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WCSU and Act 46
Washington Central feeling Act 46 deadline pressure

EAST MONTPELIER — In the Act 46 era, daunting December deadlines are nothing new to committees in the Washington Central Supervisory Union and in that respect 2018 is ending the same way 2017 did.

The similarities stop there — not just because two committees are now hard at work when only one was last year, but because this year’s frenetic finish is about laying the groundwork for a school district merger, not making the case for maintaining the status quo.

With the state Board of Education days away from imposing a merger that members of the five-town, six-school supervisory union had collectively hoped to avoid, a committee crafting articles of agreement that could govern the new district acknowledged this week time isn’t on its side.

Barring a change of heart no one is expecting, the state board will barely beat its own Act 46 deadline when it meets on Wednesday in St. Albans. The board’s adoption of the statewide plan called for in the three-year-old law that encouraged, incentivized and will soon compel school district mergers will start the 90-day clock for the two Washington Central committees.

One is solely focused on coming up with a way for dealing with the differing debt levels being carried by school districts in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester. The other is working on a governing document that would knit those districts together with jointly owned U-32 Middle and High School in a new pre-K-12 district that would be run by one board.

Meeting for the fifth time this week, members of the latter committee agreed they can’t keep doing what they’re doing and expect to produce a document that can be vetted by lawyers, reviewed by six separate school boards and presented to voters in all five towns before the end of February.

Cognizant of the calendar, committee member Matthew DeGroot said it was probably necessary for the panel to shift away from a schedule of brief weekly meetings.

“I don’t think we that we can continue to (meet for) an hour a week between now and Dec. 20 and expect that we’re going to … complete the task,” he said.

DeGroot, who serves on the Worcester School Board, said wrapping up work on the articles of agreement before Christmas was crucial given time constraints. That would require having a “solid draft” proposal ready for review by individual school boards by Dec. 13, he said.

“It’s just an incredibly break-neck pace,” DeGroot said.

Flor Diaz-Smith and Chris McVeigh agreed with DeGroot’s assessment.

Diaz-Smith, the East Montpelier school director who was elected chairwoman of the committee, said the group should consider at least one extended meeting — possibly two — so it could have the kind of sustained substantive discussion that will be required.

McVeigh, who is chairman of the Middlesex School Board, said meeting the self-imposed deadline must be a priority.

“We should not abdicate our responsibility to get them done so that there can be a vote,” he said of the articles of agreement. “No matter what, our communities should have an opportunity to vote on the articles.”

Absent a timely and successful vote in all five towns, the new district would at least temporarily be saddled with generic articles of agreement imposed by the state board.

Committee members — like the boards that appointed them — have expressed a strong preference for drafting articles that better reflect local interests on issues ranging from school restructuring to debt.

The committee will meet for an hour on Tuesday, but has scheduled a longer session for Friday, Dec. 7.

In a move that should expedite the process going forward, the committee agreed to retain Burlington lawyer Pietro Lynn to serve in a consulting capacity and vet its work. Lynn assisted with several voluntary Act 46 mergers in school districts around the state.

The committee, which previously dealt with most of the simpler articles, this week discussed one of the potentially thornier ones. However, when it comes to the composition of the board that would ultimately run a merged district, members appeared to be on the same page.

Though no final decisions were made, the committee seems to like the idea of electing two representatives from each of the five towns to the new board, even if that requires those elections be settled by district-wide vote.

U-32 School Director Kari Bradley said the idea of voters in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier and Middlesex having any say in who represents Worcester on the new board, and vice versa, was “potentially controversial,” though he wasn’t necessarily opposed to it.

Diaz-Smith said she favored the concept.

“I personally feel that it’s the best way to go,” Smith said. “We want this board to represent everybody.”

Members generally agreed if district-wide votes were the Constitutional price for ensuring each town has equal representation on the new board, they were willing to pay it. Based on population, the alternative would give Berlin and East Montpelier more seats on the board than Calais, Middlesex and Worcester, as is now the case with the U-32 board.

Mildly concerned about the potential for a tie vote on what would otherwise be a 10-member board, the committee is considering adding a true “at-large” member who could live in any one of the five towns and would be jointly elected by voters in all of them.

Committee members weren’t prepared to resolve whether election results should be reported separately by town. The U-32 ballots are currently commingled and counted separately, making it impossible to know how individual towns voted on the high school budget. Bradley said he preferred that approach and the committee agreed it should be revisited.


Black Friday kicks off holiday shopping season

Every car in the Walmart parking lot in Rutland was frosted over, and many had tightly-bound Christmas trees strapped to their roofs on Black Friday when, despite the 20-degree chill, residents poured into stores where sales were waiting.

“We had a lot of people in, and a couple of good deals, too,” said Lexi Hedding, sales associate for Fruition Fineries in Rutland. “It was definitely a really good year for us.”

Shoppers at the Diamond Run Mall took advantage of 50 percent off final sales, hauling out 5-gallon bags stuffed with clothes and other discounted items.

Parking lots outside Old Navy and LaFlamme’s Furniture quickly filled while the rest of the lot remained deserted.

For a group of five friends who traveled from northern Ohio and Nashville, Tennessee, to see the World Cup this weekend in Killington, the race for Black Friday was nothing to write home about, even during “Black Thursday,” when the women said they started their shopping at Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart.

“We normally start at 3 p.m.,” said Nashville resident Beth Burden. “We normally wait in long lines.”

Black Friday in their home states is a major operation, they said, and the steady current of traffic through Rutland’s stores was more manageable than what they are used to.

“Normally, there are no carts available,” said Nashville resident Becca Page. “This Black Friday was crazy-easy.”

“It’s peaceful and fun here,” added Nashville resident Kassie Porter.

In Montpelier, stores reported a high customer turnout due to Black Friday sales and to the long-awaited “Flannel Friday” celebration heralded by the Flannel fairies, who gave flannel-wearers gift certificates to local shops and restaurants.

“It’s always a big day,” said Claire Benedict, owner of Bear Pond Books, while taking a moment from the crowds to breathe and have a cup of tea Friday afternoon. “It’s a really big day for us. People enjoy being downtown, and people are out with their families, they have lunch, shop ... I don’t think these are people who want to be shopping online today.”

Online book sales have plateaued, Benedict said, and Black Fridays continue to keep independent booksellers on their toes.

“We’ve been very stable in recent years,” Benedict said. “It’s one of the biggest days of the year, and we do a lot to prepare. We even had (Vermont cartoonist) Ed Koren signing his new book, ‘Koren. In the Wild.’”

It’s not just Flannel Friday. It’s also National Black Friday Record Store Day, and Barre’s Exile on Main Street owner Sandy Thurston said she saw sales double compared to a normal day.

“We had limited edition releases that were only available today to small mom-and-pop stores,” Thurston said. “Today has been better than last year; I passed last year’s number here around 1 o’clock.”

The albums of choice for central Vermont, Thurston said, are blues, rock and the Grateful Dead.

“Punk, too,” Thurston said. “We have “The Ramones: Live in Glasgow,” and the Dead Kennedy’s “Iguana Studios Rehearsal Sessions” with Jello Biafra ... Some really neat stuff comes out on National Record Store Day.”

For the stores on Merchants Row in Rutland, the crowd was steady and typical, with many store owners saying they’re expecting bigger crowds as holidays draw nearer.

“It’s nothing like the big chain stores,” said Kelsey Woodell, assistant manager of Freeman Marcus Jewelers. “It’s just an average day for us. It will build up to Christmas from here.”

Woodell said the staff at the jewelers remains hopeful for a strong season due to a strengthening economy — and male procrastination.

“It’s mostly men shopping the week before Christmas,” Woodell said. “They always wait until the last minute.”

Back inside the mall, store managers said they always anticipate some business lost to online sales, but customers recognize the value in trying clothes on in the store before they buy them — one of the reasons Maurice’s has an online catalog for Cyber Monday.

“Black Friday is definitely not the same holiday as it was three years ago,” said Britney Hutch, store manager for Maurice’s in the Diamond Run Mall. “Cyber Monday has outperformed Black Friday for years.”

Unlike many stores hoping to jump the gun by opening Thursday evening, Maurice’s remained closed so its employees could go to their respective gatherings to celebrate Thanksgiving.

“We’re a company that values family and a work-life balance,” Hutch said. “We’re not worried about online sales (competition).”

Sales associate and stylist Curstin Hemple said the draw of online shopping comes from a need for instant gratification created by a society that values profit over value.

“Customers really do like to see the actual product, try it on and see how it’s going to wear over time and whether it will do what they want it to do,” Hemple said. “Most people are just impatient.”

Hutch credited the rise of online shopping trends to a societal push to work harder and spend less time with family, and said she remembered a time when her parents had the entire week of Thanksgiving off to do their shopping and see their loved ones.

“Now, if they get ‘X’ amount of days off, they have to balance everything,” Hutch said.

Hemple said last year she traveled to New York City with her friend for Black Friday, and the stores were mobbed with people.

Not Vermont.

“There’s not much to offer in this area,” Hemple said. “It’s very different.”


Twinfield applying for EV charging stations

MARSHFIELD — The Twinfield School Board has given a committee the go-ahead to apply for grant funding for electric vehicle charging stations at the school.

At its regular meeting Tuesday night, the board heard from the Plainfield/Marshfield Climate Change Action Team.

Rich Phillips, a member of the team, told the board the exact grant amount has yet to be determined, but the grant comes with a 10 percent match. The grant is from the state’s Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment Grant Program which is being funded by Vermont’s portion of settlement money the Environmental Protection Agency acquired from Volkswagen over the car maker’s violations of the Clean Air Act.

The deadline for applications for the first round of grant funding is Nov. 30. Phillips said the plan is to run electric cable from the back of the school to the parking area where two charging stations would be installed near the handicap parking.

The board has two options when it comes to managing the stations: hiring a vendor to do the work or having someone at the school manage the stations. Bob Atchinson, another member of the committee, told the board he has been speaking to Flo, an electric charging company out of Canada, that can offer stations where people pay for electricity using a credit card. Flo would then collect the money and send it back to the school to pay for the electricity used.

Phillips said the grant includes five years of management from a vendor.

“At that point, you’ll have quite a bit of information about use, how’s it going, are electric cars being purchased,” he said.

After the five-year period, the school would have to decide whether to keep paying the vendor for about $300 per year or decide to manage the stations itself.

If the school wanted to manage the stations, Atchinson said it would have to use a model similar to the charging station in the Plainfield village, where a cash box was installed and people using the charging system pay what they want in a kind of honor system.

On a vote of 4-1, the School Board approved the committee’s request to apply for the grant with a stipulation that the 10-percent match couldn’t exceed $2,000. The current highest estimate for the project is about $17,500, which would put the school on the hook for $1,750. It also approved a resolution in support of the project.

The only no vote was from board Chairman Patrick Healy who wanted to wait until the second round of grant applications in April. Healy said there were too many unknowns to go forward with the project now, such as the cost.

Phillips said the issue with waiting is they could end up competing with others for the money that had missed the November deadline. He said if the application was rejected, applying now would also give the school two chances at the funds because it could reapply in April.


jebcas / Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo 

Back at it

There’s a new caffeine player in the Capital City. Paul Dayton, who has worked for years with Community Connections and as a tennis coach, has opened a new coffee roasting facility on Route 12 just south of Montpelier called Big Gear Coffee. After learning the ropes at Coffee Lab International in Waterbury Center, Dayton has spent months perfecting his roasting process and now has four custom coffee roasts available. Dayton carefully selects and blends his beans from sources around the globe such as Ethiopia, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru and Brazil. All his roasts have mountain bike-themed names and are available from his location or online and should soon be available in select retail outlets. Above, Dayton releases beans from his drum roaster. Right, just-roasted beans are cooled by a fan and moving arm. Below, packages of Big Gear Coffee beans available for sale.



Big Gear coffee has opened a new coffee roasting facility on Route 12 just south of Montpelier. Jeb Wallace-Brodeur takes us inside to see how the coffee is made.