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Washington Central board makes more progress on merger

BERLIN — Despite stumbling at the start, the recently elected board of a soon-to-be-launched school district continued to work at a brisk pace Wednesday night.

On a night when administrators easily outnumbered board members and it took more than 30 minutes to manage a quorum, the board of the Washington Central Unified Union School District continued its march to meet the July 1 deadline for a state-ordered merger.

Meeting for the third time in its two-week existence, six of the board’s 10 members approved the first reading of 28 required polices the board must adopt before month’s end and set a public hearing on its $34 million budget request and a series of suggested amendments to the articles of agreement for the new pre-K-12 district. With the proposed budget and amendments set to be collectively decided by voters in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester during a special election on June 25, board members tentatively agreed to schedule the required public hearing for 6:30 p.m. on June 18 at U-32 Middle and High School.

The hearing will be part of a broader and still evolving outreach effort designed to inform voters about the proposed budget for the five-town, six-school district anchored by U-32, as well as changes some would like to see made in state-imposed articles of agreement.

Although support for rushing a vote on the proposed amendments has waned in recent weeks amid a growing sense that additional adjustments should be presented to voters in one comprehensive package, board members agreed Wednesday night passing a budget is imperative.

Chairman Scott Thompson said that is anything but a slam dunk in communities where weary voters have already separately approved school spending proposals and residents have long been divided about the prospect of merger.

Thompson said the public hearing was important, but likely wouldn’t be particularly well attended. He urged board members to “fan out” and engage voters in their towns in hopes of boosting turnout for the latest in a string of special elections.

Superintendent Bill Kimball said the annual report for the new district — the Washington Central Unified Union School District — had just been completed and postcards advising residents of its availability would be mailed by Friday.

Though board members are hoping the budget, which is essentially a compilation of already approved school spending proposals, will pass on June 25, Kimball said they need to be ready to swiftly react if it doesn’t. He asked them to be ready to meet on June 26 in the event the budget is defeated.

Thanks to the late arrival of School Director George Gross, the board was able to advance 28 required policies. All but one of those policies have already been adopted by the Washington Central Supervisory Union’s six soon-to-be-replaced school boards and, with one exception, those policies are identical.

The new policy would establish guidelines protecting student freedom of expression in school-sponsored media. Thompson urged board members to give that policy a thorough review before next week’s scheduled second reading and adoption.

The existing policy that had to be changed to reflect consistent language across all six schools was the weapons policy. Some districts used differing definitions for “dangerous weapons” based on blade length when it came to knives. All knives would be considered “dangerous weapons” under the proposed policy.

In other business, the board accepted a couple of bids, tweaked meal prices for the coming school year, and authorized their superintendent — Kimball is leaving on June 30 and his interim replacement Debra Taylor is set to start July 15 — to accept all state and federal grants.

Kimball said the latter decision — an annual formality — couldn’t be deferred without potentially disrupting grant-funded summer programming.

Board members approved what they were told was a money-saving insurance bid submitted by Denis, Ricker & Brown Insurance. The combined cost of property and liability and related insurance and workers compensation insurance will be $200,999 for the coming fiscal year. That, board members were told, is nearly $11,500 better than previously anticipated.

The board also agreed to invest nearly $100,000 in aging telephone systems at four of the district’s six schools, as well as at the central office located on the U-32 campus in East Montpelier.

The bulk of the expense reflected in the lone bid submitted by TwinState Technologies involves replacing the phone systems at U-32 and the central office. That portion of the work will cost nearly $62,000. Replacing the phone system at Berlin Elementary School, where the board held its Wednesday night meeting will cost nearly $14,000. Similar work will cost just over $12,100 at both Calais Elementary School and Doty Memorial School in Worcester.

The phone system at East Montpelier Elementary School was replaced three years ago and the one at Rumney Memorial School in Middlesex was replaced in the past year.

Kimball said money to cover the cost of the telephone upgrades is included in a technology plan created to cover such “big-ticket” expenses six years ago.

“The money is there within the budgets,” he said. “We don’t need to borrow.”

The board approved an administrative recommendation that increase meal prices by 25 cents during the coming school year. The price of student lunches at all six schools will be $4 and student breakfasts will cost $3.

Members deferred a discussion of their participation in the Vermont School Boards Association until next week and tabled action on appointing student representatives to the board.

While some board members — Berlin’s Vera Frazier and East Montpelier’s Flor Diaz-Smith among them — are eager to schedule a board retreat, Dorothy Naylor, who, like Thompson, represents Calais on the board, said she’d prefer to wait until after a judge rules on the last remaining counts of a lawsuit challenging the merger. Some key claims in that lawsuit have already been dismissed and appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court and Naylor said the board shouldn’t get ahead of itself.

“I am not eager to give up half a day to spend a lot of time setting goals ... before we’ve heard from the courts,” Naylor said.

However, Frazier said a properly framed retreat could prove useful even if a court ruling derailed the merger. Diaz-Smith said the board wasn’t elected to oppose the law — Act 46 — that led to its creation.

“I feel really, really strongly that the job of this board is not, at this point, to stand on opposing Act 46 but on running our schools,” she said. “Every time we meet should be about how to move forward.”

With the board’s schedule full this month, a looming administrative transition that will see Kimball step away and Taylor step in next month, Thompson suggested the board plan on taking July off.

Kimball agreed, suggesting planning a retreat in early August would make sense.

david.delcore @timesargus.com


jebcas / Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo  

Learning the Craft

Alex Forbes, right, of Plainfield, shows Julien Amore, 5, of Montpelier, how to carve a wooden spatula Thursday outside her craft wagon parked at The Center for Arts and Learning on Barre Street in Montpelier. The woodcarving workshop was part of the ArtFest Celebration.


Local
Barre City
Despite tardy start, Mackenzie hopes negotiations can stick to schedule

BARRE — Negotiations with two municipal labor unions are now underway, but neither will be wrapped up before current contracts expire on June 30.

However, City Manager Steve Mackenzie said Thursday he hopes to break a familiar pattern of protracted negotiations and is cautiously optimistic about his chances.

Mackenzie said both unions — one representing the city’s firefighters and the other representing its clerical and custodial staff — have been cooperative. In separate meetings set to establish ground rules for negotiations, Mackenzie said bargaining teams for each of the unions agreed to aggressive schedules he hopes will expedite the process.

Mackenzie, whose Tuesday nights are typically booked with City Council meetings, said negotiations will be a regular Wednesday afternoon endeavor this summer.

It’s a plan Mackenzie said got off to a good start on Wednesday when negotiators for the city and the firefighters’ union traded proposals during the first of six every-other-week bargaining sessions they recently agreed to.

Mackenzie didn’t discuss the substance of the proposals that were exchanged during what he characterized as “a fairly mechanical” meeting that lasted about 90 minutes and didn’t end with participants comparing calendars to determine when they can all meet again.

Speaking from experience, Mackenzie said that never works well.

“Trying to get a date that 10 people can agree on is always a challenge,” he said. “You might as well buy a lottery ticket.”

Mackenzie said both sides benefit from a predictable schedule that is agreed to in advance.

“The last three rounds of negotiations went interminably long,” Mackenzie said. “We’re trying, in a proactive and constructive fashion, not to let that happen again.”

Sticking to the six-session schedule is key because while it may not produce a settlement, Mackenzie said it should help both sides determine whether they think they can get a deal done without enlisting the assistance of a mediator.

“I suspect by the fourth or fifth meeting we’ll make an assessment of whether we can get to closure or we need help,” he said.

While the first meeting with firefighters went off without a hitch this week, Mackenzie said next Wednesday’s session with the union that represents clerical and custodial staff has already been canceled.

Though both sides agreed to the schedule at the recent ground rules meeting, Mackenzie said the regional representative for the United Steelworkers of America was unable to attend that session and has a conflict next Wednesday.

Mackenzie said the minor setback was unfortunate, but understandable and the two sides would exchange proposals when they meet on June 26. The multi-year contract with Steelworkers — like the one with firefighters — will expire four days later.

Members of both bargaining units will continue to work under the terms of the lapsed agreements until new contracts are negotiated and ratified.

The city’s two other labor unions aren’t in that position.

In January, councilors ratified a contract with unionized members of the police department. That two-year contract replaced one that expired last June. Meanwhile, unionized members of the public works department are working under a contract that expires Dec. 31.

david.delcore @timesargus.com


Local
$1.7 million settlement reached with Dollar General

BARRE — A $1.75 million settlement has been reached between the parent company of Dollar General stores and the attorney general’s office over price gouging of customers at stores in Vermont.

News of the settlement came Thursday at a news conference at Barre’s Vermont Foodbank. The Vermont Foodbank will receive $100,000 of the settlement to compensate for low-income Vermonters who shop at Dollar General, many of them using ThreeSquaresVT benefits to buy food. The $100,000 will help food banks around the state to provide 165,000 meals to low-income Vermonters who are food insecure, food bank officials said. The remaining $1.65 million will go to the state’s General Fund.

Attorney General T.J. Donovan made the announcement about the settlement together with senior staffers and members of the weights and measures division at the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, which cataloged numerous violations by Dollar General over several years.

Under the settlement agreement, Dollar General resolved claims that it sold products that were advertised on the shelf at a lower price than the price at the register, despite being told at least 50 times by state inspectors from the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets to correct the pricing inaccuracies dating back to 2013, according to the AG’s office.

“Deceptive advertising will not be tolerated,” Donovan said. “Knowing that Dollar General caters to low-income Vermonters makes their repeatedly misrepresenting prices particularly egregious. I’m pleased that part of this settlement will directly benefit those Vermonters who struggle with food insecurity.”

Dollar General operates 36 retail stores in all 14 counties in Vermont and sells a wide variety of groceries and household products.

Donovan said weights and measures’ inspectors routinely visit Dollar General stores to ensure that the shelf prices match the prices charged at the register. Inspectors randomly check the shelf prices of 50 to 100 products and compare them to the register prices, he said.

“If the price charged at the register exceeds the shelf price, it is known as an overcharge error,” Donovan said. “Since October 2013, inspectors have found 362 overcharge errors at 22 different Dollar General stores.

“Of the 362 overcharge errors, the price charged at the register exceeded the shelf price by an amount ranging from two cents to $6 per item, with a median overcharge amount of 35 cents,” he added.

Since 2013, Dollar General has paid about $241,700 in penalties to the Agency of Agriculture for overcharge errors, Donovan said. Failure to rectify the problem over time resulted in a civil complaint against the company and the settlement agreement, he added.

Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts said the inspections were conducted to protect customers under the Consumer Protection Act.

“We are here because we take our consumer laws seriously,” Tebbetts said. “This is about the shopper. Vermonters work hard for their money and when they shop at a store, they should be sure that the amount advertised in the aisle matches up at the checkout line.

“This is what we do, we go to the stores and we inspect and we appreciate the work that is being done every day by our inspectors and we appreciate the work that the attorney general’s office did to get this important settlement. Part of this settlement will go to the Vermont Food Bank, so some good will come of this and some Vermonters will get some food out of this,” he added.

Vermont Food Bank CEO John Sayles thanked state and officials for their work to protect consumers.

“A lot of the people the Vermont Food Bank serves are customers at Dollar General stores,” Sayles said. We’re very happy to be able to participate in the settlement. The money from the settlement is going to purchasing and distribution of fresh food to Vermonters where they live and work,” he added.

Under the terms of the settlement, Dollar General must also implement a pricing accuracy policy to ensure that Vermonters are charged the price reflected on a product, conduct pricing audits to ensure that their products are priced accurately, and hire and train staff to implement new price control measures.

Nationally, Dollar General had annual revenues of $25.6 billion in 2018, according to a company official contacted by The Times Argus on Thursday. However, the official declined to reveal company earnings in Vermont.

In an email response, the official at corporate headquarters in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, wrote, “Dollar General Statement: Dollar General strives to provide pricing accuracy for items purchased in our stores.

“Where a pricing anomaly is identified, Dollar General takes prompt action to address and correct the situation. Although we do not necessarily agree with all of the statements made by the Vermont Attorney General’s office, we have appreciated their constructive approach to resolving this matter,” the official added.

stephen.mills @timesargus.com


jebcas / Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo  

Cooking Demo

Joey Truman, author of “The Cooking Cockroach,” cooks and answers questions during a demo and book sale Thursday at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier. The event, along with two others at The Hunger Mountain Co-op and the Garage Cultural Center, benefited the Montpelier Food Pantry.


Local
School district ponders 'mud lot' fix

MONTPELIER — The Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools Board is wrestling with how much to spend to deal with the infamous “mud lot” at Montpelier High School.

Used as overflow parking space on the east side of the Smilie Auditorium, the unpaved lot is icy or muddy for several months of the year through winter and spring and has to be blocked off.

At a meeting of the School Board at Montpelier High School on Wednesday, Business Manager Grant Geisler and Facilities Director Andrew LaRosa presented alternative plans to deal with the lot and discussed costs.

Geisler said administrators came to the board because VSECU, the credit union across the street, had backed out of a plan to partner with the school district and pay to pave the lot for use by some of its employees. VSECU was still interested in paying to lease spaces in the school lot, he added.

Geisler and LaRosa presented two options to deal with the lot. One proposal would be to pave the lot and create spaces for 40 vehicles, at an estimated cost of $350,000.

Or, the lot could be “re-grassed” and returned to green space for recreation, they said. Costs to return the lot to green space could be $100,000 or less, depending on the need to remove and replace topsoil, and also make provision for fire lane access around the back of the school, Geisler said.

Because the project was not included in the school district budget, Geisler said money for the project could come out of the reserve fund. Geisler said there is approximately $1.2 million in the reserve fund, of which $314,000 is committed to residual work at the Union Elementary School playground ($157,000), bathroom renovations at UES ($117,000), $31,000 for a bathroom upgrade and work on the town hall section of the Roxbury Village School, and funds to upgrade the school district website.

Asked if the cost of the parking lot upgrade could be better spent on higher priorities within the school district or for educational or recreational programs, Geisler said he was not at the board meeting to discuss how the reserve fund should be spent. He said because the agreement with VSECU to upgrade the lot had fallen through, the board had to decide whether it wanted to approve a parking lot project that could be paid for with money from the reserve fund.

Some board members expressed concern that if the lot were re-grassed, returned to green space and closed to parking, some members of the community that use it regularly might complain. Other members agreed there was a need to add parking at the school, for sporting or cultural events, and in winter when snow piles in the paved lot reduced the number of spaces.

Board member Michel Braun, who is the executive director of Friends of the Winooski, recused herself from the discussion because her organization had secured a grant for the design and a stormwater management plan for the mud lot because it is close to the river. But she said the board needed to make a decision about what to do with the lot before August or the funds would go to another project.

LaRosa said that the board would need to make a decision soon about what to do with the lot, based on its current agreement with VSECU, which was up for renewal in November, and because it would take some time to get estimates for either project option for the lot.

The board postponed a decision and a vote on the project while administrators further explore the options and costs involved.

stephen.mills @timesargus.com


Spotlight

“‘How much screen time is too much’ is a puzzle for a past era, the (New York Times) article concludes. What we are looking at, and how we are using that information, are different issues altogether.”

Editorial, A4

In the news

The Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier will get $75,000 in state grant money for elevator upgrades. A2

A local man is arraigned on charges for allegedly stealing catalytic converters. A3

Vermont’s game warden of the year is announced. A3

Talks continue in efforts to avert new import tariffs threatened by President Trump. B4


Courtesy Gamelan Sulukala//  

Gamelan Sulukala presents “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” June 8 and 9 at Goddard College’s Haybarn Theater in Plainfield.


BTA Hotspot

Saturday

Gamelan Sulukala

“The Adventures of Prince Achmed” with live Gamelan music soundtrack. $15, $5, 7:30-9 p.m. Goddard College Haybarn Theater, Greatwood Drive, Plainfield, slight@fyreandlightning.org, 802-498-3173.