By John Toole
---- — CONCORD — Derry students are close to realizing their dream of making the white potato the official state vegetable.
The Senate yesterday passed House Bill 535 on a voice vote.
The news got better later in the day when a spokesman for Gov. Maggie Hassan said she is ready to sign the bill into law.
“Gov. Hassan believes that the civic engagement displayed by Derry’s students in their efforts to pass this legislation reflects the best traditions of New Hampshire,” communications director Marc Goldberg said. “She looks forward to having the students join her as she signs the bill into law.”
Teacher Amy Landry planned to tell students about the Senate vote when they returned to class yesterday from recess.
“There will be a big, loud yell,” Landry said.
She also planned to mark Senate passage on the checklist on her classroom door tracking legislative progress of the bill.
Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, was among a group of Derry lawmakers who sponsored the bill on behalf of Derry Village Elementary School students.
“I am extremely pleased with the passing of HB 535 and for the opportunity to support the efforts of my fourth-grade Derry Village School students, who are learning how government works and have the unique opportunity to participate in the legislative process here in the great state of New Hampshire,” Rausch said.
Landry said about 85 students in the fourth and fifth grades had worked on the project over two years.
They got the idea at the Statehouse two years ago when they took a tour and a guide told them about another class trying to pass a bill establishing a state color.
The students wanted to make their own effort at establishing a state symbol and settled on the white potato, which they decided was part of the history of America, New Hampshire and Derry.
Their campaign has made a big deal about crediting the Rev. James MacGregor for bringing a sack of seed potatoes in 1719 to Derry, then known as Nutfield, to grow the first white potato in North America.
“We felt it was very important,” Landry said.
The students tried to get a bill in the Legislature, but were too late for the last session. Lawmakers encouraged them to try again.
Those fourth-graders moved on to fifth grade, but stayed interested. It fell to a new group of fourth-graders to take up the cause, which they did.
Landry has regularly updated the fifth-graders on the progress.
The House passed the bill, 276-75, in February, but not without opposition.
Rep. James Parison, R-New Ipswich, challenged the students on behalf of broccoli lovers, though it was tongue-in-cheek and Parsion emphasized then he was doing so to teach the students about how the Legislature works.
Landry had told the students they had to be respectful during House debate, which they went to the Statehouse to watch. But she allowed them to use a little sign language.
“Every single hand was throwing a thumbs down,” Landry recalled of the students listening to Parison.
Lawmakers took note.
“Some of the representatives started giving thumbs down, too,” Landry said.
She said she hopes to get approval from school administrators to bring students to the Statehouse for the bill signing.