SWANZEY CENTER — The Monadnock Regional School Board’s June 15 vote to spend roughly $450,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funds on staff stipends should have happened in a public meeting, the board chairman said Tuesday.
The board took that vote in a non-public session, a move that has drawn criticism from several residents of the district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy. At Tuesday night’s board meeting, Chairman Scott Peters of Troy took responsibility for what he characterized as an unintentional “misstep.”
“The mistake we made was in not exiting non-public and taking the vote for the use of the grant funding in a public setting,” Peters said during the meeting, which was held in the library of Monadnock Regional Middle/High School in Swanzey Center and also broadcast via Zoom. “So, I accept responsibility for that. I’m sorry.”
Peters said the board entered that June 15 non-public session for an appropriate reason, but when the conversation shifted, the group should have moved back to a public session to vote on the $450,024 in stipends for 334 employees, representing 2.5 percent of staff members’ annual compensation.
The board went into that closed-door 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.
The June 15 conversation, Peters said, was a continuation of one that began two weeks earlier in another non-public session, when the board began discussing the possibility of providing stipends for a few staff members based on their performance during the 2020-21 school year.
“What happened in that moment, however, is we were immediately presented with the opportunity to use CARES funds to support the take-home stipends,” Peters said Tuesday, referencing the federal coronavirus relief package. “And we did not continue the conversation about individual performance because we learned there was sufficient funding to support stipends for all.”
Adam Hopkins of Troy, who initially raised concerns about the transparency of the board’s non-public vote on the stipends, said previously that the board used an overly broad interpretation of the exemption in state law that allows non-public discussions on individual compensation. That provision covers conversations about payment of a single employee, not entire groups of school staff, said Hopkins, who also chairs Monadnock’s budget committee.
Peters said previously that the board received guidance from the district’s attorneys that the decision on the stipends should be made in a non-public session. But on Tuesday, Peters said he agrees with Hopkins’ assessment, and said he should have moved the board back into a public discussion when the conversation turned to a district-wide staff stipend.
“It was at that moment that we should have exited non-public to continue the conversation,” Peters, who has been on the board since 2015, said. “And this is not [the] administration’s fault. This is specifically my fault. I should have recognized that moment, when we were in it, and I should have stopped the conversation to get us out of non-public.”
Board members Elizabeth Tatro of Swanzey and Lisa Steadman of Troy, the board’s vice chairwoman, told Peters he did not need to take full responsibility for the error. But, Peters said, it’s the job of the board chair and vice chair “to make sure that we’re operating according to our mandate.” (Steadman, who previously served as board chairwoman, was not present for the June 15 non-public session).
Hopkins, the lone member of the public to attend Tuesday’s meeting in person, thanked Peters and the board for providing follow-up information on the non-public stipend vote.
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 public input 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 for purposes ranging from educational programs to help students recover from the effects of the pandemic to facility upgrades like ventilation systems, according to federal guidelines.
As of Tuesday, Monadnock Assistant Superintendent Jeremy Rathbun said the district had received 28 responses to its request for input, all from staff members.
“And the vast majority of that input had to do with ventilation and climate control, about schools being too hot, too cold and wanting more ventilation,” Rathbun said. “So the vast majority of that feedback really revolved around air quality.”
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, Superintendent Lisa Witte updated board members on current staff vacancies. At the board’s Aug. 17 meeting, the district had 14.5 open positions, according to the minutes of that meeting. That figure has dropped to seven as of Tuesday, Witte said, with paraprofessionals remaining the biggest need.
“From what I know of what’s happening in other districts in our region, that’s similar,” Witte said after the meeting. “And that’s a longstanding difficulty. I think it’s been more difficult with COVID, but it’s not new, unfortunately. Those are hard roles to fill. They’re great roles, they’re great jobs, but they can be difficult. And so it takes a special person to be a paraprofessional.”
Witte told the board she remains hopeful the district will be able to fill all open positions soon, though she did not provide a specific timeline.
A six-week abortion ban, similar to the one that is now law in Texas, didn’t make it out of the Democratic-controlled New Hampshire House in 2020. Its sponsors say they’ll refile it, hopeful the passage this year of a 24-week ban indicates new support for even stricter abortion restrictions.
And one of them, Rep. Walter Stapleton, a Claremont Republican, said he could also back a second piece of Texas’s law that rewards United States citizens $10,000 and attorney’s fees if they sue an abortion provider and others who help a woman end her pregnancy.
“I don’t see any problem with it,” Stapleton said.
House members can’t file proposed legislation for the 2022 session until next week, and senators must wait until October. Abortion rights advocates aren’t waiting. They began mounting a fight even before Gov. Chris Sununu signed the 24-week ban in June and said that opposition has become more urgent in light of the Texas law, which took effect this month.
In a Zoom roundtable with Congressman Chris Pappas Tuesday, Tanna Clews, chief executive officer of the New Hampshire Women’s Rights Foundation, called the Texas law a “wake-up call.” And Kayla Montgomery of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England said that organization aims to defeat new abortion restrictions and repeal the 24-week ban, which requires ultrasounds before abortions at any stage and imposes criminal penalties against abortion providers. The law also allows the mother, the father of the fetus (if the father is married to the mother), and the mother’s parents (if she is under 18) to file a lawsuit for physical and psychological injuries, but the law does not say against whom.
“It’s very clear that we have our work cut out for us here in New Hampshire and across our country,” Montgomery said. “We’re going to fight at every level from city council all the way up. This is a fight that is far from over, as we’ve seen.”
Asked whether Sununu would sign an abortion law similar to the one passed in Texas, spokesman Ben Vihstadt said in an email: “The governor would not sign a bill further restricting abortions or overturning Roe v. Wade. He is a pro-choice governor, who like many Granite Staters opposes late-term abortions in months seven, eight, and nine of a pregnancy.”
The proposed six-week ban filed in 2020 by Stapleton and Rep. Dave Testerman, a Franklin Republican, was voted inexpedient to legislate that year 194-91, primarily along party lines. Testerman said Tuesday that he intends to reintroduce the legislation but isn’t ready to support allowing citizens to enforce it with lawsuits as they can in Texas.
“One part that I’m a little bit hesitant on is making everybody a vigilante,” he said. “I would have some difficulty with that.” He also has difficulty with the new 24-week ban.
“I think that was probably a compromise for some people,” he said. “I can support it because it’s something. But I think fetal homicide is breaking the law, and I think 24 weeks wasn’t enough.”
Whether more restrictive abortion legislation would succeed next year is uncertain.
Rep. Jim Creighton, an Antrim Republican who co-sponsored this year’s legislation banning the use of public money for abortions, said Tuesday he hasn’t studied the new Texas law but also doesn’t see a need to. “I think what we passed banning state funding to pay for abortions and the 24-week piece were appropriate,” he said. “I think for the state of New Hampshire, that is right. That’s what we should focus on.”
Rep. Jess Edwards, an Auburn Republican who negotiated the House’s position on abortion restrictions with the Senate, also thinks a ban at 24 weeks is appropriate for New Hampshire. He accused opponents of using the Texas law to raise confusion about the limits of New Hampshire’s restrictions.
“I think they’re doing a grave injustice by going around and saying that we’ve eliminated choice in New Hampshire and making it sound like we passed a Texas-style ban,” he said.
Asked if he would vote for a six-week ban, Edwards said, “I want to keep attention on the 24-week ban, and that’s what we chose.”
CLAREMONT — Fourteen-year-old Aubree Herzog spent part of Labor Day weekend, her last respite before the start of the 2021-2022 school year, wrapping up a weeklong suitcase drive for local foster youth as part of her Eagle Service Project for the Scouts BSA (formerly the Boy Scouts of America), Herzog’s final requirement to becoming the first female in the Claremont region to obtain an Eagle Scout ranking.
Over the last week, Herzog collected more than 50 suitcases — as well as socks, underwear and personal hygiene items — donated by residents and local service groups, including the Claremont Kiwanis Club, the Claremont Elks and the VFW Post 808. Herzog will donate the suitcases — each packed with the basic needs items — to the New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) for youth entering foster placement.
“I saw something online about how [foster youth] are always rushed in and out of homes without necessarily having the time to get everything they need,” Herzog explained. “So we came up with the idea to get suitcases for them, as many youths [around the country] have to carry their belongings in trash bags or plastic grocery bags.”
Alex Herzog, Aubree’s father and Scoutmaster of Troop 38, a BSA troop in Claremont, said Aubree’s project primarily targeted teens and pre-adolescent youth, as opposed to younger children.
“DCYF said they get donations for little kids but hardly anything for teens or tweens,” Herzog’s father said. Herzog said she has exceeded her project goal of 50 suitcases donations, with some items still coming.
“It was really awesome to see the community’s response,” Herzog told the Eagle Times. “People really came together for the kids and my Eagle Scout project.”
Herzog is positioned to become the region’s first female Eagle Scout since the organization opened its program to girls in 2017.
Attaining the rank of Eagle Scout is considered a sacred honor within the Boy Scouts. Only 2 percent of scouts ever achieve the Eagle Scout rank, which requires several years of commitment, badges in an array of physically and mentally rigorous challenges.
Through the Eagle Service Project, the scout demonstrates leadership skills and initiative by choosing a way to give back to the community and overseeing the coordination with contributing partners to bring the project to fruition.
The Eagle Service Project represents the last requirement to attain Eagle Scout, the highest scout ranking in the BSA.
Herzog, though an active participant in all Troop 38 meetings and activities, is not officially a member of the troop, Alex Herzog explained. BSA troops cannot be co-ed. There are all-female BSA troops, though the nearest such troop to Herzog is located in Keene.
Herzog is a “lone scout,” a BSA scout who is technically independent due to the lack of an available troop.
Herzog said she does not mind the distinction.
“I was just as much part of [Troop 38] as the other kids,” Herzog said. ‘I was not excluded from anything. I just had a different title.”
Herzog said she greatly appreciates her scouting experience, which has helped her cultivate self-reliance and acquire an array of life skills.
“I love learning new things,” Herzog said. “And many things I would never have learned if not for scouting.”
Herzog said she was drawn to BSA’s focus around outdoor-skills and wilderness-survival activities. Herzog’s older brother Prescott was also a member of Troop 38, earning his Eagle Scout badge in 2018.
Troop 38 meets Thursdays at St. Mary’s Gymnasium on Central Street from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. The troop is looking for new members, ages 11-17. The next meeting is scheduled on Thursday, Sept. 9.
New Hampshire communities can require people to wear face masks indoors and outdoors if they wish, even as broad emergency powers in effect since early in the COVID-19 pandemic have lapsed, according to a spokeswoman for the state’s attorney general.
That authority now falls under the state’s Universal Best Practices guidance, which recommends that businesses take certain steps to curb the virus’ spread, such as encouraging workers to get vaccinated and asking patrons to wear masks, N.H. Attorney General spokeswoman Kate Giaquinto told The Sentinel recently. Though that guidance was meant for businesses, Granite State cities and towns may also act on its recommendations, including by imposing community-wide mask mandates, Giaquinto said.
That clarification comes shortly after Vermont Gov. Phil Scott said last month that Brattleboro officials aren’t authorized to require mask-wearing except for in municipal buildings.
Citing COVID-19 infection rates in the region, which have risen substantially since earlier this year, Brattleboro’s selectboard adopted a resolution Aug. 17 mandating that people wear masks in all indoor public places, including businesses in town. Scott’s office declined to approve the measure, however, telling town officials that infection and hospitalization rates at the time didn’t justify a broad mandate.
Brattleboro previously had a community-wide mask mandate in place from May 2020 until this past June. But under new rules that Scott created when Vermont’s pandemic state of emergency expired that month, state health officials must now sign off on local COVID-related regulations.
“You have asked the commissioner of health to approve Brattleboro’s proposal to exercise an extraordinary regulatory power while there is no state of emergency,” Scott’s office told the town in an email late last month. “Mandatory masking has only been exercised or permitted by the governor during a declared state of emergency.”
Without support from state officials, Brattleboro selectboard Chairwoman Elizabeth McLaughlin said Tuesday, “I don’t see the point in pursuing a mask mandate any further at this time.”
Instead, McLaughlin said the board plans to stick with another resolution it approved at the Aug. 17 meeting that encourages — but doesn’t require — residents to wear masks in public spaces and get vaccinated against COVID-19. Brattleboro already requires anyone in a town building, including employees, to wear a mask.
“I’m pleased that Brattleboro has brought this matter to Vermont and New Hampshire’s attention,” McLaughlin said Tuesday. “I see the CDC guidance and the upward trajectory of COVID cases, and hope that we can all be smart, sensible and stay safe, mask mandate or not.”
Under guidance updated earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that anyone who isn’t fully vaccinated wear a mask in indoor public spaces and that even vaccinated people wear a mask in those places if the region has substantial or high viral transmission. Windham County, where Brattleboro is located, was downgraded from “substantial” to “moderate” transmission on Aug. 17 but is now reporting “high” transmission, with 88 new cases in the past seven days, according to the CDC.
Even though its own statewide mask mandate expired in April and its state of emergency ended in June, New Hampshire is still allowing communities to require masking in public places if they wish.
At least two have taken advantage of that local authority.
Hanover’s selectboard voted last month to adopt new rules requiring that people in indoor spaces wear face masks, after the town’s last mandate expired in June, and Lebanon enacted a similar policy last week, The Valley News reported. Local officials in both communities said the measures are needed as infection rates there keep rising, due largely to the virus’ more contagious delta variant.
Infection rates in Cheshire County — where 62 percent of eligible residents are vaccinated — have risen quickly since July, according to data published by the CDC. (Health experts say all three vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are effective against the delta variant, though so-called “breakthrough” cases can still occur.)
Keene officials said last month, however, there were no plans at the time to bring back a community-wide mask mandate that lapsed in June.
City Councilor Randy Filiault, who first proposed that policy last year, said Tuesday the city remains in “ ‘wait and see’ mode” on a new mandate. Local officials are monitoring the situation daily, he said, including by having regular conversations with Cheshire Medical Center and Keene State College.
“Most councilors honestly would prefer not to institute a mandatory mask mandate, and are, for now, allowing business owners to implement their own if they choose to,” he said.