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Keene school board opposes 'divisive concepts' bill

The Keene Board of Education on Tuesday became the latest group in New Hampshire to voice opposition to a bill before the Legislature that would cut off state funding for any school, business or organization that spreads “divisive concepts” about topics such as racism and sexism.

The board voted 7-1 during its meeting Tuesday evening to adopt a resolution opposing the legislation, which started as House Bill 544 but has since been incorporated into the House’s state budget proposal.

“We encourage our students to analyze current events and the historical context surrounding these events, and support our educators in speaking openly and honestly at all times,” the board’s resolution reads. “The language of HB 544 will suppress this open exchange of ideas and severely limit our students and educators in exploring diversity that is such a vital feature of our schools.”

The bill has drawn criticism from educators and businesses statewide. Roughly 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 opposing the legislation as “antithetical” to Granite State values like diversity and inclusion.

Additionally, 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.

Several local teachers told The Sentinel last week that they’re against the proposal and fear it could limit important conversations on topics like race and gender. At Tuesday’s meeting of the Keene school board, Chairman George Downing said he views the bill as attempted state government overreach.

“I find the entire concept of the bill to be problematic in that I don’t think it’s the purpose of our state Legislature to be telling us what we can and cannot be teaching in our schools,” Downing said during the meeting, which was held in the Keene High School auditorium. “It is poorly written, and as such can be used as a tool to suppress free speech across our schools in a lot of different ways.”

Robert Malay, superintendent of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 — which covers Keene and six nearby towns — added that he has consistently opposed state mandates on what is and is not taught in schools.

But Kris Roberts, the lone board member to vote against the resolution, said he did not want to engage in the political process, which is often subject to shifts based on which party controls the Statehouse.

“We’re an educational organization, and I’m much more comfortable with us staying in the educational realm and not getting caught up with what the House does,” said Roberts, a former state representative.

Raleigh Ormerod, the board member who introduced the resolution opposing the “divisive concepts” bill, said that speaking out against the proposal is not political but rather a matter of promoting an inclusive culture in Keene schools.

“I don’t believe we should be supporting anything that restricts advancement of teaching ourselves how to better understand each other,” said Ormerod, who’s also a Keene City Councilor. “And I would oppose anything that puts restrictions on that. And so I’m thinking about it as a community action, and not as a political statement.”

The legislation, introduced by a trio of Republican state representatives, seeks to ban the propagation of ideas including that the state of New Hampshire or the U.S. is fundamentally racist or sexist, that “meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist” and that anyone should feel guilt or any other type of psychological distress due to their race or sex.

Supporters of the 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. Backers of the bill have said this amounts to “indoctrination,” though critics of the proposal say that’s not what’s happening in schools.

Gov. Chris Sununu has said he does not support the bill, citing free speech concerns, according to NHPR.

As NH arts venues reopen, will audiences return?

The state’s performing arts venues are getting ready to bring back live performances and crowds this summer as the pandemic eases, but they’re also ready for a lot of audience uncertainty about how to behave.

“The specific protocols are going to vary from venue to venue and even among events at the same venue,” said Beth Falconer, director of 3S Artspace in Portsmouth, one of a dozen representatives of state venues who spoke during a press conference Tuesday. “You should understand when you’re buying tickets what the situation is for that particular performance.”

The press conference, held by a loose coalition of about 40 independent movie houses, live theaters and performing art stages around New Hampshire, released a series of drawings that can be used to indicate preferences for masks, social distancing and vaccination for audiences, employees and performers. They can give a quick idea about what’s expected in a world that’s grown accustomed to communicating with emojis.

“If you buy a ticket for an event several months off, safety protocols are likely to change by that date. So pay attention; prepare for your visit in advance,” said Falconer.

With any luck, officials said, everybody will be so happy to see shows and movies again that venues will only need to encourage, rather than enforce, standards about masking, social distancing and vaccination.

“We’re not going to have bouncers climbing through seats because they don’t have masks on,” said Scott Hayward, co-owner of Tupelo Music Hall in Derry, responding to a question about how venues will deal with uncooperative audience members.

“It will basically be the honor system. … It’s very hard to have a performance with over 1,000 people walking through a door and have a conversation with each and every person about their vaccination status,” said Capital Center for the Arts Executive Director Nicki Clark.

Andrew Pinard, founder of the Hatbox Theater in Concord, said that theater had seen no problems as one the few venues with indoor performances through last fall and early winter. “We had zero instances of anyone not being aware or not complying with the safety mitigations of the time.”

The biggest concern about audiences, however, is not how they’ll behave but how quickly they will return.

All the venues have been devastated by the loss of ticket income over the past year, complicating preparations for reopening.

“We have to re-hire before we have evidence of the audience return, or know whether we’ll be at full capacity,” said Falconer. “We just need those audiences to keep up with our re-hires!”

Hiring of any kind will be an issue, they said, particularly for experienced workers who handle lighting, sets, ticketing and other specialized jobs.

“Some of those folks left the industry. Just like the hotel industry, like the hospitality industry, we’re going to be facing a worker shortage,” said Monte Bohanan, marketing director of The Music Hall in Portsmouth.

The realities of booking and preparing live shows also effects what we will see this summer, they noted. A live play that has been preparing for an outdoor venue can’t suddenly move indoors where staffing, sets and other needs are different, just because the state has changed its requirements.

Or consider classic rock act Three Dog Night’s show at Tupelo in Derry. It was scheduled for April of last year, then July of last year, then for March of this year, and now will be held Aug. 20. Tupelo was the first venue in the state to hold outdoor, drive-in concerts, and this will be its first indoor concert since the pandemic hit.

Hayward noted that he can’t limit audience size to enable more social distancing even if he wanted to, because Gov. Chris Sununu has lifted the state of emergency. “We sign contracts months in advance. I’m now required to fulfill the contract … I’m contractually bound to offer the same number of seats.”

There is, however, a solution to almost all these concerns: Vaccines.

“The biggest safety recognition ... is to please get vaccinated,” said Falconer. “Out first and most important message is: Please, go get the shot. The faster New Hampshire gets to 75 percent to 80 percent percent people vaccinated, the quicker you’ll see all the other safety regulations go away.”

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As more districts join, Keene stays out of school-funding lawsuit
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Keene will not join a growing list of school districts in a lawsuit that claims the state fails to meet its constitutional duty to fund an adequate education.

The Keene Board of Education discussed adding the district as a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit, originally filed by the ConVal School District in March 2019, but did not act on the matter during its meeting Tuesday night. The case is back in Cheshire County Superior Court after a state Supreme Court decision in March found that Judge David W. Ruoff did not employ the proper legal analysis when he declared the state’s current school-funding formula unconstitutional.

As of Tuesday, 16 school districts, representing nearly a quarter of all New Hampshire public school students, have joined the lawsuit, according to a news release from the ConVal district.

But Robert Malay, superintendent of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 — which covers Keene and six nearby towns — said he consulted with the district’s attorneys within the past several weeks, who advised him it wouldn’t make sense for Keene to join the suit.

“At the time of the initial filing, we received legal input that said that it wasn’t necessarily in the best interest of the board to contribute financially to something at that point in time, and I have not had any legal input that says otherwise at this time,” Malay said during the meeting, which was held in the Keene High School auditorium.

The Keene school board previously passed on an opportunity to join the lawsuit in April 2019, before it went to Cheshire County Superior Court for the first time. The Winchester, Monadnock Regional and Mascenic Regional districts did sign on to the initial suit.

Since the Supreme Court ruling in March, 12 additional districts statewide have joined the case, with Hopkinton, Lebanon, Manchester and Nashua becoming the latest to add their names this week, according to the news release from the ConVal district. The Claremont, Derry, Fall Mountain, Grantham, Hillsboro-Deering, Mascoma Valley, Newport and Oyster River districts are all co-plaintiffs as well.

“The growing momentum toward requiring the state to provide equitable funding sends a message to the State,” ConVal Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders said in the release. “School districts, from the largest to the smallest, recognize the inequities. It’s time for the state to do the same.”

During a status conference in the case last month, Ruoff set Friday as the deadline for additional districts to sign on to the lawsuit. A trial date has not been set yet, but Ruoff has said it could begin in the summer of 2022.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Keene school board, member Kris Roberts said he did not support the district’s joining the suit because the court decisions in the case thus far have determined it’s up to the state Legislature to fix the school-funding formula.

“I don’t want to get into a political thing, because education shouldn’t be political,” he said. “But we don’t gain anything by putting our name to it.”

But Christopher C. Coates, a former 10-year member of the school board who was one of only two members of the public to attend Tuesday’s meeting, said he believed the district should have lent its support to the lawsuit.

“This is the 11th hour. I don’t know why we haven’t joined before this,” said Coates, who is the Cheshire County administrator. “Any opportunity to take a look at it and see if we can get more adequacy funding makes sense to me.”

Although Keene will not join the lawsuit, the district was one of 25 statewide that signed an amicus brief — a court filing from people and organizations interested in, but not directly involved with, cases — last year arguing the state’s current education-funding formula is unconstitutional. Amicus briefs do not require the parties that sign them to have any continued involvement in a case.

The ConVal lawsuit is the latest in a line of school-funding cases dating back to the early 1990s, when the state Supreme Court issued its Claremont I and II decisions. Those opinions held that the state must fund an “adequate education.”

For the current school year, the state provided districts with a baseline of $3,708 per student in “adequacy aid,” plus additional amounts tied to students’ socioeconomic status, how many are in special education programs and other factors.

Statewide, districts spent an average of $16,823 per student in the 2019-20 school year, not including tuition to out-of-district schools, transportation, equipment and construction, according to data from the N.H. Department of Education.

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NH ending $300 jobless aid in June, introduces back-to-work stipends
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New Hampshire will end a $300-per-week federal unemployment aid program next month, long before those benefits expire nationwide in September, Gov. Chris Sununu announced Tuesday.

That supplemental assistance will no longer be available to Granite Staters on June 19, Sununu said in a news conference. The announcement came less than a week after the governor signaled his intention to end the federal benefits, citing employers’ complaints that they can’t find workers because jobless aid is too high.

In another effort to encourage people to find employment, Sununu also announced Tuesday that the state will offer up to $1,000 to residents who return to work in the coming months.

The $10 million stipend program, which will distribute emergency federal funds, aims to incentivize unemployed Granite Staters to join the workforce, he said in the news conference.

The state’s unemployment rate has dropped from 16 percent last spring to 2.8 percent — close to its pre-pandemic level — Sununu said Tuesday. However, about 15,000 fewer people are now working in New Hampshire than were doing so before the pandemic, he said.

In an effort to boost that number, the new Summer Stipend Program will give $1,000 to people currently on the state’s unemployment rolls after they’ve returned to work full-time for eight consecutive weeks. It will also offer $500 for those who return to a part-time job for that period.

The program began Tuesday, Sununu said, so people who find employment immediately will be able to apply for aid eight weeks from now.

“The timing works really well with our summer tourism season,” he said, noting that many hospitality businesses are looking for workers.

The employment stipends will be available on a first-come, first-served basis, according to Sununu. With $10 million available, at least 10,000 people will have the opportunity to receive its payouts — though he said people who start a job paying more than $25 per hour won’t be eligible for the new program.

Sununu encouraged anyone worried that returning to work will expose them to COVID-19 to get vaccinated.

“It’s a key mitigation measure,” he said. “... If you’re not willing to get vaccinated and you’re still concerned about re-entering the workforce — if not now, then when?”

Approximately 35,000 people in New Hampshire are collecting unemployment aid, Sununu said Tuesday. All of them qualify for the $300 federal jobless benefits, which Congress included in emergency relief packages in December and March. People out of work will continue to receive unemployment from the state when the supplemental aid expires next month.