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Monadnock school board votes to delay full reopening to May 3
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The Monadnock Regional School District intends to resume full in-person instruction when students return from spring break May 3 — two weeks later than when Gov. Chris Sununu ordered schools statewide to reopen.

The board voted at its meeting Tuesday night to send a letter to N.H. Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut declaring the district’s intent to postpone fully reopening because most staff members will not be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by April 19. Additionally, the letter states, many spaces in Monadnock district schools will not be able to accommodate the 3 feet of distance between students that the state health department currently recommends.

“As a Board, we cannot in good conscience place our partially vaccinated, non-fully protected employees in situations where we know less than 3’ of social distancing is likely,” the letter reads. “Our planned return beginning on May 3 will ensure that our employees are protected if they are in a situation where less than 3’ of social distancing occurs.”

Most staff members in the Monadnock district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — began receiving COVID-19 vaccines March 19, Superintendent Lisa Witte said during the meeting, which was held via Zoom. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people are considered fully vaccinated 14 days after their second dose of a two-shot COVID-19 vaccine.

“That means that they won’t have full protection from the vaccine until no earlier than the 23rd of April, which is the end of the week that the Governor had asked for folks to be back,” Witte said. “And the following week is vacation, so we’ll have a large number of folks who will achieve the full benefits of the vaccine either right before vacation, or over vacation itself.”

Throughout the school year, students in the Monadnock district have attended school in person two days per week and done remote learning the rest of the week. Families can also choose for their children to learn fully remotely, an option that will remain for the rest of the academic year.

Sununu announced last Thursday that he was ordering all K-12 public schools statewide to hold in-person classes five days a week beginning April 19. That executive order allows for districts to request a waiver to push back that date due to safety concerns, Witte said Tuesday. New Hampshire districts including Manchester and Exeter have submitted waiver requests, according to the N.H. Union Leader and the Portsmouth Herald.

Monadnock board Chairman Scott Peters of Troy said he got the sense “multiple districts” are taking advantage of guidance from the New Hampshire School Boards Association on how districts could request a waiver. The Monadnock board voted to make the language in the district’s letter even stronger than a request, though, instead declaring its intention to postpone full reopening.

Board member Michelle Connor of Richmond asked Witte if Monadnock could resume full in-person classes if the state pushed back against the district’s plan to return May 3.

“Operationally, we can do it,” Witte said in response. “I’m just worried about the safety.”

Witte added that she is not aware of any specific penalties the district could face for not following Sununu’s order. That topic came up during a meeting Witte and other superintendents had with Edelblut last Friday, she said. “And the response we got back was, ‘You’d be out of compliance.’ That’s it.”

The board ultimately decided to set May 3 as the district’s full reopening date by a weighted vote of 10.544-1.122. Board member Brian Bohannon of Swanzey was the lone vote against the proposal, while Nicholas Mosher of Roxbury abstained. Elizabeth Tatro of Swanzey was absent from the meeting.

Budget cuts

Before deciding on the district’s reopening date, the board also approved a series of cuts to the 2021-22 budget to meet the $32.5 million budget voters approved last month, an $855,000 reduction to the district’s original budget proposal. These reductions include the elimination of seven staff positions, one fewer than the district initially looked to cut, due in part to $115,000 in savings on staff health insurance costs, caused by a rate increase lower than the budget planned for, Witte said.

She added that not all of these moves will result in job losses. For example, a wellness teacher at Monadnock Regional Middle/High School in Swanzey Center whose position is being eliminated will move to a new district-wide role leading a program focused on student social and emotional wellness after the pandemic, which will be funded for two years by federal dollars the district received as part of a coronavirus relief package.

Troy Elementary School will eliminate its preschool program as part of the cuts, largely due to low enrollment in the program, Witte said, adding that families there who still want preschool can send their children to Emerson Elementary School in Fitzwilliam. Similarly, the high school will not offer French next year because of these budget reductions.

“Our French program has had dwindling enrollment over the past several years, and so that position will be reduced,” Witte said.

Mosher said he’s heard from a number of parents throughout the district who expressed “a tremendous amount of disappointment” that the French program was being cut. Witte added that all students can still choose from a variety of foreign language courses offered through Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, an Exeter-based nonprofit online school, though Spanish will be the only language offered in-person at MRMHS next year.

“This is painful,” Peters said of the budget cuts before the board approved them. “I think we’re a little bit subdued because we do not like ever needing to take away services from students. It’s excellent when we can find an alternative, something like preschool in Troy can attend Fitzwilliam is an excellent alternative to make it work. But it sorrows us to have to go through this motion.”

Monadnock’s budget committee cut 2.6 percent from the district’s original proposal at the group’s meeting in January. At that meeting, and the district’s annual deliberative session, several budget committee members argued the cut would help the district avoid running a large surplus, as it has for the past four years. Witte has maintained from the beginning that the reduction would result in staff and programming cuts.

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Cheshire Medical plans to start residency program to boost primary care
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Cheshire Medical Center plans to establish a primary care residency program at the former Peerless Insurance building in Keene, where it has also proposed moving some clinical and administrative operations.

In a March 19 letter to the zoning board of adjustment, Cheshire Medical officials said acquiring the vacant Maple Avenue facility — which is conditional on city officials’ approving the hospital’s plans for the building — would reduce overcrowding at their main campus on Court Street.

Cheshire Medical CEO Dr. Don Caruso and Chief Operating Officer Kathryn Willbarger wrote that the hospital would also create programs to “serve the growing health needs” of local residents. Those programs would include a new family medicine residency that they said would offer important health services and help recruit physicians to the region.

Family medicine, a type of primary care, involves caring for people of all ages and often multiple members of the same household.

Cheshire Medical Center, the local Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health affiliate, does not currently offer any residency programs, which provide postgraduate training to medical professionals, according to hospital spokesman Matthew Barone.

In their letter to the zoning board, Caruso and Willbarger said an aging local population and workforce has created “significant demand” for primary care physicians at the same time many people are retiring from those roles. They noted that rural communities in New Hampshire have “long struggled to maintain an adequate primary care workforce.”

Rural Granite Staters are more likely than their urban counterparts to travel long distances for primary care appointments, partly due to a scarcity of health providers in those areas, according to a report the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services published in December.

More than 7,000 localities in the United States had health professional shortages as of December 2018, with nearly 60 percent of them in rural areas, according to reporting by National Public Radio. Many small-town family practices have closed, NPR reported last year, as older doctors retire and young health professionals opt to work in hospitals over concerns that running an independent practice would be overly expensive or time-consuming.

Creating a family medicine residency at Cheshire Medical Center would help mitigate those issues locally by attracting and retaining physicians, Caruso and Willbarger said, citing data that show more than half of physicians nationwide work within 100 miles of their training site.

The officials also stressed the importance of providing resident physicians a chance to work with community members and a knowledge of local resources, both of which they said Cheshire Medical can offer.

“It is critical to train family medicine doctors in the environment they are most likely to ultimately practice in, and that is in community-based hospitals,” Caruso and Willbarger wrote.

Both the clinical training program and a new family medicine practice staffed by residency faculty would be at the 62 Maple Ave. facility, which was occupied most recently by Liberty Mutual Insurance, according to their letter to the zoning board.

The hospital would also use the 143,000-square-foot building “in the very near future” for several clinical and administrative operations that are currently based at Cheshire Medical’s 580 Court St. campus, Caruso and Willbarger wrote. Those may include physical and occupational therapy, pediatrics, administration offices, human resources and a day care center for employees’ children, among other departments.

Moving those operations to Maple Avenue would create more space at Cheshire Medical’s main campus to expand existing services, including surgery, cardiology and other outpatient care, and possibly add new ones, according to Caruso and Willbarger.

“Without the additional space that 62 Maple Avenue provides, Cheshire Medical Center will be challenged to meet the needs of our aging community,” they wrote.

Establishing new programs at the Maple Avenue facility would require “substantial renovations” over several years, Keene attorney Thomas Hanna, who is representing Cheshire Medical Center, told the zoning board in a letter. That would include an $8 million renovation project to establish the residency, he said.

Hospital officials have requested that the zoning board grant a special exception for Cheshire Medical’s use of the former Peerless Insurance building, as required for an institutional use, like a health care facility, on Maple Avenue, according to Keene’s zoning administrator, John Rogers.

Officials postponed a zoning board hearing on that request Monday, due to widespread Internet outages that affected communities statewide. Rogers said the hearing will be rescheduled for a later date.

Liberty Mutual Insurance sold the 62 Maple Ave. facility, which sits on a 50-acre property, last July to 62 Maple Ave Keene, a limited-liability company that shares an address with the Connecticut real estate investment firm Twenty Lake Holdings LLC. The building was larger than Liberty Mutual needed for its staff of about 190 people, a spokesman told The Sentinel last year.

Founded in 1901, Peerless Insurance had occupied the Maple Avenue building since 1957. Liberty Mutual purchased the company in 1999 before bringing it under the Liberty Mutual name within the past eight years.

Cheshire Medical Center has entered into a purchase agreement with the LLC that owns the property, conditional on the zoning board’s approval of a special exception, Hanna told the board.

The hospital has been exploring opportunities to expand and add clinical offerings at its 12-acre campus on Court Street and in the surrounding area in recent years, according to Barone.

In 2013, Keene officials and Cheshire Medical Center agreed to a 10-year payment in lieu of taxes agreement under which the hospital — a nonprofit that owns multiple properties exempt from property taxes — would pay the city $300,000 that year for its properties, with an annual 3 percent rate increase, according to previous reporting by The Sentinel.

City Assessor Dan Langille said municipal staff would review Cheshire Medical’s planned use of the Maple Avenue building to determine whether the hospital will be responsible for paying property taxes on the site.

The 62 Maple Ave. property is assessed at $9.7 million and would generate more than $362,000 in property taxes under last year’s tax rate, according to municipal records.

NH businesses voice opposition to bill that would ban teaching about systemic racism, sexism

Nearly 80 New Hampshire businesses and organizations have added their voices in opposition to a bill that would prevent public schools, organizations and state contractors from teaching about systemic racism.

House Bill 544 would prohibit discussing ideas that New Hampshire or the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist, that individuals are inherently oppressive due to their race or sex, that individuals should feel discomfort or guilt on account of their race or sex, that meritocracy and “hard work ethic” is inherently oppressive, and or any other form of race or sex “stereotyping” or “scapegoating.”

HB 544 was approved by a 10-9 vote by the House Executive Departments and Administration Committee and is scheduled to be debated this week when the full House meets for a three-day session April 7-9 at the N.H. Sportsplex in Bedford.

It is essentially based on a now-rescinded federal executive order issued in November 2020 by former President Donald Trump that restricted federal institutions from using curriculum about systemic racism, white privilege and other race and gender bias issues.

The signers are a range of small and large for-profit and nonprofit organizations, including Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, Northeast Delta Dental, Hypertherm Inc., NeighborWorks Southern New Hampshire, the Center for Women & Enterprise, Mascoma Bank, W.S. Badger Company, ReVision Energy, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, the University of New Hampshire and Southern New Hampshire University.

In a letter sent to Gov. Chris Sununu and legislators, the businesses and organizations say the bill would “have a chilling impact on our workplaces and on the business climate in New Hampshire.”

The letter charges that the measure would be “antithetical” to ongoing efforts to create diverse and inclusive work environments that “support innovative thinking and problem-solving.”

It says that “the success of New Hampshire businesses depends on the ability to attract diverse generational, gender and racial employee groups at all levels within our organizations and to do so must constantly work to create an environment that makes all our employees feel empowered in their role.”

It also argues that their businesses “have seen that inclusive work environments dramatically increase employee retention, which directly impacts our financial bottom line” and that “inclusive work environments must be fostered, including enabling open and honest discussions about racism and sexism, implicit bias and how we can eliminate structural racism.”

House Bill 544, the letter says, “would not only harm the ability of New Hampshire businesses to be competitive, it would severely harm the state’s image as business-friendly, since it stifles the ability of organizations who do business with the state to foster diverse workforces as they see fit.”

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Set to receive millions, Cheshire County awaits guidance on federal funds
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Millions of dollars will soon flow to local governments in the Monadnock Region, thanks to the federal coronavirus relief bill passed last month. Cheshire County expects to receive more than $14 million, with an estimated $7.5 million on top of that going to the county’s 23 municipalities. Additional money is earmarked for local education.

To help make sense of it all, the county government has hired a part-time point person, attorney and former N.H. Rep. William Pearson of Keene.

“This is one of the first times we’ve seen this kind of money come through the area without the kinds of strings that were attached on something like the CARES Act,” Pearson told the county commissioners at a March 24 meeting, shortly after his hiring.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden on March 11, contains a raft of provisions, including a $350 billion infusion to local, state, tribal and territorial governments.

Governments can use the money for four purposes: making up for shortfalls in funding government services; boosting the pay of essential workers; investing in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure; and responding to the pandemic and its economic fallout, including through assistance to households, nonprofits or small businesses. The money cannot be used to cut taxes or shore up pensions.

Funding for counties and municipalities will go out in two tranches — half within 60 days of passage, and the rest a year later. (It may take longer for small cities and towns because their funds are routed through the states.) It can be spent through the end of 2024.

Local officials said they are awaiting more detailed guidance from the Department of the Treasury about how the money can be spent before making any decisions.

When the first installment hits the county’s bank account, “it is going to sit there so that we can truly understand what it is that we can and cannot do,” Cheshire County Administrator Chris Coates said in an interview Monday.

Pearson, who has a degree in political science from Keene State College and recently graduated from the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law, served in the N.H. House from 2014 to 2020.

He will be paid $22.95 an hour, which is coming from an unfilled position in the county’s finance department, according to Coates.

“It is our expectation that his salary would be covered under the ARP funding that we will be receiving as it does allow for administration costs,” Coates said in an email.

Pearson said part of his part-time job will be to understand the law’s requirements, something he said he’s well suited to with his legal and government background, but the role is broader than that. He said he plans to keep track not just of the county’s allotment, but all the money flowing into the area, along with other potential sources of funding.

That will help the county identify where its funds could have the greatest impact — and what projects or needs are, or could be, covered by other funding streams, he said.

“The real gains, I think, that are going to come out of the [American Rescue Plan] are going to be made by leveraging these funds in combination, getting that kind of multiplier effect,” he said in an interview Monday. “... If there are already nonprofits doing the work on the ground, if there are ways that we can partner with the city of Keene or Stoddard or any of the municipalities in the area to make these dollars go even further, that’s what we’re looking to do.”

For instance, Pearson told commissioners last month, the county could determine that water, sewer or broadband is a priority. But that doesn’t mean the county would automatically dip into its federal relief money.

“The question is, which funds is Cheshire County going to use for that?” he said. “Are there already dedicated funds from one of the block grants for instance, in one of the other provisions?”

That also means thinking about other funding opportunities on the horizon, such as the massive infrastructure spending plan Biden has proposed.

Municipalities in the Monadnock Region won’t see as much money as the county government, though they are still slated to get substantial amounts. According to estimates posted on the U.S. Senate Democrats’ webpage — which may differ from the final figures determined by Treasury — many local towns should expect six-figure disbursements, with the smallest communities still receiving tens of thousands of dollars.

Keene, the biggest community in Cheshire County, is estimated to receive more than $2 million. City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said city councilors will discuss those funds during their annual budgeting process this spring. She noted that making up for COVID-related revenue losses “will certainly be part of the conversation.”

In Swanzey, officials are just beginning the “brainstorming phase” but awaiting further guidance from Treasury, Town Administrator Michael Branley said. “We’re really still just trying to get a better handle on how it can be used.”

According to the estimated breakdown, Swanzey would get about $700,000.

Similarly, with the county funds, Coates and Pearson said it’s too early to say how they might be used or launch a formal process to determine that, before the federal government issues its detailed guidance. At this point, Pearson said he’s listening, informally, to local stakeholders to understand their needs, writing them down in a sort of unofficial community “wish list.”

Coates said whatever funds Cheshire County eventually spends would go through the board of commissioners and the county delegation — the county’s legislative body, made up of local state representatives.

“It’s about understanding, and then starting to build a vision, and then bringing that to the commissioners and bringing that to the delegation,” he said.