The Monadnock Regional School District board, in a June 15 non-public session, approved about $450,000 in one-time stipends for staff members who went above and beyond during the COVID-19 pandemic, using money from federal relief funds.
Since then, several residents of the district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — have questioned the transparency of this process and criticized the board for discussing and voting on the stipends in a closed meeting.
“It really rubs me the wrong way,” Adam Hopkins of Troy said this week. “It feels like a lack of transparency and a total lack of accountability.”
School Board Chairman Scott Peters of Troy, though, has said the board received guidance from the district’s attorneys that the decision on the stipends should be made in a non-public session. Peters was not available for an interview this week but said the board plans to discuss its vote on the stipends, and the legal counsel that led to the decision taking place in a closed meeting, at its Sept. 7 meeting.
“I think we can address those things, but I don’t for a moment feel that we acted inappropriately,” Peters said during the board’s Aug. 17 meeting. “I feel it’s probably not transparent enough. That I think we can address, so we will work on that for the next meeting.”
Hopkins serves as chairman of the district’s budget committee but said he raised questions about the school board’s decision as a resident of the district, not in his elected capacity. He said he contacted his school board representatives in mid-July seeking clarification on the board’s process to approve the stipends but did not hear back for more than two weeks.
Hopkins publicly expressed his concerns in a letter to the editor, which The Sentinel published in early August. After that, Hopkins said he got a response from district officials but still had questions about the process for approving the stipends, which he brought forward at the Aug. 17 school board meeting.
“My concern is how is a member of the public supposed to remain informed and hold our representatives accountable if the discussion on such a large item is not on any agenda; it’s held in non-public session?” Hopkins said during that meeting.
At the same meeting, Karen Craig of Fitzwilliam, a retired assistant superintendent for the Monadnock district, also criticized the board’s process for approving the $450,024 in staff stipends.
“I believe the non-public session is not where that decision should have been made,” said Craig, who currently works part time as the grant manager for the Hinsdale School District’s COVID-19 relief funds. “I’m here tonight because I want my concern to be heard by you, the board, and I want to have this concern noted in the minutes and heard by the public.”
Craig noted that staff stipends are one of the allowable uses for funds districts have received through the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) program, but she would have preferred Monadnock spent this portion of the money differently.
“I would want all ESSER funds used in ways that directly benefit students, and I’m extremely concerned about the learning gap that’s only widened during the pandemic,” she said. “I want you to know, too, that I do support our teachers. I’m a big believer in teachers. They deserve so much credit and thanks for what they’ve had to go through for the past year and a half, and who knows what’s happening as we move forward? But I still believe there are better ways to say thank you to them.”
According to the minutes of the June 15 non-public session, the Monadnock board voted unanimously to approve the stipends, which represent 2.5 percent of staff members’ annual compensation. Board member Karen Wheeler of Gilsum made the motion to accept the stipends as proposed by Superintendent Lisa Witte. According to the minutes of a June 1 non-public session, Peters, Witte and board Vice Chairwoman Lisa Steadman of Troy initially discussed the idea of providing staff stipends for their work during the pandemic. Board members Nick Mosher of Roxbury, Eric Stanley and Dan LeClair of Swanzey and Steadman were not present for the vote on the stipends.
The board entered the non-public session for the purpose of discussing “the compensation of any public employee,” according to the minutes. That’s one of about a dozen reasons New Hampshire state law allows public bodies like school boards to go into non-public meetings. But Hopkins, the Monadnock budget committee chairman, said he doesn’t think the stipend discussion met that non-public requirement.
“It seemed to me they were using a very liberal interpretation” of the state law governing non-public sessions, Hopkins said. He added that he believes the clause allowing non-public sessions about compensation covers discussions about payment of a single employee, not entire groups of school staff. Ultimately, Hopkins said the school board should seek to hold as many of these sorts of conversations publicly as possible.
“The less time that the district school board spends in non-public the better,” he said. “People need to understand what’s going on and have as much information as possible to make decisions to decide who to support for school board, what contracts make sense.”
But Peters, the board chairman, reiterated during the Aug. 17 board meeting that the group went into a non-public session to vote on the staff stipends based on legal advice. He added, though, that the minutes of the meeting could have more fully described the board’s discussion.
“What I would say about all of that process is we know that we received legal counsel both prior to and as a follow-up to the meetings, related to the compensations decisions we made in non-public,” he said. “I, in hindsight, will say mea culpa and maybe what’s missing here is more content in the minutes. It does not express some of the conversations we had about individuals, about performance, about who worked harder or not, how roles shifted. A lot of that content is missing.”
Peters added that board could revisit the meeting minutes to ensure they reflect the legal counsel the group received, making that a matter of public record.
Ultimately, the Monadnock board, in its June 15 non-public session, approved stipends for a total of 334 employees “for their outstanding dedication and the appreciable increase of work responsibilities related to prevention, preparation, and response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to documents the district filed with the state education department as part of the federal grant application process.
The Monadnock district has been allocated a total of $6,466,526 in federal COVID-19 relief money over four rounds of grant funding, according to the district. The district is currently seeking input from community members on how to prioritize spending $3,961,969 Monadnock has been allocated through the American Rescue Plan Act, which President Joe Biden signed in March. These funds are eligible to be spent through September 2023, according to federal guidelines.
An Iowa surgeon who does not, for the most part, treat COVID-19 patients, recently used his first Facebook post ever to say he leaves his lawn care to a landscaper and his car troubles to a mechanic. He’s taking the same approach with COVID-19 and asked that more of us do the same.
“Biostatistics is not easy. True research (not just looking through Google and social media) and reviewing data and studies and articles is not easy,” Dr. Jeffrey Dietzenbach wrote. The “expert” at your office, in your social media feed, and even at your dinner table, he said, probably isn’t one.
We’re living in an “infodemic,” and we’ve been told to use data to make important safety decisions, such as when to mandate masks at school or return to work, or gather in large groups. But most of us are navigating by guesswork.
News sites update case counts and death tallies and school outbreaks daily. State public health departments, including New Hampshire’s, have created dashboards with vaccination rates, hospital capacity, community transmission levels, equity gaps, and even the infection rate of health care workers. Lawmakers heard dueling testimony from medical providers this session, some reciting debunked claims that the vaccine kills, others citing evidence that it is the best protection against illness and death. Until recently, Gov. Chris Sununu, state epidemiologist Dr. Ben Chan, and the state’s other public health experts held weekly televised COVID-19 updates.
In short, there’s no shortage of easy-to-access data on the coronavirus or the state’s progress containing it. But is there too much?
“It’s not all bad. But a lot of it is bad,” said Dr. Eric Toner, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Social media, and the ability for information to be dispersed globally in seconds, can be a good thing for disseminating accurate, important information. But it also gives people who have either incomplete understanding, misunderstanding, or intentionally false information the opportunity to spread that information equally fast.”
Other public health experts said the most useful information comes from hospitalization rates, hospital capacity, the number of new cases, and vaccination rates — if watched over time. Trends up or down rather than single-day snapshots are best.
Still, there’s “squishy” data that appears more straightforward than it is, Toner said. This includes even vaccination rates.
The state Department of Health and Human Services did not respond in time for this story.
Dr. Ali Mokdad, a professor at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, has calculated New Hampshire’s “immunity level” to forecast that we’ll see a surge in cases later this month.
To determine immunity, Mokdad added the state’s vaccination rate (54 percent are fully vaccinated) and its total cases (15 percent of the state has had a positive test), arguing both groups are largely immune to infection. That leaves about 30 percent of the population susceptible to COVID-19, he said.
Even fewer are susceptible under Mokdad’s additional belief that positive test results capture only 45 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases because not everyone who has had the coronavirus has been tested.
Toner agrees that immunity extends to more than only the vaccinated and that positive tests are a fraction of COVID-19 infections. But he’s not as certain about the 45 percent calculation. “We’re fairly confident that there are many more cases than can have been confirmed, but we just can’t measure it precisely,” he said.
What we can infer with confidence, he said, is that immunity — and thereby success in containing the virus — is best achieved through vaccination.
“The large majority of the population has some level of immunities,” he said. “What we’re seeing right now is a combination of the people who are unvaccinated without previous infection who are now all getting very rapidly sick or infected, and a much smaller group of people who are having breakthrough infections.”
A number of news outlets and advocacy groups have promoted vaccination by drawing a connection between communities’ vaccination rates and their case counts. That sounds logical and in some communities, it appears true. But it depends on how the rates are calculated.
According to the state’s dashboard, Deering has a low vaccination rate of 39.7 percent and it has had 69 cases, which means 3.5 percent of its population has tested positive. Exeter’s 79.9 percent vaccination rate is among the highest in the state, but its 1,010 cases means that 6.7 percent of its population has tested positive.
Adjust for population sizes and the results differ. Do you count all cases or only those in the last 14 days? All methods have been used to argue a correlation between vaccination rates and high case counts.
The problem, said Toner, is that while those comparisons work at the national and even county levels, the differences between local-level populations (size, age, and rural versus urban) are significant enough to make definitive conclusions unreliable. And, if you calculate the immunity rate, as Mokdad suggests, the results are different yet again.
The message holds — vaccination boosts protection against a surge — but the path there isn’t reliable enough to compare one community to another.
“I think (sharing of misinformation) is being done largely by people who are trying to be helpful,” Toner said. “They don’t really understand what they’re looking at, and they see something they think everybody else is missing and say, ‘I’m going to share this.’ ”
Toner and Mokdad said hospitalization rates are a good indicator of community transmission levels, but a lag in reporting (not uncommon, Toner said) can misrepresent the daily rate. And, hospitalizations are a late indication of spread because they are usually one to two weeks behind a surge.
New Hampshire, like most states, reports hospital capacity, a metric so important that Sununu, public health officials, and emergency responders traveled to Kentucky this week to see how that state is handling a surge in cases. It’s called in the National Guard and erected overflow tents.
Mokdad said he would not expect a surge like Kentucky’s because of New Hampshire’s immunity level and its hospital capacity. “Yes, there’ll be an increase in demand, simply because cases are going up,” he said. “But you are not one of the states we feel will have a major issue when it comes to hospital use.”
On Thursday, 18.7 percent of all hospital beds and 18.9 percent of ICU beds in New Hampshire were staffed and available, according to the dashboard. Eighty percent of the state’s ventilator supply was available. Toner said those numbers should not be cause for alarm.
Even that capacity data can be less clear than it appears. The bed capacity reflects a hospital’s licensed number of beds, Toner said, but not the additional beds it could accommodate if there was a surge. And beds alone are not enough. “We have talked about this in terms of space, staff, and stuff,” said Toner. A shortage of health care workers can impact the number of beds available today and a hospital’s ability to increase its capacity.
Additionally, those statewide percentages alone do not reveal that capacity is much higher in the northern part of the state (27 percent of ICU beds and 55 percent of all beds are staffed and available) and lower in hospitals along Interstate 93, from Nashua to the Lakes Region. Those regional numbers, available on the state dashboard by hovering over the map under the “hospital tab,” are the closest indicator of what hospital capacity is from community to community.
With so much data that can be interpreted in so many ways, what do experts recommend? Listen to the experts not the “experts.”
Get vaccinated and wear a mask, Toner said, adding that masks must be mandated because making them optional is ineffective. Mokdad put it this way: “We need to behave.”
On a hot day in early August, Luis was constructing a metal food preparation table at the Phaze Welding Technology Center in Peterborough. The project showcased the metalworking skills he’d acquired over the past six weeks, and it was intended as a gift for his wife as they and their three children prepared to move into an apartment of their own. The move was a significant milestone for the family since they first arrived in the Monadnock region last year through the Keene-based nonprofit Project Home.
Project Home was founded in 2019 to provide support to families and individuals fleeing persecution in their home countries as they await their asylum hearings, a process that can take years, Project Home volunteer David Blair said. “An asylum seeker is here legally, but doesn’t have a long-term right to stay,” he said. Project Home provides the housing, legal, medical, educational, and other support asylum seekers may need while awaiting their hearing. If their hearing results in an approved asylum, they can apply for U.S. permanent resident status, and eventually citizenship. “We are not in control of that, but at least we can provide them a welcoming and safe home for the duration until their cases are heard and decided,” Blair said.
Luis’s family fled violence in Mexico, Blair said; their last name is being withheld to avoid potentially triggering retaliatory violence. “I was a rancher,” Luis said, while working on his table’s frame. He has a degree in cattle systems engineering, and owned cows, calves, and horses in Mexico. He said he never thought his family would have to leave their home.
It’s been a lot of hard work to start over, but Luis said he’s grateful for the generous people who have helped them since they arrived in the Monadnock Region in early February 2020.
Luis’s family is one of the five asylum-seeking families and individuals supported by Project Home. Each is initially placed with a host family, Blair said, and all have access to “extraordinary” volunteer support by lawyers, dentists, doctors, drivers, tutors, and vocational trainers who coordinate to meet each person’s unique needs. “Our budget is not huge and our needs have not been huge yet, thanks to in-kind assistance from lawyers and doctors,” Blair said. All expenses are covered by donations. Project Home has a five household capacity, Blair said. “We realize our capacity is limited, but small towns all over the country could be doing this,” he said.
A mother from El Salvador and her child are now “almost independent from us,” Blair said, so Project Home is preparing to take on two sisters from Honduras in her place. In addition to Luis’s family, the volunteer network is also supporting a mother and three children from Honduras, a man from Rwanda, and the Honduran woman’s brother. All are living in the Keene area, Blair said, although Project Home’s 60 volunteers live throughout the region, including some in Peterborough.
“There’s an extraordinary level of support and generosity in this community and the Monadnock Region,” Blair said, and a history of caring for refugees as well: local Peterborough churches helped several Cambodian families settle in the late 1970s, and a Bosnian family in the mid 1980s, he said. “There is that history here of opening arms to people coming out of difficult situations.”
Asylum-seeking guests must wait between six months and a year before they can even apply for the right to work, and even then, applications can be denied “frankly, for no good reason,” Blair said. Until they get permission to work, asylum seekers can’t get a social security number, which is required to receive a New Hampshire driver’s license, and are only permitted to volunteer for nonprofits or receive vocational training. “They are really limited,” Blair said, without legal means to work to pay for the support they need for their asylum cases.
At Phaze, Luis is pursuing a D1.1 structural steel welding certificate. “All the welders here, they are so proud because they know a lot of things and skills,” Luis said. Although he never had time to learn the useful skill on the ranch, Luis has now learned to MIG weld, and is making progress on TIG welding, which he said is harder to master. “You need to be like a drummer,” he said, coordinating both hands and a foot, all at the same time.
“Wherever he ends up landing, whether he’s going to run his own farm or work for someone else, the skills he learns here are going to be very important to be self sufficient,” Phaze welding owner Daniel Guillou said.
Project Home meets once a month and is always looking for volunteers, Blair said. “Someone with basic accounting skills would be useful,” he said, along with more drivers, and tutors. There’s no threshold commitment for participation, he said, and there’s always a need for more donations as well. A form is available on projecthomenh.org for potential volunteers to fill out.
The Keene Immigrant and Refugee Partnership, whose members were instrumental in founding Project Home, do advocacy work related to immigration rights, Blair said. Ultimately, Project Home hopes to inspire chapters in other communities, he said, just as the Community Asylum Seekers Project out of Brattleboro mentored Project Home. “We welcome opportunities to share what we do with community groups,” he said.
GILFORD — Madysen Audet was looking forward to a night of fun Sunday when she and a few friends headed to a Pitbull concert at the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion.
But not even three songs into the rapper’s set, things took a turn for the worse.
“Next thing I knew I was waking up in an ambulance, unable to feel my legs,” said the 22-year-old Keene resident.
Audet — who graduated from Keene State College in May — said she overheard her sister’s roommate arguing with another woman, who was allegedly accusing the roommate of stealing her drink.
“I thought I would step in and apologize, and I just offered to a buy a drink for them,” Audet recalled from her hospital bed at Concord Hospital on Thursday. “... Well, the guy [she was with] did not like that.”
The man, according to Audet, climbed over three rows of seats and uppercut her in the jaw.
“I flew like 5 feet back, was unconscious, and that’s apparently when the woman was on top of me, wailing me in the head a couple times after he had knocked me out,” she said.
Audet was taken to Concord Hospital for her injuries, and due to a blunt trauma to her spinal cord, she’s now paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors aren’t sure if the paralysis is permanent, so she is being transferred to Tufts Medical Center in Boston for a second opinion Thursday afternoon.
“If they don’t find anything, then I guess the next step would be long-term rehab,” she said. “... We’re hoping to get better answers so that this is not, obviously, the result.”
A GoFundMe page has been setup for Audet to help her with bills and her four dogs, who are currently staying with her parents in Concord. More than $7,000 of the $10,000 goal had been raised as of Thursday morning, in addition to donated food and toys for her pups.
Gilford police are actively investigating the incident, according to Chief Anthony Bean Burpee.
The department has been interviewing possible witnesses and collecting evidence surrounding the case, he said in an email Thursday, and has “several leads to include a possible suspect or suspects.”
Bean Burpee said the specific charges will not be disclosed to the public until all evidence is collected. However, Audet said she will “obviously press charges.”
“I feel like they need to face some consequences for, obviously, their actions because this is serious,” she said. “… You can replace somebody’s alcoholic beverage. You can’t replace their legs or their life.”
Anyone with information on the incident is asked to contact the Gilford Police Department’s Investigative Bureau at 603-527-4737.
In the meantime, Audet remains hopeful.
“I know life’s not fair, and we don’t get what we deserve. But I have just gone into this positive because I didn’t hear ‘No, I’ll never be able to walk again’ ... I heard that there is a chance I can,” she said. “... Right now, it’s about putting in all this effort to get back on my feet.”