Destination Imagination students describe it as "once in a lifetime experience"

By Barbara Tetreault

BERLIN-GORHAM — Two local teams competed this year in the Destination Imagination global finals, and the students that participated described it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“I thought it was an amazing experience,” said Julia Belanger.

“It was really fun ... a once in a lifetime experience,” added Aiden Wood.

Belanger and Wood were both part of the Berlin High School “Abstract Minds team. The Abstract Minds as well as the Gorham Ed Fenn Elementary School team, “The 7 Pixel People” traveled to Knoxville, Tenn., last month to join more 8,000 students and 1,400 teams from 45 states and 15 counties in what organizers call the “world’s largest celebration of student creativity.”

Both teams competed in the scientific challenge category “Top Secret,” which required them to create and present a story about a secret mission. As part of the challenge, the teams had to research and apply methods from cryptography and steganography to reveal secret messages and create a gadget that appears as an everyday object.

The students said they worked hard on their projects, competing first on a regional and then state level to reach the global finals. From October until the day of the competition, students were working on sets and components of the projects.

Alexis Griffin of Abstract Minds said she used to play more winter sports but she said her involvement with Destination Imagination has made it hard to participate as much in sports.

“You have to be dedicated,” she said.

Shannon Wydra, manager for the 7 Pixel People said one circuit stopper on their project stopped working and the students had to fix it right before the competition.

“They got very good at troubleshooting,” she said.

Guy Stever, co-manager for the Abstract Minds with David Griffin, said the competition was tough with the local teams competing against top teams from other states and countries.

“You had to be good to get there,” Griffin noted.

Stever said the Berlin High team came in 40th out of about 70 other high school teams on the prepared challenge. He said he felt that was a good showing, considering it was a young team.

More impressive, Stever said, was the fact the team tied for 13th on the instant challenge, which he said is more difficult because the students had eight minutes to respond.

The Ed Fenn team finished an impressive 20th in its level, helped by the fact that three of the team members competed in last year’s global finals,

But the students and managers agreed that while the competition was important, it became secondary to the experience of meeting and spending time with students from all of the country and world.

“It’s amazing,” said Abstract Mind team member Dorothy Alice Winslow. She described the experience as a culture shock to someone coming from a small rural town where there is not the diversity that she found at the global competition.

“We met a lot of people from different countries,” said Kelsey Alimandi, also on the Abstract Minds team.

The high school team members pointed out that most of the foreign students could speak English, in addition to their native language.

Several said it made them want to learn a foreign language. The 7 Pixel People team said at the elementary level many of the foreign students were not as fluent in English. Several had translators to help.

An International Block Party was held one night and the students got to sample foods from different countries. There was also a day trip to Dollywood, the theme party highlighting the Great Smokey Mountains, which both teams enjoyed.

Josh Berthiaume, of the Abstract Minds team, said the students at Destination Imagination were friendly and it was easy to sit and have a conversation with the other competitors.

“The kindest people ever,” he said.

Brie Bergeron said she accidently left her suitcase behind in the middle of a field and it was an hour before she realized she had forgotten it. When she returned to collect the suitcase, it was right where she had left it, untouched.

Designed as a way to encourage the students to mix and meet, pin trading is a popular activity at Destination Imagination. It is also an opportunity for teams to showcase their creativity and talent by designing a pin that relates to their project. Many of the local students put together displays of the pins they collected.

“We got pins from all over,” said Liam Alnwick of 7 Pixel People.

Wydra said the fourth and fifth grades that make up the Ed Fenn team got to experience dorm life, pin traded with other students from around the world, attended an expo, constructed a hovercraft, visited museums, played soccer, and geocached to earn a special pin.
Both teams are thankful for the community support that allowed them to raise the approximately $13,000 each team needed to make the trip.

Next year’s competition is already on their radar. Stever said the students took some workshops at the global finals and the overall experience showed them what they need to be successful competitors.

The Abstract Minds team consisted of Dorothy Alice Winslow, Kelsey Alimandi, Julia Belanger, Aiden Wood, Brie Bergeron, Josh Berthiaume, and Alexis Griffin.

The 7 Pixel People were Shianna Wood, Addison Eastman, Gavin Corrigan, Ayden Corrigan, Kody Lemieux, Abram Wydra and Liam Alnwick.

State police seek juvenile for string of stolen vehicles

COOS COUNTY – State police believe a Campton juvenile is behind a string of 11 stolen vehicles in three states including a several reported stolen in Coos County.

In a press release, N.H. State Police reported responding to an accident on Route 3 on Sunday evening in Stewartstown and discovered an abandoned vehicle that had rolled over in the road. Police believed the operator had fled the scene on foot. The road had to be temporarily closed while the vehicle was removed. Upon investigation, it was discovered the vehicle had been stolen from Clarksville.

Officers from the Colebrook police and U.S. Border Patrol assisted in the search for the missing driver. While that was underway, police received a report of a stolen truck in Stratford. The owner of the truck reported another vehicle had been left nearby that police determined was also stolen.

The pick-up truck was later discovered stuck in a ditch off Bog Road in Stratford. State police brought in a K-9 unit to search for the subject but got a report of another stolen vehicle in Northumberland. That vehicle was later discovered crashed a short distance over the border in Maine. The state of Maine reported two additional vehicles had been stolen there.

Campton police are investigating two stolen vehicles in that town, and state police report they believe a juvenile from Campton is behind the rash of 11 stolen vehicles. The juvenile was last seen in Maine and authorities are working together to locate the suspect.

Council approves fiscal 2018 budget after defeating motion to eliminate assistant fire chief

By Barbara Tetreault

BERLIN — A split city council approved a fiscal 2018 general fund budget of $32.4 million Monday after narrowly rejecting a motion to eliminate funding for the assistant fire chief position.

City Manager James Wheeler projects the budget will result in a $39.71 tax rate — an increase of 52 cents. The final determination will be made by the state Department of Revenue Administration this fall.

Wheeler presented some final adjustments, trimming about $100,000 off the budget presented at the public hearing. But some councilors wanted to cut the budget further.

Councilor Lucie Remillard made a motion to eliminate $60,000 representing the assistant fire chief’s salary and benefits. Her motion came after the council held a lengthy non-public session, at least partly devoted to personnel issues.

With no debate, the council split evenly on the motion, with Councilors Mike Rozek, Denise Morgan-Allain and Russell Otis joining Remillard in voting to cut the position. Councilors Roland Theberge, Diana Nelson, Peter Higbee and Mike Gentili opposed the motion and Mayor Paul Grenier joined those opposed to break the tie and defeat the motion.

The council then voted 6-3 to approve the $32.4 million general fund budget with Councilors Rozek, Remillard, and Morgan-Allain voting against it.

The city is currently without a fire chief. Former Chief Randall Trull left May 19 to accept a position in Durham, leaving Assistant Chief Thaddeus Soltys as the top administrator in the department. Soltys was hired by the city in 2010.

The city is midway through the process of hiring a new fire chief. Wheeler said 12 people have applied for the position and interviews with the applicants are scheduled. He declined to respond to a question about whether any of the applicants are from within the department. Primex — the N.H. Public Risk Management Exchange — is assisting the city with the application process. Wheeler said he expects to have a decision on a replacement for Trull by mid-July.

School districts come together for joint meeting

By Kirstan Knowlton

BERLIN — A joint meeting between two local school districts to discuss budget cuts and the future of area students led to the agreement that something has to be done. With the goal of being proactive, SAU 3 and SAU 20 are planning a community forum this fall to hear concerns and ideas from residents.

With recent changes to the education stabilization funding program, schools are facing deep budget cuts. The Berlin School District was among those hit hardest, with roughly $225,000 being removed from its budget each year over the next 25 years until it’s fully eliminated.

Members from the Berlin and Gorham Randolph Shelburne school boards, along with district superintendents met during a regularly scheduled meeting to discuss ways they could work together to provide the best opportunities to all students.

“The future looks bleak as it stands,” said Berlin School Board Chair Nicole Plourde.

In the past, the Berlin School District has faced challenges approaching a consolidation of schools, because of the way budgeting is handled between cities and towns.

The way the charter reads, the Berlin School District needs approval for its annual budget from the city council, whereas the Gorham Randolph Shelburne Cooperative District handles its budget individually from the town.

Addressing concerns over budgetary oversight, the Berlin School Board has already raised those details with the city council, which according to the board is very receptive to hearing ideas.

“In the meeting with the council, they said they would be very open to hearing a plan,” said Corrine Cascadden, superintendent for the Berlin School District.

Cascadden went on to say that the mayor understood that the council would relinquish control over the budget.

“It’s great to hear that the door is open with city hall,” said Steve Michaud, member of the Gorham Randolph Shelburne School Board.

Jo Carpenter, chair of Gorham Randolph Shelburne Cooperative School Board, said that they haven’t really discussed their options yet, but would look at it further over the summer.

“We really haven’t discussed it much as a board,” said Carpenter. “We have a retreat in August, it would be a good time to talk about these types of issues,” said Carpenter.

Carpenter acknowledged the need to make changes to the current system.

“We are reaching a time where we are going to have to do things differently,” said Carpenter. “We need to be proactive.”

Plourde said that they don’t have a plan in place, but wanted to touch base to gauge interest from the Gorham Randolph Shelburne Cooperative School District.

“We have talked a lot, but we want to do it together as a community,” said Berlin School Board member Lynn Moore.

Several options could be on the table for combining school administrative units, and Carpenter noted that combing SAUs is separate from combining high schools.

“It could be one, both or none,” said Carpenter.

School board members from both districts said that it would be a lot of work, but cited the long-term needs of the students.

“We need to put our biases aside, and doing what’s best for the kids,” said Plourde, “offer what we can to all of the kids so they can have the same opportunities.”

While looking at potential options, Plourde said that the district could look at the best way to retain employees through attrition.
“Nobody is going to want anyone to lose jobs, we’ve heard that loud and clear,” Plourde said.

The boards also discussed options for combining schools, and looking at a more efficient use of the space that’s available.

Plourde explained that they are short on space in the elementary school, but they have space in the high school.

“It does seem to make sense. You could fit Gorham High School into Berlin without coming close to filling it to capacity,” said Bryan Lamirande of the Berlin School District.

During public comment, Courtney Wrigley of North Country Listens, a division of New Hampshire Listens through the Carsey Institute, spoke about the positives of the discussions she’s heard so far.

“Everyone said that something needs to be done,” said Wrigley.

Wrigley suggested that if the boards are interested, it could be beneficial to hold a public forum where people could share their ideas and concerns about the future of the schools.

Wrigley noted the benefits of a public forum, citing legitimacy, effectiveness and transparency.

Wrigley also thought that Steve Norton could offer some insight into the growing trends in the area. Norton is the executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy.

“I think a community forum would be a great way to kick it off,” said Carpenter. “This gives us a chance to have a big say in our own fate.”

In the mean time, both districts will look at the mutual needs of the schools and look for additional ways to collaborate.

“Sounds like a good start,” said Gina Saladino, member of the Gorham Randolph Shelburne board.

Bousquet and Cascadden will take the led on the project and follow up by contacting Wrigley.

The boards are planning to hold a joint community forum closer to September.