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Keene official: Housing market trends expected to drive values up, tax rate down
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The city of Keene is gearing up for its regular five-year revaluation, and given the rising cost of homes in the past year or so, property owners can expect their assessments to increase.

City Assessor Dan Langille said Thursday that while property values are expected to go up, this would cause Keene’s tax rate to dip due to the additional revenue coming in. He, along with a pair of representatives from Vision Government Solutions, gave the City Council a presentation that night on the revaluation process.

“What we’re seeing is a significant increase in taxable value for the city,” Langille said. “And as a result, we’re going to see a decrease in the tax rate. At this time, we do not know what that rate will be; that’s determined in the fall by the New Hampshire Department of Revenue.”

The effect on people's tax bills will depend on the new assessments of their property.

The city’s tax rate determines the amount taxpayers must pay based on the assessed value of their property. The values the city sets will be based on properties’ condition as of April 1, Langille said.

The city’s last reassessment, required every five years by state law, was in 2016, when the U.S. economy was on the tail end of its recovery from the 2008 recession, according to Langille. But since 2020, housing costs have begun to skyrocket, leaving Keene’s property values outdated.

According to Sandra Schmucki of Vision Government Solutions, which is working with the city on the reassessment, the process of collecting data that will be used to determine property values is already underway. This includes examining how much homes in Keene have recently sold for.

“We look at all the properties in the town and compare what we found to the sales,” she said. “We want to make sure that we’re assessing everything in a fair and consistent manner. And so, based on how the sales are looking, we make sure that all the other properties that are not sales are being assessed in the same manner.”

There are several benefits to doing a citywide reassessment, Schmucki said, including that the assessment puts taxpayers on a level playing field and adjusts for changes in the real estate market. While the city can easily collect information about the outside of a property, Schmucki said interior information is being reviewed over the phone or at the front door, due to COVID-19 concerns.

Steve Whalen, also of Vision Government Solutions, said next steps include sending notification to property taxpayers about the upcoming reassessment; these notifications should be sent sometime this week, he said.

Councilors had a number of questions, with Councilor Gladys Johnsen asking what role the pandemic is playing in the city’s revaluation process. Schmucki said it is hard to quantify exactly how much COVID-19 has affected housing values, but that this is part of what the city is trying to determine by studying Keene’s current housing market.

Meanwhile, Councilor Randy Filiault asserted that the city is owed more money from the state than what it’s been receiving, including from the meals and rooms tax, as well as pensions and business profit taxes. He said the revenue the city collects from taxes is reaching “an unsustainable level.”

“We’ve maxed out our taxpayers in this city,” he said.

Councilor Bettina Chadbourne said many houses in Keene are being sold to out-of-towners who can afford to pay more than those who are already living in the city. She worried this might drive up property values in an unsustainable way, particularly when Keene is actively marketing itself to attract new people.

On the other hand, Councilor Philip Jones said it’s long been the goal for the city’s commercial property owners to be the biggest part of the tax base. But he said there are a number of vacant commercial spaces in town, “switching the burden” to residential taxpayers, and it’s something the council needs to keep an eye on.

“You guys are picking up on some of the flaws in the property-tax system in New Hampshire,” Langille said in response to the concerns raised by Jones and Chadbourne. “As assessors, our job really is [to be] more of a historian. We’re recording what the market’s doing ... but there’s certainly flaws in the system.”

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International festival brings a worldwide celebration to Keene
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Gray clouds hung low over Fuller Park in Keene Saturday morning, but no one seemed to pay the foreboding skies any mind — artists were busy making final adjustments to their displays, food vendors peeled back aluminum foil to reveal sweet and savory goodies, and performers rehearsed softly to the strum of a guitar.

Then, clad in gold and fuchsia, Ritu Budakoti stepped up to the stage — it was time to begin the 2021 Keene International Festival.

“Keene International Festival showcases and celebrates the rich diversity present in the Elm City and the surrounding region,” Budakoti, a Keene resident, said in her opening remarks. “After a long year of planning, we have come up with so many wonderful activities, as you can see.”

After last year’s hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event returned Saturday with more than 30 vendors, performers, activities and crafts. The festival is the result of a community-wide effort, and area partners include the Keene Public Library, Keene Parks & Recreation, and the Historical Society of Cheshire County.

In front of a mostly masked crowd, Mayor George Hansel read a proclamation, declaring the day to be International Festival Day in the city of Keene.

“[I] do encourage all citizens and individuals in our city to learn about the many cultures that are represented in the Monadnock Region of New Hampshire, and … further recognize and acknowledge the rich contributions different cultures have made in our community,” he said.

And with that, the festivities began.

The stage kept busy, hosting a variety of performers over the course of the four-hour event.

New this year was a performance of Silambam, a traditional and ancient art form in southern India that has long been practiced as a type of self defense.

Keerthana Gopal took to the stage, whirling and slicing the air with wooden staffs, stepping in time to the music.

Gopal, who lives in Keene, began studying the art form when she was 12 or 13 years old, she said in an interview following the performance. She said she was glad to bring her culture and art to a diverse audience — an experience she hadn’t had for a long time.

“It’s such a blessing, right? For almost two years we never come out and now coming in front of the audience and being with a group — it is really nice and heartwarming to see people, and see people being very open and receiving and accepting [of] the international community and art form.”

As the day wore on, the clouds burned off, and the late-summer sunshine washed over the park. Folding chairs that had initially been set up directly in front of the stage were gradually dragged into the shade. Girls walked carefully with their hands held out, henna ink drying in elaborate patterns across their palms. People sat on the grass, digging into dishes from downtown’s Yahso Jamaican Grille and Troy’s Royal Spice. For lighter fare, others snacked on Taytos — an Irish brand of potato chips — from the Keene International Market, baklava from St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church or baked goods from Finnish Mama.

Under the activities tent, a not-so-heated game of dominoes was taking place.

Alejandro Herrera of Keene wasn’t just teaching people how to play — he was teaching them how to play well, how to strategize and calculate each move. The game was being played with partners, and four men sat at the table with all their tiles facing up. (In a truly competitive game, each player would be able to see only their own tiles. But for the sake of learning, no secrets were kept among the four players.)

Dominoes is a popular game in Puerto Rico, Cuba and Herrera’s home country, the Dominican Republic, he said.

“Dominoes is a part of daily life, especially during the weekend.”

Later, he said that throughout the day, he taught the game to people from all over the world, including India, Peru and Mexico.

“[Dominoes] connects people without language.”

Steve Schuch of Hancock was one of Herrera’s pupils. Schuch had spent about 2½ years in the Dominican Republic with the Peace Corps but said this was his first time playing the game.

“It’s like chess, or it’s like poker, trying to remember who played what, and the probabilities, and what that might suggest — this is a deep game that requires much attention,” he said.

This was also Schuch’s first time attending the Keene International Festival — “But I will definitely come to it again” — and he said it was exciting to see so many different parts of the world represented.

“There’s a big [festival] in Manchester each year that’s specifically Hispanic-focused, but this is really international,” he said.

Elaine Moe of Millers Falls, Mass., echoed the sentiment. Moe, a vendor selling Finnish crafts handmade from birch — including earrings, ornaments and baskets — said that while she’s participated in Finnish and Scandinavian festivals, this was the first she had been to that included such a range of cultures.

As Dis-N-Dat, a reggae band and closing act of the festival, took the stage, Budakoti reflected on the event.

“I’m just so glad that so many people support us,” said Budakoti, who teaches at Keene Middle School. “They have come out from each nook and corner of our city — be it the teachers from [the] middle school or the Keene Community Education ... [and] the mayor actually taking out time to do a proclamation.”

The festival committee has already started to look ahead to next year, and people interested in sharing aspects of their culture are encouraged to reach out to the event’s organizers through the festival’s website and Facebook page.

On Saturday, though, Budakoti was content just basking in the day’s success.

“I’m very happy with how it turned out,” she said.

Staffing shortages at the forefront as NH nursing homes await vaccine mandate details

While many New Hampshire employers are still processing new vaccine requirements announced by the Biden administration Sept. 9, a federal mandate has for nursing homes was announced a month ago.

Facilities across the state anticipate losing staff when the mandate goes into effect, but just how large the impact will be on an industry already experiencing staffing shortages remains to be seen. Around 78 percent of long-term care facility staff are vaccinated in New Hampshire, according to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, but rates vary from facility to facility.

While nursing homes wait for more details about the mandate, only a few had chosen to implement their own before the federal directive.

For Andrew Irwin, the administrator at Hillsboro House Nursing Home, it all comes down to staffing shortages. Hillsboro House is a small facility with a few dozen staff.

“If we lose a single nurse, it’s a panic,” Irwin said.

With the mandate looming, Irwin feels he’s in an impossible situation. He’s a strong proponent of COVID vaccines and understands why they’re needed. But he says he’s unable to consider the mandate as merely a matter of policy.

Some staff at Hillsboro House already work 70 hours a week to fill empty shifts, Irwin said. The nursing home is already operating below its capacity.

Irwin also feels there’s some hypocrisy in the mandate, pointing out that unvaccinated family members can take residents out to eat in a restaurant unmasked.

But staff vaccination mandates are commonplace across the health care system. Staff work with some of the state’s most vulnerable residents and personnel are routinely required to be vaccinated against diseases like measles and mumps.

Nationwide, about six in 10 Americans support vaccine mandates for hospital or other health care workers, according to recent polling from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Daniel Estee runs Derry Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare and supports a vaccine mandate for health care workers.

Like Irwin, he expects he may lose a few staff to the mandate, but he’s more confident about maintaining his workforce. Since the Biden administration announced plans for the mandate, nearly 50 percent of his unvaccinated staff decided to get the vaccine.

“I think we’re in good shape,” he said.

Shelley Richardson, the administrator of Belknap County Nursing Home, said while she’s been thinking a lot about staffing concerns, those worries have decreased over the past week. Almost one-third of her workforce is unvaccinated.

When the mandate was first announced in Aug. 18, she worried it could drive staff who didn’t want to be vaccinated “out of nursing homes and into other health care jobs.”

But following the announcement for more widespread vaccination requirements across the health care system and for some private employers, the mandate will be harder to avoid.

While some staff seem like they might leave, Richardson said ultimately, “we don’t have any idea right now of who will hold true to their commitment of not getting vaccinated.”

Replacing staff who may leave is difficult right now, as employers across sectors compete for new hires. And wages are often low in long-term care facilities. Richardson says prospective hires have frequently told her they make more money working jobs at companies like 7-Eleven.

Starting this week, pay for some of her staff is increasing by $200 dollars a week. The money is coming from federal funding through the American Rescue Plan. Richardson says that money brings wages up to a more competitive level for the region.

Merrimack County Nursing Home could serve as a bellwether for administrators like Irwin, Estee, and Richardson. The facility implemented a vaccine mandate over a month ago. Including exemptions, the facility projects staff vaccination rates will hit 97 percent once everyone reaches full vaccination.

It’s a significant increase from the facility’s rates prior to the mandate, which were at 64 percent. Twelve total workers, around 3 percent of staff, left because of the mandate. Ultimately, the facility’s administrator, Matt Lagos, says he felt implementing the mandate was critical to protecting residents and staff from the virus.

Genesis HealthCare, which has nearly two dozen facilities in New Hampshire — including in Keene, Peterborough and Winchester — also implemented a mandate that went into effect Aug. 23.

In a statement to NHPR, the company says “we met our deadline of 100 percent vaccinated staff, as promised — excluding the small number of individuals who received medical or religious exemptions.”

Genesis did not respond to a request for comment on how many staff had left the company or been terminated because of the mandate but did say they “had some employees who were not willing to comply with the policy.” The company emphasized that the mandate has been well received among residents, patients and their families and says COVID rates have already declined since the policy was implemented.

There’s a shortage of educators in New Hampshire — and COVID is only part of the reason

There was a time when an opening for an English teacher at Madison Elementary School would draw 30 to 40 applicants.

These days, Michael Whaland said, the school is lucky to get six.

Whaland, the superintendent of SAU 13, which includes Freedom, Madison and Tamworth, knows the numbers well. Two weeks after classes began, his district is missing two teachers, four paraprofessionals, and a principal across its three schools.

For Whaland, the situation has a personal resonance; he wrote his doctoral dissertation on teacher retention difficulties in rural schools. But COVID-19 has exacerbated those difficulties.

“In my last district we had positions that were open the entire year, and they didn’t get filled,” said Whaland, who took the role of SAU 13 superintendent in July. “So I think it’s one of those situations where you have to hope for the best but expect the worst.”

It’s a near-universal story. New Hampshire schools have returned to in-person learning this month, but many are shorthanded. The pressures of sluggish overall hiring trends combined with school environments that have become the focal point of political and epidemiological debates in recent months has led to a scarcity of teaching candidates.

“If it’s not every school board or every school district, it’s certainly statewide,” said Barrett Christina, executive director of the N.H. School Boards Association.

In fact, it’s a national problem. According to a survey conducted by the National Education Association this year, 80 percent of the organization’s members said they had seen more educators retiring or leaving the job since the pandemic started. Thirty-seven percent of educators said the pandemic made them more likely to leave earlier than they planned — an increase from 28 percent in May 2020.

Public schools and private schools have filled job-search websites, with many openings for support jobs from custodial work to paraprofessionals. Often, schools will post a half-dozen openings in one day.

Educators say it has been a uniquely taxing year.

“You have a lot of teachers who are just totally drained,” said Deb Howes, the president of the American Federation of Teachers-New Hampshire, a union in the state. “And there were more retirements than we were expecting.”

But the challenges are also structural. In an environment where every employer is competing for workers, school districts are sometimes at a disadvantage, Whaland said. Staff salaries can be locked in by hard-fought collective bargaining agreements, and administrations can’t always be as flexible as other employers when it comes to providing incentives for staff to stay.

“It’s difficult for districts to be as nimble as what’s going on in the private sector,” he said.

That means some support staff members depart for other districts, which might pay slightly more per hour. Or they can go into other industries entirely.

And with the state seeing a return to high daily COVID-19 caseloads, safety is another factor.

“Maybe people that were paraprofessionals just don’t feel comfortable going back into the building for whatever reason,” Christina said. “They’re worried about exposure. Maybe they have underlying health conditions. I think that’s played a factor.”

Among teachers, the exodus has been primarily driven by two groups, Whaland said. On one side of the spectrum are the longtime teachers who opted for retirement rather than deal with remote learning. On the other side are the brand-new teachers for whom the pandemic was a rough wake-up call regarding some of the challenges of the job, which may also be driving student teachers away from the profession.

“It’s a mix between not having folks necessarily in the pipeline and having an aging veteran corps that may not be quickly replaced,” Whaland said. “We’re losing a lot of institutional knowledge in our educational settings.”

As older and younger teachers depart, those in the middle of that age and experience spectrum — “the core group” — are largely hanging on, Whaland said.

But for all educators, burnout is a constant threat. With district-by-district decisions on when and how to return students to the classroom in 2020 and 2021, teachers were forced to adapt to ever-changing teaching environments with growing lists of digital tools.

“I think folks are really trying to do more with less,” Whaland said. “I think that there’s been a lot of people that have had to change their pedagogy. I think there’s a lot of people that have had to try new things, take risks, and it’s been hard.”

Another dynamic emerged over the past year: the rise of intensive parent-teacher and student-teacher interactions, at all hours of the day and night. With many people online and in their homes for long stretches, traditional boundary lines all but vanished.

“It was much worse with high school and middle school teachers, because students would be up later and later, and they would be doing an assignment and would be on the online platforms and looking for teacher feedback and sending instant messages through online platforms,” Howes said.

Remote learning posed impossible hardships for everyone involved, Howes noted, but teachers often felt the responsibility to fix them anyway.

“In a way we are part of our own burnout, because you don’t want to let that opportunity slip by,” she said. “And as much as we advise people to set boundaries, it’s hard to when a kid says, ‘I need help.’ Or when you have a kid who’s just saying: ‘This isn’t even about schoolwork. I’m just feeling so sad,’ or ‘I’m just having a hard time.’ You don’t want to let it go. You want to try and help.”

For other teachers, the decision to leave has been driven by economic reality. Though high salaries aren’t generally expected in the teaching field, the added pressure and increased work hours during remote learning appeared to lead to a breaking point.

Meanwhile, the contracting schedule didn’t help matters, administrators say. With contract renewals typically due by the spring, many teachers were forced to decide in the winter whether to continue for another year, before they knew when they could be scheduled for a vaccination and well before they knew whether schools would be fully reopening in the fall.

“It wasn’t clear what this year would look like, so they decided to exercise their options,” Howes said. “And they just couldn’t face another year.”

Now, with the school year underway, SAU 13 is doing what it can to reverse the trend, blasting out job offers in newspapers and online job boards. In recruitment efforts, and during interviews, school staff will highlight the lifestyle that comes with living in the Lakes Region, and emphasize the importance of candidates finding a school that’s the right fit for their interests.

But the hiring squeeze has meant district leaders have had to make adjustments. They’ve relied on substitutes in some cases — though there are shortages there, too. They’ve changed schedules to pool together students who ordinarily might have their own teacher or paraprofessional, while also trying to keep “cohorts” small to minimize COVID-19 transmission.

Most importantly, Whaland said, district and school officials have attempted to include the existing staff in discussions of how best to handle the reduced resources.

“Getting the teachers together and talking about: We know we’re down a ‘para’ here, a teacher there; how can we make this work? What are our strategies?” he said. “That typically gets a lot more buy-in and, quite frankly, they have much better ideas than I could have in isolation.”

How long the hiring challenges last is a matter of speculation.

“I think it’s going to be a long-term setback,” Christina said. “Even before the pandemic we were having staffing shortages in school districts and while this exacerbated it, I don’t see a quick turnaround, unfortunately.”

Whaland has a rosier view.

“I don’t think it’s permanent,” he said. “… I do think this is going to take some time. I think it’s going to take a little bit of time to get young people interested in the field of education.

“I think,” he added, “it comes down to being valued.”