Henniker and Weare, which share a school district, split on whether to hold meetings as usual or delay

  • John Stark Regional High School principal Gary Dempsey hands out a pizza to a student as the school's mascot looks on Friday morning, April 17, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 1/26/2021 5:31:39 PM

Town officials and school districts across New Hampshire are facing the tough decision of how to safely hold 2021 town meetings, deliberative sessions and voting days amid a pandemic. While some towns plan to proceed as usual, others are considering delaying their meetings and voting days as far as July, as result of an executive order from the governor on Friday.

The neighboring towns of Henniker and Weare have the additional challenge of planning around each other, due to the shared John Stark School District. They aren’t in agreement: Weare officials want to keep to the normal schedule, Henniker is interested in a delay. 

Statutes say if one town votes to continue with the election as usual, the other town must follow suit, attorney Laura Spector-Morgan told officials from both towns at an initial Zoom meeting that was held Thursday to hash out the situation.

Henniker, Weare and John Stark School Boards will meet again Wednesday via Zoom to discuss the issue.

Certain items on the town warrants, including the purchase of new vehicles for the Weare police and highway departments, are spurring some town officials to want to proceed with the deliberative sessions and Election Day without delay. In addition, holding meetings as usual – without delay or canceling – would prevent any disenfranchisement of voters’ ability to weigh in on the warrants before Election Day, something Weare and John Stark school board moderator Luther Drake said is important to both boards.

On the other hand, Drake added, holding meetings as scheduled could also disenfranchise voters who are at high-risk for COVID-19, because they might not be able to safely attend.

“There has been a lot of politicization of the issue of COVID, as opposed to dealing with it as a pandemic. We’ve seen a lot of tension in the community on both sides of this,” said Drake. “There are some concerns that come along with that, with bringing the discourse on that issue into the meeting where we’re really trying to discuss the town’s business.”

Officials from the town of Weare, which uses the Senate Bill 2 procedure of a deliberative session followed by a voting day, have said they want to proceed with an in-person deliberative session as usual in February.

Officials from Henniker, which uses a traditional town meeting model for the town and an SB2 model for the school district, have expressed interest in delaying its Town Meeting business session, but was still undecided last week as to whether moving forward or postponing with Town Meeting deliberative session is the better choice, according to Henniker school district moderator Cordell Johnston.

“I’m not sure that the town of Henniker is wedded to holding the election on March 9,” Johnston said. “I think the town would be open to postponing the election somewhat – how far, I don’t know.”

The towns will have to decide quickly – deliberative sessions for Henniker, Weare and John Stark school districts are currently scheduled for the first week of February, with an Election Day on March 9. School budgets and teachers contracts are scheduled to be discussed and voted on.

Weare town moderator Eileen Meaney suggested holding a drive-up deliberative session in a parking lot that is broadcast on car radios, where voters cast ballots with placards from inside their cars.

“It would provide, for lack of a better way to put it, a level playing field for anyone who was concerned about being in an enclosed space, if people don’t want to wear a mask in their own car have at it ... trying to find a method to be able to do this process in the safest way possible,” Meaney said.

Meaney also suggested an in-person deliberative session held inside Weare’s Town Garage, an 80 by 100 foot covered space with overhead doors that open to the outside.

Henniker Select Board vice chair Tia Hooper suggested holding a deliberative session in the Henniker Community School gymnasium, or getting permission from New England College to hold the sessions at the college’s ice rink or performing arts center.

Henniker, Weare and John Stark school boards will meet via Zoom at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the situation further.

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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