At annual meeting Friday, Merrimack Valley community to vote on critical race theory, school board candidates

  • In August, Merrimack Valley School District hosted a contentious meeting to discuss whether to require students to wear masks. In districts throughout the state, school board elections are shaping up to be very different than races in recent years. Ethan Dewitt

Monitor staff
Published: 3/2/2022 5:21:21 PM

Questions on critical race theory and school board transparency are on the table for voters at Merrimack Valley School District’s annual meeting Friday, alongside the school budget and contested school board elections.

Polls will be open for ballot voting starting at 11 a.m. Friday at Merrimack Valley High School, where residents of Boscawen, Loudon, Penacook, Salisbury and Webster can vote to elect four school board members and a district moderator.

At the 7 p.m. annual meeting, residents will vote on whether Merrimack Valley School District should explicitly ban teaching critical race theory or “any of its derivative philosophies.” Critical race theory is an academic framework of analysis typically used at the college level that examines the impact of racism on U.S. society. The proposal, which came to be on the warrant via a resident petition, would cast a wide net in its ban of any teaching that the United States, the state of New Hampshire, or any resident of New Hampshire is racist or intolerant.

Voters will also consider whether the school board should hold an interactive question and answer session with audience members at every school board meeting. If passed, school board members and administrators would be required to respond “publicly and substantively, at such meeting and without obfuscation or delay,” to any questions posed.

Attendees will also vote on whether to approve a proposed $44,119,561 school budget for next school year. They will also vote on whether to dedicate $300,000 to the maintenance of school buildings and grounds and whether to approve the salary and benefit costs in the collective bargaining agreement with the support staff union.

Besides matters related to education, residents will be voting on the structure of the annual meeting itself by deciding whether to drop the traditional meeting practice and switch to the ballot voting system known as “SB 2.” The topic was proposed in 2019 and 2020 and was voted down by residents both times before.

Making parent voices heard is a priority for school board candidates

In the school board race, eight candidates are vying for four open seats on the school board. In Salisbury, incumbent Peggy Jones-Blanchard is running for re-election against challengers Louise Andrus and Raymond Wilson. In Boscawen, incumbent Owen Harrington is running for re-election against challenger Jennifer Lacasse. In Webster, newcomers Erik Hansen and Kimberly Kenney are running to fill the open seat left by Webster incumbent Andrew Chalsma, who is not seeking re-election. In Penacook, incumbent Tracy Bricchi is running for re-election and Jennifer Gelinas, although not on the ballot, is running as a write-in candidate.

Controversy over COVID-19 protocols, specifically over the mask mandate the school district imposed in fall 2021, created a significant divide in the Merrimack Valley community this year. Administrators and school board members became the targets of outrage at many school board meetings where some parents and community members shouted and swore at them for instating a mask mandate. And for those parents, who believe mask use should be a personal choice made by individual families, many felt their concerns were disregarded by the board.

Some school board candidates, like incumbent Owen Harrington in Boscawen, said the increased politicization that has been dominating school board meetings has detracted from the actual issues related to education. Harrington, who works as a principal in the Dunbarton school district and has been on the MV school board for a year, says he wants to do more work around personalizing education for students.

“Politics don’t have a place on a school board. What needs to be on a school board, at least in my opinion, is individuals that are focused on education,” Harrington said. “The last time I ran, we were still in the thick of the pandemic and I think the school board, rightfully so, was hyper-focused on dealing with that. I’m hoping if I get elected again, I would have the opportunity to get more involved in the education policy of MV.”

Harrington’s Boscawen opponent Jennifer Lacasse, a child and family therapist who is also a youth athletics coach, feels strongly that the school board overstepped its responsibilities with the mask mandate earlier this year, infringing on parental rights. Lacasse, who was one of the parent plaintiffs suing the Merrimack Valley School District over its mask mandate, says her profession and community involvement allow her to understand the challenges that area families face. Lacasse ran unsuccessfully as an at-large candidate in 2021.

“For the past two years, I have watched at our school board meetings a community angry, frustrated and feeling unheard,” Lacasse said. “I have watched tearful parents plead to get kids back to normalcy in fear of their mental health safety. I have watched kids stand before a gym full of people, trying to express their frustration with the decisions that were being made, trying to tell the adults that they were really struggling. I don’t think that we as a community have done a good job in how we have supported kids through this. And now that the threat of the pandemic is over, there is a lot of repair to do and not many resources to help these kids.”

Making sure parent voices are heard by the school board is a priority for many of this year’s newcomer candidates, regardless of their views on masks.

Different views on education

In Salisbury, challenger Raymond Wilson’s involvement began in the last school year as he lobbied the board to return to in-person learning. Wilson, who works in human resources, says school board members taking the time to respond to emails is one of the best ways to make parents feel represented, and wishes he had experienced it more from the board. Wilson ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2021.

“I think one of the most important things would be to listen to parents, make them understand that you are hearing them even though you know you’re never going to make everybody happy, that’s the reality,” Wilson said. “But to at least let them know that they’re being heard, I think is a huge step in the right direction.”

The other Salisbury challenger, Louise Andrus, is a New Hampshire state representative. Andrus has been an active community participant at board meetings, and estimates she attended 98% of them. During public comment, Andrus often asks questions about where school spending is going and what curriculum is being taught. Andrus ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2021.

“I am running for school board as I believe we need to do better for our children as they are not receiving the education they deserve,” Andrus said. “I believe every child should be taught, ‘Yes I can.’ I stand with the parents that they are the final decision-makers for all matters pertaining to their child. There needs to be better listening and communication between the school board and the parents. Also, I believe the school board’s actions must be transparent and accountable to the public.”

The Salisbury incumbent, grandparent Peggy Jones-Blanchard says she tries to look at issues in a broad context, taking all sides into account to make decisions that benefit the community as a whole. Jones-Blanchard says her perspective comes from being a teacher and spending her whole life in a small community.

“I understand ‌small-town living, appreciate the opportunities and understand the hardships that rural living can bring to families,” Jones-Blanchard said. “Being on the school board is an attempt to pay back what a small community has given me, an entire lifetime of memories and experiences.”

Penacook incumbent Tracy Bricchi, a longtime educator and administrator and current bookkeeper, has been on the board for the past five years. She says the board had to make some difficult COVID-19 decisions in the past year that she hopes to not have to make again. If re-elected, Bricchi says she wants the board to take a stand on fixing education funding in New Hampshire.

“New Hampshire is dead last in terms of state funding for education. It just puts an unreasonable burden on the taxpayers,” she said. “I think part of being on the school board is being aware of those things that impact education, and how we can work with others to hopefully bring about some change.”

Bricchi’s Penacook challenger Jennifer Gelinas isn’t on the ballot, but she’s running as a write-in candidate. Gelinas said seeing the concern from other parents about the mask mandates and parent microphones being shut off during public comment at school board meetings made her want to get involved and make a change.

“I had people commenting especially about the masks and also feeling like our parent voices weren’t being heard, so I just felt like I just really need to step up and do my share,” Gelinas said.

In Webster, parent and school board candidate Erik Hansen, says it’s important for parents who have high expectations from the school district to take an active role in their children’s education. Hansen, who is running against Kimberly Kenney, says taking into account all community perspectives is key to representing a polarized community.

“I feel like the best I could do would be to take all input, provide feedback, and base decisions on what I hear from fellow board members, students, parents, teachers, everyone involved. I kind of want to hear what everyone’s voice is and help make the best decision from there.”

Polls will be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday in the Merrimack Valley High School gymnasium. The annual meeting will begin in the gymnasium at 7 p.m. Masks are optional, but a masks-only room will be available for attendees.

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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