Heard on the Street

Route 12 to Get a Facelift

Motorists irate about the ruts, bumps and bone-jarring potholes on Route 12 between Northfield and Montpelier—and cyclists who shudder at even the thought of making the same trip on two skinny wheels—are getting some relief, as the state has promised to repave the worst spots on the nine miles of the highway between the Montpelier city line and the north edge of Northfield village, and to get the job done before winter.

Kevin Marshia, deputy chief engineer for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, told The Bridge that two miles of especially degenerated road will be entirely repaved, while the other seven will where needed get narrow-band repaving. That consists of resurfacing longitudinal lengths of pavement over the long-buried edges of the original concrete slabs laid in the roadbed 70 years ago. The roadway of that era was several feet narrower than today’s road, and the repaving will true up the longitudinal bumps that run like fault lines along the slabs’ edges.

Marshia told The Bridge that the repaving blitz should be completed this autumn, but he shied away from providing any specific deadline.

In a Front Porch Forum post, Northfield Select Board chair John Quinn noted that he, Norwich University chief administrative officer Dave Magida, Northfield residents Richard Wobby and Nelson Hoffman, Lieutenant Governor and Berlin resident Phil Scott, and Noah Tautfest, owner of Northfield’s Bicycle Express, had been lobbying for the fix for several months.

“Some citizens of Northfield did some really good work,” state representative Anne Donahue (R—Northfield) told The Bridge. “The fact that they were able to get the attention and get this done this fall—kudos to them.”

 

Prominent Role for Montpelier Police in Mental Health Training

Vermont’s police departments and mental health agencies have embarked on a program designed to recalibrate how police officers interact with mentally ill individuals. Montpelier police chief Tony Facos describes the initiative as a “collaboration between law enforcement and crisis response agencies throughout Vermont.”

The program was designed under the leadership of Mary Moulton, then commissioner at the Department of Mental Health (DMH), and now the executive director of Washington County Mental Health Services. (See cover story.) Since early this year, the idea has moved to implementation in the form of a training program in which “the students, police and crisis workers receive legal training at the beginning, then move into mock scenarios where they focus on legal issues, safety concerns, and clinical issues,” Facos told The Bridge.

“We solve these problems jointly” with mental health professionals, he said. “At the end of the day, many of these calls are mental health issues, not a law enforcement issue.”

Montpelier is playing a leading role in the statewide training, Facos indicated, with two of the city’s officers serving as training instructors.

Funded by a $70,000 DMH grant, the program is training police at eight locations around the state. Three of the one-day training sessions—in Rutland, Chittenden and Washington counties—have already been completed. A partner in the project, the Colchester-based Vermont Cooperative for Practice Improvement and Innovation, is surveying participants at the sessions, and again six months afterwards, to assess the program’s results as Vermont police officers put their learning to the test whenever they confront the unpredictability of mental illness.

 

Megabus Now Serving Montpelier

Budget intercity-bus provider Megabus is adding a Montpelier stop to its Boston-Burlington service. The Montpelier stop is at the Dog River Road park and ride off of Memorial Drive. Service begins October 2. On Mondays through Thursdays and on Saturdays, there will be one bus daily in each direction, to either Boston’s South Station or the Royall Tyler Theater in Burlington; on Fridays and Sundays there will be two

As of October 1, the Megabus website was already advertising the new service, with fares to Boston roughly half those charged by Greyhound, which calls in downtown Montpelier four times daily. However, Megabus fares to Burlington, for several randomly chosen October dates, were far higher than the main competition for that trip, the CCTA Link bus. Amtrak does not offer a one-seat ride between its Montpelier Junction station and either Boston or Burlington.

Using curbside stops to avoid terminal costs allows Megabus to offer discount fares. A DePaul University study released this April states that, taken together, discount intercity bus providers, Megabus among them, are saving Americans $1.2 billion in travel costs annually.

Quoted in the Burlington Free Press, Chittenden County state’s prosecutor T.J. Donovan termed Megabus a “cheap way to transport drugs to Vermont.” In a statement to The Bridge, Sean Hughes, Megabus responded that “Megabus.com has zero tolerance for anyone attempting to carry illegal drugs on our services. Every customer is made aware of our policy and is informed we have the right to refuse to transport or right to remove at any point a person whose conduct is illegal.”

 

MHS Initiative Getting National Attention

Edutopia, the website sponsored by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, will soon include videos of Montpelier High School (MHS) as part of the site’s Schools that Work series. The videos will focus on the so-called MHS Unplugged initiative—which will also soon be getting attention from National Public Radio (NPR).

MHS principal Adam Bunting described MHS Unplugged as recess time in which the whole school participates in activities totally separate from classroom learning. He said that the idea is to give kids as much freedom as they can handle, and that discipline problems have been minuscule.

He said that the school’s initiatives, including MHS Unplugged and sustainability programs—students manage gardens, chickens and a greenhouse—are unusual enough that Edutopia selected them in its search for ideas that could be replicated in other schools to assist students in the active learning process stressed as vital by today’s research. The foundation’s film crew spent a week at MHS, documenting every aspect of the school’s activities.

Bunting has also been contacted by NPR about a series that the national broadcaster expects to air on student-centered schools across the country. NPR has learned of MHS Unplugged and will be sending staff to the school this fall to report on it. According to Sue Aldrich, who chairs the Montpelier Board of School Commissioners, NPR has identified MHS as one of the nation’s best student-centered schools.

 

October 2 Meeting to Discuss Bike-Pedestrian Plan

Photo courtesy of Bill Merrylees

Photo courtesy of Bill Merrylees

On October 2, the city of Montpelier will hold its second “public work session” on developing a pedestrian and bicycling master plan for the city. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the council chambers in City Hall, according to a press release from the city’s advisory committees on pedestrian and bicycle issues. The gathering will afford a chance for public comment on ideas that the plan might embrace.

The city has engaged two consultants, Charlotte’s Broadreach Planning & Design, and RSG, of White River Junction, to develop the plan, dubbed “Montpelier in Motion.” According to the release, the plan will “serve as a guide for future bicycling and walking improvements” in Montpelier. The release noted that the city council recently established the goal of becoming one of the nation’s “most bicycling and walking friendly cities.”

Half of the financing for the $12,000 planning project is coming from a Vermont Agency of Transportation grant, with the other, matching half from city parking revenues earmarked for bicycle and pedestrian projects, according to Bill Merrylees of the Bicycle Advisory Committee.

 

Norwich Acts to Stymie “Gossip” App

Norwich University president Richard Schneider has blocked access via the university’s internal computer network to Yik Yak, a social media app that has been used for cyberbullying students at the Northfield military school. A statement from Norwich spokeswoman Daphne Larkin said that “this action was taken in an effort to protect Norwich students and to demonstrate that bullying in any form is not tolerated at Norwich University.” The statement added that an internal investigation of the issue is under way, but that “no official reports of criminal behavior have been made, and law enforcement is not involved in the investigation.”

The Yik Yak website describes the app as “a hyper-local place to rant about anything anonymously with people in your community.” The hyper-local attribute means that a message is readable only within a mile and a half of its sender.. The Yik Yak app was launched last November. The venture recently raised $10 million in capital, according to the company’s site.

Online news outlets report that the app has been used broadly for anti-social behavior, sometimes leading to criminal charges, with one news site, for example, citing “arrests across Indiana.”

An email to Yik Yak asking what specific measures the company was taking to reduce or eliminate abuse of the app did not receive an immediate reply. Media reports have cited statements from Yik Yak that it was “proactively” moving to limit the abuses.

Norwich students will still be able to use the app via their own cellular service provider or other wi-fi systems to which they have access—rendering Schneider’s action largely symbolic.

In a recent interview with The Bridge on other subjects, Schneider described his job as being “to help the students understand … ethical issues.”

 

Food Donations Sought at Bear Pond Books

Bear Pond Books and the Montpelier Food Pantry are holding a food donation drive to help compensate for a shortfall in emergency food supplies engendered this summer when Shaw’s Supermarkets decided, at the corporate level, to remove food donation boxes from all their stores. The chain operates four stores in Washington County.

Shaw’s spokesman Jeff Gulko told The Bridge that the burgeoning of requests for collection bins from a variety of charitable organizations had forced the retailer’s hand.

“We couldn’t say yes to one and no to another,” he put it, terming the decision “an effort to be fair to everyone.”

Theresa Murray-Clasen, executive director of Just Basics, the Food Pantry’s parent organization, termed the retailer’s move “a huge loss,” but both she and Gulko indicated that Shaw’s and the charity were working on soliciting food through an alternative cooperative format.

People may bring in any nonperishable food and place it in Bear Pond Books’ display window from now through September 28. The Montpelier bookshop is open from 9 to 9 on Friday, from 10 to 5 on Sunday, and from 9 to 6:30 on other days. Murray-Clasen told The Bridge that protein-rich foods such as tuna and peanut butter are especially valuable, although she specifically asked for hot and cold cereals, canned fruit, and tomato products, too.

She also noted that Price Chopper, Kinney Drugs, and Montpelier Alive, the city’s downtown association, have been assisting in various ways to bolster food-donation efforts in the absence of the Shaw’s bin, which had attracted about three and a half tons a year of donated groceries.

 

The garden at Berlin Elementary School. Photo courtesy Central Vermont Food Systems Council.

The garden at Berlin Elementary School. Photo courtesy Central Vermont Food Systems Council.

For Every School, a Garden

The Central Vermont Food Systems Council has announced that Washington County has become the first county in Vermont to have a garden at every school. CVFSC will mark the accomplishment with a celebration at Montpelier High School October 2, from 4 to 5 p.m. According to a release from CVFSC, speakers including state education secretary Rebecca Holcombe will address the gathering on “the importance of all schools having teaching gardens integrated into the curriculum.”

The release, which described CVFSC as “a community organization aimed at building a strong local food system in Central Vermont,” depicted the achievement as the fruit of eight years of effort.

 

“Hundreds” Headed to Climate Demo from Vermont

By train, bus, bicycle, and carpool, Vermonters concerned about climate change are flocking south for the People’s Climate March, which will bring together a throng of activists in New York City on September 21 to protest inaction on the issue. Organizers anticipate a crowd of “well over 100,000 people,” according to the climatemarch.org website.

In Vermont, ride requests and offers have been dotting Front Porch Forum web pages, and the Legislature’s 30-member climate caucus has circulated a statement that “Vermont has been a leader in fighting climate change. We must redouble our efforts. … We look forward to working with the people who are traveling to New York and others who have ideas to help us craft policy that leads to a strong, sustainable future for our state.”

The statement anticipated that the march would include “hundreds of Vermonters, including several legislators.” In an interview with The Bridge, Robb Kidd of Montpelier, who is organizing participation locally, estimated that about a hundred people from Washington County would be on hand.

“I’m thrilled that so many Vermonters are taking part in this,” said Rep. Mary Hooper (D-Montpelier), who along with Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington) chairs the climate caucus.

For those either unable to attend the New York event, or, perhaps, unwilling to travel hundreds of miles by carbon-fueled vehicle for a demonstration, a “People’s Climate March solidarity rally” will be held on the University of Vermont campus in Burlington September 20.

The September 25 issue of The Bridge will feature an eyewitness perspective on the New York demonstration, which has been timed to bring attention to the issue two days in advance of a United Nations “Climate Summit,” to which world leaders have been invited.

 

Artisans Hand to Host Craft Week Program

With promotional help from Vermont’s Department of Tourism and Marketing, American Craft Week will be celebrated in Montpelier from October 3 to 12. Artisans Hand, the cooperatively managed craft gallery in downtown Montpelier’s City Center, will be the venue for the celebration, which will feature crafts demonstrations, meet-the-artist events, raffles, educational videos, reciprocal discount promotions with local eateries, and, outside the gallery, a “community canvas” to record the artistic inspirations of the interested public. According to a release from Artisans Hand, the program will also include a “trade-for-handmade” event, “in which people can trade a mass-produced mug for a discounted handmade one.” The artists giving demonstrations will include a potter throwing pots, a woodworker turning bowls, a jeweler and a silk scarf painter. “I’m trying to get all the media represented,” Artisans Hand manager Jill Pralle told The Bridge.

American Craft Week is coordinated by Craft Retailers and Artists for Tomorrow, an association of galleries, shops and artists from across the country. In Vermont the event will bracket the Vermont Crafts Council’s fall open-studio weekend, to take place October 4-5.

“In this day and age, it’s easy to forget that some things are actually still made by human hands,” Pralle noted. “We have people that come into the gallery and say with amazement, ‘Is everything here really made by hand?’”

 

FairPoint, Unions Getting Nowhere

Unions at FairPoint Communications are poised to go on strike in the wake of a blast email, sent to dozens of Vermont media outlets last week, that termed the labor dispute with the phone company a “fight … about honesty and integrity in corporate America.”

The Bridge is publishing as a letter to the editor a recent communication from Mike Spillane, an official with the IBEW, the International  Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

On August 27, FairPoint declared an impasse in negotiations with IBEW and a second FairPoint union, the Communications Workers of America. Issues between union and management include wages and retiree medical benefits whose elimination for current employees represents part of FairPoint’s final offer.

In an interview with The Bridge, Mike Spillane, business manager for the IBEW local in Colchester, said the unions are conducting informational pickets, and have filed four charges with the National Labor Relations Board “over the company’s bad-faith bargaining and what he claimed was the company’s alleged illegal use of the word impasse. We don’t believe we are [at an impasse].”

FairPoint spokeswoman Angelynne Beaudry told The Bridge that her company was prepared to hire replacement workers in the event of a strike. “We have to ensure that customers are provided with seamless and continuous service,” she explained.

Beaudry said that total compensation for unionized FairPoint workers in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine averaged $115,000 annually. FairPoint’s August 28 statement declaring the impasse stated that “FairPoint has identified labor costs as a key factor in competing to provide 21st century telecommunications and broadband services.”

Disputing Beaudry’s numbers, Spillane put average pay at “maybe $60,000,” but added that he didn’t have any immediate means of putting a dollar value on worker benefits.

FairPoint CEO Paul Sunu received compensation totaling $2,359,299 in 2013, according to the company’s proxy statement.

“We could walk out any day,” Spillane said. He estimated that FairPoint has 45 employees in Washington County.

 

New Authority’s Board Seeks Members

The governing board of the Central Vermont Public Safety Authority is seeking applications from persons interested in filling three open, at-large positions on the board. The newly established authority, an inter-municipal agency of the cities of Barre and Montpelier, is charged with coordinating emergency services in the two municipalities.

An announcement from the city of Montpelier stated that the positions call for “an interest in public safety as well as a desire to foster inter-municipal cooperation.” Applicants should submit letters of interest to board chair Tom Golonka in care of the Montpelier city manager’s office, 39 Main Street, Montpelier, or via email at tgolonka@montpelier-vt.org, on or before September 17. The board will make the appointments at its September 18 meeting, which will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce’s offices in Berlin. Applicants are urged to attend.

Citizens in Barre Town will vote in November on whether to join the authority. In Berlin, interest in the new agency has meanwhile been conspicuously weak, leaving a geographic gap in the new organ’s jurisdiction–an issue the authority will have to resolve. Speaking for the Berlin Selectboard, chair Ture Nelson told The Bridge, “We basically want nothing to do with this.” He felt that Berlin would have little control over the authority and its budgets, given the larger populations in Barre and Montpelier

 

Montpelier Forgoes Appeal of Pond Decision

At its September 10 meeting, the Montpelier City Council decided not to appeal the August 14 Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) decision on the city’s petition to ban internal combustion motors, all petroleum products, and ice shanties from Berlin Pond, which supplies the city’s water. The ANR granted the city’s request to ban all vehicles with internal combustion engines, including snowmobiles and ATVs, from the pond, but denied the request to ban all petroleum products on the grounds that laws against petroleum spills already exist, and also denied the request to ban fishing shanties from the ice, saying that the city had not adequately demonstrated that their use conflicts with utilization of the pond as a public water supply.

ANR commissioner David Mears stated on August 14 that the state’s rulemaking process for Berlin Pond could take several months, that there would be opportunities for public comment during the process, and that any appeal on those rules would have to be made after they were officially in place.

In an interview with The Bridge, city manager Bill Fraser clarified that the council decided not to appeal the recent decision, since it could only have been appealed if it had resulted from an arbitrary process, which he said was not the case.

The appeal possibility referred to by Mears concerns rules yet to be drafted. Fraser noted that only an unanticipated and egregious defect in that rule-making would be likely to prompt such an appeal from the city.

The council decided to keep working with the Citizens to Protect Berlin Pond group in its efforts to return the pond to full protection, and commended the work done by the group, represented at the meeting by its president, Melissa Perley. Addressing the meeting, Perley said the group had decided to concentrate its efforts on a legislative solution. The 2012 State Supreme Court decision on the pond’s protection, she noted, “suggested a charter change as a possible way to return jurisdiction of the water to the city of Montpelier. I am here tonight to ask the council to consider this idea. It would be a parallel path to our legislative effort and our work would get behind both.”

“If there’s going to be any change, it’s going to have to be legislative,” Fraser told The Bridge.

 

City to Appeal in Hallsmith Case

At its September 10 meeting, the Montpelier City Council decided unanimously to appeal an August 21 ruling, by Judge Helen Toor of the State Superior Court, that found that the city had violated due process in its treatment of former planning and development director Gwen Hallsmith, whom the city fired last November. The city will file the appeal with the State Supreme Court before September 19.

The city fired Hallsmith in the wake of conflicts between her and other city officials over her outspoken advocacy of public banking. Hallsmith then filed a grievance with the city, stating that she had been terminated illegally for activity outside of her official duties. In December, assistant city manager Jessie Baker, serving as adjudicator at the grievance hearing, rejected Hallsmith’s appeal. Hallsmith then brought suit against the city.

In a statement emailed to The Bridge following the council’s action, Hallsmith said, “While I am a city taxpayer, I do not have a role in the city council’s decision to incur the legal fees necessary to take an appeal of the decision in my case. I am confident that the Vermont Supreme Court will uphold Judge Toor’s well-reasoned decision, and that I will eventually be returned to my position with the city of Montpelier.”

In a public statement issued September 11, the city noted its concern that Toor’s ruling “will have negative future impact for Montpelier and, potentially, for other Vermont communities.” The statement added that the city wants to hold a second grievance hearing “on the merits of the case as soon as possible and is reviewing the legal issues involved with conducting the hearing while the Supreme Court appeal is pending.” Toor’s decision had ordered that such a second hearing be held.

 

Aerator Available for Soil Improvement

The Winooski Natural Resources Conservation District has announced its purchase of an aerator which the district is making available to local farmers who wish to use it this fall and next spring to improve their fields. The apparatus enhances soil attributes by increasing water’s infiltration of the soil, decreasing compaction, and preventing excessive nutrient runoff. It is especially suited for use after manure-spreading to enhance incorporation of manure into the soil.

The district, which serves all of Washington County is offering the machine for rent at three dollars per acre. Interested parties should contact the district’s Laura Dlugolecki at 802-288-8155, extension 104, or at laura@winooskinrcd.org.

 

How About a Municipal Gas Station?

A September 8 news release from Vermont senator Bernie Sanders reports that Vermonters are paying unusually disparate prices to fuel up, depending on where they’re buying their gas. The release notes a statewide low of $3.30 a gallon in Rutland, and a high of about $3.60 in Burlington and St. Albans. The statement saw “no economic justification” for northwestern Vermonters’ having to pay what amounts to about five extra dollars for a fill.

More generally, the release from the senator, a democratic socialist, wagged the finger of blame for high gas prices at elements of capitalism: “massive profits at major oil companies, rampant speculation in the commodities markets, and, in some parts of the country, the illusion of competition among filling station owners.” The release drew particular attention to the last factor by referencing Somerset, Kentucky, a city of 11,000 whose mayor recently opened up the municipal gasoline depot to the general public, with fuel priced at a breakeven level. That sent prices down throughout the city, where gas now costs about 20 cents less than the state’s average. According to press reports, the Kentucky Association of Grocers and Convenience Stores has denounced the city’s action as “anti-competitive,” while the Kentucky office of the National Federation of Independent Business has announced it will seek relief from Kentucky’s state legislature.

Asked if Barre would consider opening its municipal pumps to the public, Mayor Thom Lauzon said no, citing immediate practical obstacles such as zoning and the $600,000 he said would be needed to outfit even a three-pump station. Montpelier mayor John Hollar could not be reached immediately for comment on the idea.

 

Care Board Trims Insurance Rate Increases

The Green Mountain Care Board (GMCB), the state agency charged with overseeing development of Vermont’s health care system, announced September 2 that it had trimmed proposed increases in premium rates for insurance policies to be offered in 2015 through Vermont Health Connect (VHC), the state’s health insurance marketplace.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont and MVP Health Plan, the only companies offering policies through VHC, had requested increases of 9.8 and 15.3 percent, respectively. The GMCB reduced the premium bumps to 7.7 and 10.9 percent. A GMCB press release attributed the rising health care costs to changes in federal compensations to insurers, federal rules governing coverage, and the usual uptick in medical and pharmaceutical costs.

The percentage figures announced by GMCB represent averages for the spectrum of policies available, so that individuals may see greater or smaller increases in the premiums they pay.

“The trajectory of VHC insurance rates confirms the sense of urgency we feel to collaborate with payers and medical providers to build a payment and delivery system that is more efficient, more effective, and more affordable.” the release quoted GMCB chair Al Gobeille in regard to the seemingly intractable problem of rising health care costs.

The increases contrast with the nation’s general year-over-year inflation rate, which the Federal Reserve Bank anticipates will come in at 1.4 percent in 2015.

 

Leahy Skeptical on Constitutional Reform

On a visit to Norwich University September 2, Senator Patrick Leahy, who chairs his chamber’s Judiciary Committee, expressed skepticism about prospects for a constitutional amendment, proposed by his committee, that would allow Congress and the states to restrict political spending by corporations and labor unions intent on influencing elections.

Interviewed at an event inaugurating Norwich University’s Sullivan Museum and History Center as a Smithsonian Institution affiliate (see related Heard on the Street story), the seven-term Democrat said, “We know that this [proposal] will not pass, but we wanted to raise the issue.” Leahy’s committee voted in July to send the proposed amendment to the full Senate, which is likely to be its final resting place.

“The Supreme Court–five Republicans on the Supreme Court–overturned decades of precedent in saying that corporations are people,” Leahy told The Bridge. He alluded to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision allowing corporations and unions to make unlimited political donations so long as they act independently of the candidates.

Leahy termed the campaign-spending situation “so terribly distorted.” Emphasizing that he was referring to the nation’s legislative branch, not to the Vermont State Legislature, he said, “Government only works if you have confidence in the legislature.”

Under the U.S. Constitution, a two-thirds majority of both the Senate and House can vote to submit a proposed amendment to the states; three-quarters of the states must then approve the amendment for it to be ratified. The Judiciary Committee’s proposal would give Congress and the states “power to regulate the raising and spending of money and in-kind equivalents” in federal and state elections, respectively, and would govern contributions from labor unions as well as business corporations.

 

Photo courtesy of Norwich University/Mark Collier

Photo courtesy of Norwich University/Mark Collier

Norwich Scores “A Major Coup”

At a September 2 inaugural program whose speakers included Senator Patrick Leahy, Norwich University’s Sullivan Museum and History Center (SMHC) became the Smithsonian Institution’s first affiliate in Vermont. Speaking for the university before an audience of about 100, Norwich president Dr. Richard Schneider termed the occasion “a very special day in our history.”

The affiliate status means, among other things, that SMHC and the Smithsonian will share items from their collections, and that SMHC will have access to the Smithsonian’s speakers bureau.

Leahy, who has served on the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents since 2001, described his own passion for history in his remarks, noting his propensity for losing himself in the Washington, D.C., museum’s innards until his staffers “have to send someone down to drag me out.”

It was an occasion for history’s advocates. Leahy admonished listeners that “we have to acknowledge even things that we aren’t proud of.” Harold Closter, director for Smithsonian affiliations at the Washington institution, told the audience that the affiliation, and its collection-sharing feature, would be especially important for those unable to visit Washington–a distant destination for schoolchildren on a  field trip, for example.

Only 194 of the nation’s many thousands of museums enjoy the Smithsonian affiliate status, museum director Sarah Henrich noted. SMHC is the first such affiliate in Vermont. “It’s a major coup,” she said in an interview with The Bridge.

The SMHC collections record the university’s history and the lives of famous alumni. The museum, which adjoins Norwich’s Kreitzberg Library, contains 11,000 objects and provides a variety of facilities to assist researchers.

 

Parklet Coming Down Sooner than Planned

The parklet structure on the Rialto Bridge on Montpelier’s State Street will be coming down for the winter earlier than anticipated, and Montpelier Alive, which is superintending the parklet program on the city’s behalf, is meanwhile discussing putting a parklet on Main Street next year.

The Rialto Bridge structure was installed in early June as part of the city’s pilot program, which will put as many as three parklets in downtown Montpelier. Currently no other parklets have been installed, however, and several State Street merchants have objected to the parklets’ assumption of parking spaces.

An August 19 email from Montpelier Alive board president Sarah Jarvis to other board members referred to “requests from State Street merchants in particular to remove the parklet” before the peak of the foliage season. Vermont Technical College professor and Montpelier resident Ward Joyce, who directed the structure’s installation by his students, has agreed to remove the structure before October 1.

Montpelier Alive had originally planned to keep the parklet in place until late October, when it would have been dismantled to facilitate snow removal.

A vox pop conducted by The Bridge at the beginning of August found that most merchants in the State Street block that brackets the Rialto Bridge opposed having the installations on their block. Jarvis’s email noted, however, that the structure ”has supported at least those local businesses who provide take-out food.” Opposition has primarily come from merchants who do not sell food.

Commenting on her organization’s internal discussions of a Main Street parklet, Montpelier Alive executive director Ashley Witzenberger told The Bridge that “we’re trying to figure out what works and doesn’t work. We’re going to see how it works on Main Street and see how some Main Street businesses enjoy having a parklet.” She emphasized that the discussion was very tentative.

“We will … have conversations with business owners on [Main] Street in advance of any decisions about location,” Jarvis noted in her email.

Positive Pie owner Carlo Rovetto has meanwhile obtained all the requisite permissions for a parklet in front of his State Street restaurant, but he does not plan on opening the parklet this year. Given that the parklet program only runs for this year and 2015, Rovetto expressed uncertainty as to whether he would go forward at all with the initiative.

“We’re still just in discussions with the city about this,” he said, in an interview for this article. “We’re trying to determine whether it makes sense to do this for just a year.”

“We’ve learned that actually a lot of people think parklets are building community,” Witzenberger said. A parklet, she continued, “is designed for communicating and talking. … Businesses with limited seating or no seating have really seen a boost in business.”

 

No Child Left Behind Gets Blasted–Again

Vermont’s educational leadership continues to hammer away at the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). In a lengthy press release issued by the Agency of Education August 26, State Board of Education chair Stephan Morse stated that “the federal requirements have resulted in over-testing and a narrowing of our educational focus. This needs to be fixed.”

The release cited “a four-month study and review” of testing and referred to a longer, five-page statement and resolution from the board. The materials contained no shortage of disgruntled pronouncements, including the resolution’s declaration that “a compelling body of national research shows the over-emphasis on standardized testing has caused considerable collateral damage in such areas as narrowing the curriculum … [and] reducing love of learning.”

“We must look more broadly at the purposes of education. These purposes also include global citizenship, good health practices, artistic expression and the transferable skills we need for the twenty-first century,” said the press release quoting state education secretary Rebecca Holcombe. Holcombe created a national stir on August 6, when she issued a four-page letter to parents and caregivers that denounced the NCLB, whose convolutions and emphasis on standardized tests have resulted in Vermont’s schools being classified, virtually without exception, as underperforming.

Her August 6 letter in fact never reached all the state’s parents of public school children, since its distribution was left in the hands of local principals and superintendents, who in some cases did not forward it to parents. Whether a blanket mailing would have helped is debatable, however, given the letter’s bewildering news that Vermont’s schools, by most measures among the nation’s best, were suddenly failing. The August 26 verbal salvo served to continue  the state’s offensive against the controversial 2001 law, but, in pursuing their agenda, opponents of the statute still face, among other obstacles, a general public that still finds the NCLB incomprehensible.

 

After-School Music Program Coming to Union Elementary

The Montpelier-based Summit School of Traditional Music and Culture will be offering after-school classes in music for pupils from the city’s Union Elementary School September 2 to December 23, between 3:30 and 4:30 p.m. The classes will also welcome local home-schoolers. Local musicians will lead the programs: intermediate-level band, ukulele for beginners, and choral singing with the UES World Music Choir. All instruments are welcome in the band,a Summit School press release stated. “We’re working with Union Elementary School and Community Connections,” Summit School director Katie Trautz said. “We’ll be using the school auditorium and classroom space.”

The classes will cost $10-12 per day, on a sliding scale, and some scholarships are available, too, Trautz stated. After-school care between the end of the school day and the commencement of classes will cost an additional $3 a day. Further information is available from Trautz at 802-917-1186 or director@summit-school.org.

 

Williams Challenging Kelly in State’s Attorney Race

Democrat Scott Williams is challenging incumbent Washington County state’s attorney Tom Kelly for his job in this November’s election, maintaining that “in  two election cycles, there has not been a strong Democratic campaign for the position. This year is different.”

For Williams, the justice system’s handling of drug abuse constitutes a salient issue. “We MUST recognize that drug possession and use is as much a public health issue as it is a criminal one,” he wrote in a press release received by The Bridge. “That doesn’t mean people who commit drug crimes or crimes while addicted to drugs should get a pass on their criminal behavior. But we need leadership to aggressively address what has become a major source and catalyst of criminal behavior in our community.” He added that the prosecutor’s office must “take advantage of community-­based programs like restorative justice,” through which offenders are expected to compensate their victims and/or communities by positive means, such as community service and financial restitution, as an alternative to jail.

In an interview with The Bridge, Kelly did not draw any battle lines over his opponent’s views on either drug abuse or community-based programs. “I don’t disagree” with Williams’s statement, he said. “I think we are taking advantage of restorative justice tools and addressing the drug cases as they are as they’re brought to us by the police. … In every case where there are drugs involved, we recommend substance abuse treatment.”

“It’s important to consider the experience that the candidate brings to the office,” he responded, when asked to name the key issue in the campaign. “I’ve been a prosecutor since 1987 and the state’s attorney since February 1 of 2007.”

Williams, 49, grew up in Bennington and lives in Berlin with his wife and two children. He practices law in Barre. Kelly, who was born in 1954, lives in Barre City. He is married and has six children.

Kelly first won election in 2006, garnering 53 percent of the vote against Democratic opponent Colin Seaman’s 47 percent. Kelly was reelected without opposition in 2010.

 

New Student Stipends Available

The Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, the state agency that helps students pay for post-secondary education, has announced a new program which offers $50,000 in stipends this coming schoolyear to help low-income high schoolers cover costs of dual enrollment, whereby students take up to two post-secondary courses tuition-free, in addition to their high-school studies.

Only those dual enrollees who qualify for free- or reduced-price school lunches and need additional help to pay for books, fees or travel for dual-enrollment courses will be considered–but will be considered automatically–for an annual stipend of $150 to assist with those costs, VSAC spokeswoman Sabina Haskell told The Bridge. Stipends will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

A release from VSAC, which is based in Winooski, reported that dual-enrollment program participation burgeoned from 642 in 2011-12to over 1,600 last school year.

Persons needing more information should go to http://vtdualenrollment.org/ or call VSAC at 802-655-9602.

 

Buttoning Up Vermont

Barre-based Capstone Community Action (formerly Central Vermont Community Action Agency) is offering prizes for short videos that “inspire viewers to take action to lower their heating costs and do something positive for the planet,” according to a release from the organization. The “Button Up Video Contest” begins on Sept. 2, on and after which date videos can be posted to the contest website. The competition runs until Oct. 19; Capstone expects to announce winners in late October. Winners will receive a variety of prizes, the grand prize being $300.

Videos must run two minutes or less, and will be judged in three categories: most humorous, most likely to spur action, and most informative, the release stated. Within each category, winners will be selected in three age groups. Capstone is encouraging both individual and group efforts in creating the videos. For more information, visit ButtonUpVt.org or Button Up Vermont on Facebook.

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