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State reps tell parents to put pressure on school officials

Monitor staff
Published: 10/20/2021 6:02:33 PM

Loudon and Salisbury state representatives did not mince words as they encouraged Merrimack Valley parents to speak up, draft letters to the newspaper and vote out Merrimack Valley school board members who they feel aren’t listening to their interests.

Spread out on folding chairs in the echoing interior of Loudon Fire Station Monday night, six Republican state representatives met with a group of about 50 parents to discuss their growing dissatisfaction with the Merrimack Valley School District, primarily around the district’s mask mandate but also on issues of school funding and critical race theory, as fire station alert tones occasionally sounded in the background. No Merrimack Valley School Board members or district officials were present at the meeting Monday, although state representatives said they had been invited.

“Call them out, ask for their resignations, everybody send a letter. Who knows, maybe one or two of them will drop out because they can’t take the heat,” Rep. Jose Cambrils, a Loudon Republican, the told parents. “They’re not used to having people even push back at all, but we’re pushing back now. I’m speaking as a citizen. They’re not used to this, we have them on the defensive, let’s keep them on the defensive.”

Amid a politically polarized climate where some Merrimack Valley parents, particularly those against a mask mandate, don’t feel like the school district is listening to them, New Hampshire state representatives are stepping in to offer a listening ear and verbal assurance that the parents’ opinions are valued.

“That’s why we’re here, we’ve heard time and time again that, fairly or unfairly, there’s a perception that the school board is unresponsive,” said Rep. Michael Moffett, a fellow Republican from Loudon. Republican Reps. Tim Lang of Sanbornton, Howard Pearl of Loudon, Louise Andrus of Salisbury and Natalie Wells of Warner were also present.

The Republican state representatives organized the meeting, following the cancellation of a joint meeting that was supposed to happen Sept. 20 between the Merrimack Valley School Board, superintendent and both Democrat and Republican state representatives from the district’s sending towns. The September meeting was canceled by the school board before it could get underway, after audience members refused to comply with the school district’s policy of wearing masks indoors.

School board chair Seelye Longnecker said Tuesday that while she was aware of the Monday meeting in Loudon, Merrimack Valley School Board members didn’t attend because it wasn’t a meeting they had mutually agreed to hold, and also because their attention was focused on the small schools listening sessions the board held in Webster and Salisbury on Tuesday and Wednesday night. A notice on the school district website that day stated, “please note – there is no collaborative and bipartisan meeting scheduled between the MV Board and the state legislators representing the MVSD.”

“It was not a meeting that we had agreed to, it wasn’t a collaborative meeting. It was their meeting,” Longnecker said. “It wasn’t a meeting of the Board.”

At the meeting, parents took turns at the mic and expressed opposition to the district’s mask mandate, saying the decision to mask children should be their choice as parents and that the school’s mandate leaves too little room for exemptions. Merrimack Valley’s mask policy requires masks indoors when COVID-19 spread in Merrimack County is “substantial” based on information from the state Department of Health and Human Services. Currently all New Hampshire counties have “substantial” spread.

“The one thing I heard tonight, we’re robbing our kids of their childhood,” said Lang. “We’re using fear and shame, and it’s coming from the administration. They’re creating fear and shame within our children, and then we’re wondering why our children have problems.”

This week Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut also spoke in support of activists who want to overturn school mask mandates and Gov. Chris Sununu later condemned his words as “inappropriate,” NH Public Radio reported. At a Sunday forum hosted by conservative activist group Government Integrity Project, Edelblut echoed the idea that if school officials don’t make masks optional, they aren’t listening to public opinion.

“Oftentimes we’re in shock because the people on our school boards, those representing us – these are our friends and our neighbors – they generally are people who knocked on our door and said, ‘Hey, come vote for me and I’ll do good things in the school,” Edelblut said at the forum. “And now they’re not willing to listen to us. They’re not willing to take that input.”

On Tuesday, Longnecker disagreed with the idea that school boards aren’t willing to hear those against the mask mandate.

“Just because we don’t do what somebody asks us to do, doesn’t mean we don’t listen,” Longnecker said.

The state representatives encouraged the parents to stand up for their beliefs, by showing up to speak at school board meetings, writing letters to the editor of local newspapers, putting up a candidate to run in the next school board race and organizing activist events on public property.

“Don’t be afraid, because what you’re doing is making common sense,” Cambrils said. “You’re not breaking any law, there is no mask mandate around here. I would say go ahead and organize that activity.”

Andrus told parents who are worried about the way schools are teaching about race to reach out to her for advice.

“I know what’s going on in the schools, and they are indoctrinating your kids so bad,” Andrus said. “They’re doing it in such a way it’s like going under the table, and we can’t stand for it. We got to fight them, each and every one of us.”

The parents’ appreciation for the listening session was clear. When Pearl asked the group if they’d like to have meetings more often, the response was a resounding “yes.”

“[The district representatives] showed their true colors by dereliction of duty,” Cambrils said. “They should have been here tonight, they’re paid for it. They’re paid a lot more than what we’re paid, and we’re here to represent you.”

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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