Whittier Middle School principal named

One of three vacant principal positions in Haverhill public schools has been filled, with Whittier Middle School Assistant Principal Tim Betty moving into the top position there.

Betty replaces former Whittier principal Brian Gill, who had been on medical leave during the past school year and recently left Haverhill to become interim principal at Amesbury Middle School.

Haverhill Superintendent Margaret Marotta said interviews are underway for the two other vacant principal positions — at Silver Hill and Bradford Elementary schools. She also said the search for an assistant principal for Whittier Middle School is ongoing.

Over the past month or so, several of the school district's top leaders moved from their positions and, in some cases, shuffled to other roles within the same buildings.

The result: Five schools will have new principals in the coming academic year.

Marotta recently informed the Whittier Middle School community that Betty accepted the principal's job.

"Mr. Betty has served the children and families of the J. G. Whittier Middle School for 10 years," Marotta said. "He is a Haverhill resident with a deep commitment to the city and our students."

Betty that during his first four years at Whittier he was a behavior teacher in charge of the student support center, then was an assistant principal before being named interim principal in May 2019, after Gill went out on leave.

Betty, 40, grew up in Haverhill and attended Wood School, Hunking School and Haverhill High School, graduating from there in 1997.

He went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from Endicott College, worked as a federal corrections officer and later as a case manager and social worker in Florida and New Hampshire.

He left those jobs for the field of education, receiving a master's degree in special education and a certificate of advanced graduate studies, both from Cambridge College. He lives in Haverhill with his wife, Heather, and their two children, Thomas, 8, and Lucas, 4.

"I'm honored to be named principal and I want to continue to build upon what we've already accomplished at Whittier, which is building strong relationships with our families and the community," Betty said. "We strive to provide a safe learning environment for all our students to learn."

Marotta added that Betty has created several programs at Whittier, including a home visiting program and events for families.

"He is as excited to take on this new role as we are for him to join us as the school leader," Marotta said.

Beth Kitsos, who helped oversee Whittier Middle School during Gill's absence, is leaving that school, Marotta said. Kitsos will become principal of Walnut Square Elementary, a small neighborhood school, in the fall, Marotta said.

Other Haverhill schools will have new principals when the next academic year begins.

Marotta said Consentino School Principal John Mele and Assistant Principal Richard Poor started a trend last month when they decided to swap roles at the middle school. Pentucket Lake Elementary School Principal Maureen Gray and Assistant Principal James Brennan also exchanged roles.

Marotta said the leadership swaps are positive ones — especially in an unknown climate.

Silver Hill Principal Mary Ellen Lucas is leaving for Methuen to serve as an associate principal in that city, Marotta said. She leaves Haverhill after four years here, having previously served as Consentino School assistant principal for three years.

Marotta said the 2020-2021 school calendar has not yet been approved, but students are expected to return to class after Labor Day.

— Mike LaBella


Haverhill, other communities recognize Juneteenth

At a crossroads of American history, during which protests for racial equality have dominated national attention, Merrimack Valley communities and organizations are among those recognizing Juneteenth.

June 19 — Juneteenth, Freedom Day or Emancipation Day — signifies the true end of enslavement in 1865, despite Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation two years prior.

The day is celebrated in black history and regarded as a time to reflect and rejoice.

When New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu signed a bill recognizing Juneteenth in 2019, the Granite State joined 45 others and the District of Columbia in officially recognizing the holiday.

More than a decade earlier, in 2007, Massachusetts became the 25th state to join in. The proclamation was signed by Gov. Deval Patrick, the first black governor of the Commonwealth and the country’s only sitting black governor at the time.

Even still, observances and commemorations at the local level have been uncommon.

This year however, The Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce observed Juneteenth as a permanent holiday.

Chamber President Dougan Sherwood said the idea came to him from a business on social media.

“It got me thinking,” he said. “What I love about a small organization like mine, which is a nonprofit, is that we can move quickly and do things that we believe are right and symbolic.”

He added, “I love the ability we have to have a quick conversation with our board. When it came to recognizing Juneteenth, everyone was in support.”

Sherwood said he’s a believer of change from the ground up, meaning from the local to national level.

“We told our workers to take the day and look into the importance of it,” he said.

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera announced this year on the eve of the holiday that City Hall and all municipal buildings would be closed in observance of Juneteenth.

The decision was made, “to show the importance of the issues being raised around inequality across the country and to give employees and residents of Lawrence time to recognize and reflect on the history of African Americans and to reflect on the gaps in equality and justice that still exist today,” Rivera said in a prepared statement.

Rivera also noted that he will submit a proposal to the Lawrence City Council to make Juneteenth an official and permanent city holiday.

Haverhill officials recently raised the Pan-African flag outside City Hall. It was the first time the day was commemorated in the city.

— Breanna Edelstein


Judge sentences Columbia Gas for disaster

With its president accepting full responsibility, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts was formally sentenced last week in federal court for causing a series of natural gas fires and explosions that ripped through the Merrimack Valley on Sept. 13, 2018.

U.S. District Court Judge Dennis Saylor ordered the company to pay a $53 million fine and placed it on three years of probation, a plea that was previously agreed upon.

It’s the largest criminal fine ever imposed under the pipeline safety law.

Federal officials blame the company for causing the disaster that killed a Lawrence teenager, injured dozens and damaged more than 130 homes in Andover, North Andover and south Lawrence. Thousands of residents and businesses in the three communities were left without natural gas for heat and hot water for several months in some cases.

Columbia Gas pleaded guilty to the federal charges in February. The guilty plea followed a settlement involving Columbia Gas, its parent company, NiSource, and U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling.

“We expect utility companies operating in our communities to do so safely and responsibly,” said Lelling.

“Instead Columbia Gas acted with reckless disregard for safety by cutting corners and relying on lax protocols. The result was catastrophic – stealing one life, harming dozens and impacting the home and livelihoods of hundreds more. Today’s sentence serves as little comfort to the victims, but is another step toward terminating Columbia Gas’s business in Massachusetts," Lelling said.

Speaking at the sentencing hearing, Mark Kempic, Columbia Gas president and chief operating officer, stressed the company accepted full responsibility "for the tragic event of Sept. 13, 2018 and conducted ourselves according."

"Today is no different, and it will be no different in the days and weeks ahead as we continue to move forward in the service of our customers and your communities," Kempic said.

Kempic told Judge Saylor the company takes the plea seriously and it weighs heavily "on our company and our employees."

"And we continue to carry the event and the lessons learned with us everyday," Kempic said.

Under the plea deal, Columbia Gas accepted responsibility for the disaster, avoided criminal prosecution and agreed to pay the record fine while NiSource puts the company up for sale. Eversource has offered to buy Columbia Gas of Massachusetts in a deal worth $1.1 billion, which appears to have taken shape under the cloud of the federal investigation.

Columbia Gas has also agreed to allow a federal monitor to supervise its residential and commercial gas operations in the state for the next three years, or until it is sold.

Following the sentencing hearing, Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera said he was happy the criminal process worked and the three communities "got their day in court.''

"I am still dismayed that not one person lost their job or will spend time in jail for the loss of life and property that happened on Sept. 13, 2018,'' Rivera said. "I want to thank, from the bottom of my heart and on behalf of the affected citizens of Lawrence, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling for prosecuting this matter. Without him, Columbia Gas would still be in existence, selling gas in Massachusetts. I hope that he and other federal leaders can find a way to make that $53 million fine help the families in the impacted communities.''

Rivera added, "It is clear, now more than ever, that the people of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover would have more use for this money than the federal government."

The gas disaster, caused by over-pressurized lines operated by Columbia Gas, resulted in the death of Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence. Three firefighters and 19 civilians were hurt. Damages in Andover, Lawrence and North Andover are estimated at $1 billion.

About 50,000 people were forced to evacuate. Five homes were destroyed and 131 properties damaged, according to findings by the National Transportation Safety Board.

“With today’s sentence, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts has finally been held criminally and financially responsible for their sheer greed and reckless disregard for public safety,'' said Joseph R. Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the FBI Boston Division. "That said, we realize that the excruciating pain, suffering, and heartbreaking loss of life the citizens of Merrimack Valley endured is beyond reparation.

“It is the FBI’s hope that the departure of Columbia Gas from Massachusetts will bring the residents of these cities and towns some much-needed peace of mind," he said.

Congresswoman Lori Trahan, D-Westford, noted the sentencing won't bring back Rondon or heal the physical and emotional scars of those injured in the disaster. She said, however, it's an important step "toward justice for them and the hundreds of families who have suffered because of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts' negligence."

"I will continue working to ensure that the funds from this fine are used to support the first responders, counselors, and countless others who continue to provide services to the victims of the explosions," Trahan said in a prepared statement.

— Jill Harmacinski


Local women target microplastics in salt marshes

Two local women are raising awareness about microplastics and, in particular, “nurdles,” which are polluting Plum Island’s salt marshes.

Nurdles are small, plastic pellets produced by petrochemical plants and later molded into plastic products. The pellets, about the size of lentils, often escape the plants and leak into waterways, ultimately ending up in salt marshes.

Andrea Boyko, a Belchertown resident with a house on Plum Island, said she first discovered nurdles last summer and once she noticed the first few, she couldn’t stop seeing them.

“I felt like I had this horrible secret that I knew about and nobody else knew,” she said.

Recently, Boyko connected with local photographer Lani Shumway. Together, they hope to mobilize the community over the issue.

Shumway, an active participant in beach cleanups and a member of the local group Sustainable Seacoast, said she was “speechless” about the amount of trash and plastic she found in the salt marshes.

“I’ve participated in beach cleanups, but I didn’t realize that that also transfers to the salt marshes,” she said.

Boyko’s interest in plastic waste started during her childhood. In the days before recycling became popular, she said her mother often found her taking items out of the trash and using them to make crafts.

Now, Boyko is a mother of three children, living in a nearly plastic-free home, and the owner of Bula Jean’s Boutique, an online shop in which she makes and sells shoes and other products using recycled materials.

“I don’t know where my fascination came with it, but I just love our planet and having kids really solidifies the fact that they’re the ones losing out,” she said of her environmental calling.

Her interest is not just in recycling materials — it’s about reducing plastic use.

“It’s about the beginning process,” Boyko said, adding that she and her children make art with a lot of the plastic they pick up on the beaches.

Nurdles also aren’t the only waste of concern. Trash, recyclables and even those small plastic disks — which escaped a Hooksett, New Hampshire, wastewater treatment in 2011 — can be found strewn around the salt marshes.

It’s nurdles, however, that truly frustrate Boyko because unlike other types of plastic, they haven’t actually been used in a product, she said.

“We need to find out where they’re coming from, how they’re being released and why, and hold (the people behind the waste) accountable,” Boyko said.

Nurdles are harmful because they are small and often mistaken by animals for food. Boyko said they can be found in the bellies of fish, which people later eat. Nurdles can also come in contact with toxic chemicals, which is why she advises wearing gloves when cleaning them up.

Shumway and Boyko are still planning their next moves. Right now, they are focused on educating others about nurdles and hopefully arranging a cleanup in the near future.

To learn more or to get involved, contact Shumway at lanzshumway@yahoo.com and/or Boyko at futureleadersofghana@yahoo.com.

Shumway, who has lived all over New England, said Newburyport is “the sweet spot” — a place she feels most “at home” and a place she truly cares about.

“Whatever we can do in our community and beyond would be amazing,” she said.

— Heather Alterisio


Hospital gets $100K grant for heart health

The Cummings Foundation, a charitable group affiliated with Cummings Properties, recently donated a $100,000, three-year grant to Lawrence General Hospital to focus on heart health.

The grant will help Lawrence General fund its community efforts to prevent cardiovascular disease, a leading cause of death and one of the major underlying health conditions leading to higher risk of death from COVID-19, according to a press release.

"This generous Cummings Foundation Grant helps us focus on racial and socioeconomic health inequities and find innovative ways to provide free cardiovascular screenings for those who need them most," said Deb Wilson, president and CEO at Lawrence General Hospital. “The COVID-19 data show a major disproportionate impact on minority communities and a significantly higher mortality rate for those with chronic conditions like diabetes, obesity and cardiac disease.

"The higher prevalence of these chronic diseases in Lawrence, where health inequities are a harsh reality, is due in part to lower incomes, and restricted access to affordable healthy food."

Founded in 1970 by Bill Cummings, the Woburn-based commercial real estate firm leases and manages 10 million square feet of space.

Lawrence General Hospital is one of 130 recipients of the Cummings Foundation Grant. The Cummings $20 Million Grant Program supports Massachusetts nonprofits that are based in and primarily serve Middlesex, Essex and Suffolk counties.

"We have been impressed, but not surprised, by the myriad ways in which these 130 grant winners are serving their communities, despite the challenges presented by COVID-19," said Joel Swets, Cummings Foundation's executive director. "Their ability to adapt and work with their constituents in new and meaningful ways has an enormous impact in the communities where our colleagues and leasing clients live and work."

— Bill Kirk


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