While there was an effort to try to reach a compromise, the two sides were unable to meet in the middle.
“CTV rejected compromise language which kept a majority of members appointed by the participating municipalities but delegated the budget and executive director [oversight] to the full board,” Dragon said via email to The Sentinel Monday. “This was a big compromise because the original language kept that [oversight] authority with only the municipal membership.”
CTV countered that offer with language that would have enabled the city and the organization’s membership to appoint an equal number of board members, she noted.
”They also added other language to require a 2/3 vote for certain actions-like amending the Articles of Agreement,” Dragon wrote. “This does not come close to doing what is needed.”
Whatever comes next for CTV, Kirkpatrick said it’s time to “take a breather” and for its members to discuss the possibilities moving forward. He said the organization’s counsel has advised them to take some time to weigh all the options on the table and proceed from there.
“I think we can take our time and do that with no risk,” he said. “And there certainly might be something to gain.”
SWANZEY CENTER — While several school districts have formally opposed the “divisive concepts” proposal being considered at the State House, a Monadnock Regional School Board member is suggesting that the district adopt a policy based on it.
At last week’s school board meeting, member Dan LeClair of Swanzey introduced a pair of motions, the language for which he said he adapted from House Bill 544. The group voted to refer both proposals to the board’s policy committee for further review, including whether existing district policies already address the issues LeClair raised in his motions. That process could take several months.
The first proposal would restrict any Monadnock staff member from teaching anything “that instills any form of race, gender [or] sex stereotyping,” including that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” and that anyone should feel guilt or any other type of psychological distress due to his or her race or sex.
LeClair’s second motion would prohibit staff members from “[influencing] students by informing them of what their political ideology is,” and require teachers to provide “positive and negative arguments to all topic assignments.”
The bill before the N.H. Legislature that LeClair used to craft his motions would cut off state funding for any school, business or organization that spreads “divisive concepts” about topics such as racism and sexism.
Supporters of the state proposal have expressed concern over the teaching of critical race theory, a scholarly framework that approaches the study of the United States through a lens of race and power and holds that systemic racism is a part of American culture.
LeClair, who has twice run unsuccessfully as a Republican for a seat in the N.H. Senate, said he introduced the two motions after several conversations with parents and students in the district. These students, he said, have changed what they have written in assignments for fear that a teacher would look unfavorably upon them based on their arguments.
“I’ve also talked to students where they’re afraid to speak out and give their opinions because even their own peers will harass them,” LeClair said during the May 18 school board meeting, which was conducted via Zoom. “I know politics is a hot topic, and it’s very divisive at the adult level, and it is pretty much the same at the school level, the student level, as well.”
LeClair added that he does not know how widespread of an issue this is within the district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — but he thinks the best way to address it is to teach students to listen to all opinions on controversial topics.
“Everybody has their opinions, and we should respect them,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s happening.”
Superintendent Lisa Witte said she had not heard the specific complaints LeClair brought to the board before Tuesday's meeting, but added that the district has policies in place for handling issues with curriculum and instruction. Witte encouraged anyone who does experience issues like LeClair described to speak to their school principals, or to her.
The district can use this information to “make sure that all of our teachers and what’s happening in our classrooms is following the policies that we have in place around instruction and academic freedom and those types of issues,” Witte said during the meeting last week.
The board’s vote to send LeClair’s motions to the policy committee, which is scheduled to meet next on June 2, was overwhelming.
“It just needs more thought,” board member Karen Wheeler of Gilsum said. “… Policies are always brought to the board, and we have them for one meeting, and then we vote on them the second meeting. So to vote on this just based on that, I would have to vote no because I feel we should discuss things more as a board and not pass them so quickly.”
Board member Kristen Noonan of Fitzwilliam, who chairs the policy committee, said the group will review existing policies to see if anything in LeClair’s motions would be redundant. After that, she said, LeClair’s proposals could be back before the full board in a month or two.
The legislation that LeClair used to craft his motions has drawn criticism from educators and businesses statewide. On the same night the Monadnock board began discussing LeClair’s policy proposals, the Keene Board of Education voted to approve a resolution opposing the so-called “divisive concepts” bill, which has been incorporated into the House’s state budget proposal.
Critics of the state-level legislation have said they fear it could limit important classroom conversations on topics like race and gender. Several local educators told The Sentinel they have never seen educators indoctrinate students with their personal ideologies, which backers of the bill have warned is a problem in New Hampshire.
School boards in Concord and the Hanover-based N.H. School Administrative Unit 70 have passed resolutions opposing the bill, according to N.H. Public Radio. Additionally, more than 250 businesses and organizations — including the Durham-based Oyster River School District and the Portsmouth School Board — have signed onto a letter from N.H. Businesses for Social Responsibility, a group that promotes socially-minded business practices, opposing the legislation as “antithetical” to Granite State values like diversity and inclusion.
More than a dozen local businesses and groups, including C&S Wholesale Grocers, Inc., Savings Bank of Walpole and the Monadnock Food Co-op, have signed the letter, which argues the proposal would “have a chilling impact on our workplaces and on the business climate in New Hampshire.”
Gov. Chris Sununu has cited free speech concerns in saying he does not support the bill, which was introduced by a trio of Republican state representatives, according to NHPR. But LeClair said he does not believe his policy proposals would restrict academic freedom, since students can still ask questions and write about controversial issues.
“So we’re not inhibiting students’ free speech,” LeClair said in an interview Monday. “I just don’t want teachers telling a child that they should have less opportunity, or more opportunities, because of the color of their skin, or their gender, or their political affiliation, or anything else.”
This story has been updated to clarify Superintendent Lisa Witte's comments on the specific complaints LeClair brought to the board at last Tuesday's meeting.
Early last week, Rep. Manny Espitia’s friend — Nashua Alderman Tom Lopez — told him that white supremacists had left a tag on a community mural near the rail trail, in a neighborhood that is predominantly Latino.
The messages included “Keep New England White,” “Defend New England,” and “Death to Israel.”
Espitia’s first reaction was to publicly denounce those messages.
“I immediately posted,” he said. He wanted to tell people, “Hey, this is real. This is happening.”
In part, that’s because of an attitude in New Hampshire that racism doesn’t exist here, Espitia said. It’s an attitude that he has become familiar with since he moved to the state in 2015.
“I wanted to let everyone know so everyone is aware,” Espitia said. Lopez, who is involved in the art scene in Nashua, cleaned up the graffiti right away.
That was on Tuesday. On Friday, a white nationalist group called the National Socialist Club, or NSC-131, the same group behind the tags, targeted Espitia. They posted a message on Telegram, a social media platform that has become a hotbed for right-wing extremism. The app has grown to more than 500 million users worldwide, fueled in part by the Capitol insurrection, and is known for its relaxed policies around content moderation.
Espitia said that in Nashua, the NSC group has been operating mostly in the shadows, but this isn’t the first time they’ve been active. In October, they put stickers up around the neighborhood. Not all incidents end up getting reported, Espitia said.
“Anyone with a name like ‘Manny Espitia,’ State Rep or not, has no moral right to throw shade at any true (White) Nationalist New Hampshirite,” the white nationalist group wrote.
“You have no right to be here, you’re an occupier here & the days of these types trampling on New England are coming to an end,” it said.
Espitia said that the days since receiving the message have been crazy. He worries about his own safety, and the safety of his fiancée, Adriana, who is half Colombian and half Puerto Rican. And he worries about his Nashua neighbors — the mostly Latino community he represents. Of the 10,000-person district, about 28 percent are Latino.
There’s also been an outpouring of support from friends and family.
After Espitia received the message from the white nationalist group on Friday, he met up with a friend for drinks at his favorite bar. When they were leaving, Espitia spotted a sticker of Hitler on a mailbox outside. But he also saw a local business owner at work peeling it off. That gave him hope.
“I think that’s what we gotta do,” he said. “We have to get this out of here.”
Republican Speaker of the House Sherman Packard has spoken out against the incident, as has Democratic leadership, including House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing, who called it a blatantly racist attack.
“The fact that Representative Espitia is being threatened in the neighborhood where he lives and was elected to represent highlights how active racism and racist groups are in New Hampshire,” Cushing said in a written statement on Friday.
“No person should fear for their own or their family’s safety,” Cushing said.
The mayor of Nashua also spoke out against the threats to Espitia.
“Nashua is opposed to these hateful and racist acts,” said Jim Donchess, who said the city would not tolerate threats.
This isn’t the first time Espitia has encountered racism, but last week’s message reached a new, disquieting level.
He said the incident made him think about Kiah Morris, the Vermont state representative who resigned in 2018 after receiving threats of violence. At the time, Morris was the only Black woman serving in the House of Representatives. A recent report found that the Bennington police discriminated against both Morris and her husband “on the basis of race and color” in the way they responded to the case.
The message from white nationalists last week is not an isolated event, Espitia said. When he was endorsed by a gun violence prevention group, some people responded by questioning his citizenship.
“It’s always something that I knew that would happen but not to the level of threatening my person,” Espitia said.
“There are folks who legitimately do not want people like myself to be here.”
That’s a reality Espitia has had to face in a predominantly white state like New Hampshire — but growing up that wasn’t the case. Espitia was raised in Santa Ana, California, in a predominantly Mexican community where almost everyone spoke Spanish.
He didn’t realize it was anything out of the ordinary to grow up speaking both Spanish and English, until he got a scholarship to attend a private high school. He left his bubble, as he calls it, and started forming his own identity as a Chicano, who is proud of his Mexican American heritage.
In college, Espitia studied history at Princeton with a minor in African American studies. His classmates came from around the world, but he was always aware that the institution was primarily white.
After he graduated, a friend recruited Espitia to work on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. He went to New Mexico and fell in love with campaigning and community organizing: knocking on doors, making phone calls, getting people together around a common goal. He said it was one of the best experiences of his life. That’s when he knew he wanted to spend his life doing that work, which has brought him all around the country, until he settled in New Hampshire.
“I like it here,” he said, in spite of the recent turmoil. He and his fiancée have no plans to leave. They recently bought a house. “We’re committed,” he said.
Of the threats, Espitia said, “I think it’s just showing that now more than ever, we need solidarity.”
Local and federal authorities, in addition to the Attorney General’s Office, are currently looking into the incident.
This story originally appeared in the N.H. Bulletin.