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Local
'Last gasp' re-vote will shape new-look district

BARRE — A new school board will be sworn in at Spaulding High School on Jan. 10. Which one will be determined by Barre Town voters on Jan. 8.

It could be the nine-member board that was elected by voters in Barre and Barre Town last month as part of a failed school district merger that has since been imposed by the state Board of Education. If not, it will be a “transitional board” whose six members have now been selected and whose service will be short.

Only one of the two boards will actually be seated, but due to warning requirements Superintendent John Pandolfo has scheduled organizational meetings for both at 6 p.m. on Jan. 10 in the Spaulding library.

Pandolfo won’t know which of those meetings to cancel until after Barre Town votes for the fourth time on a merger its voters have handily rejected three times in the last two years.

Thanks to a petition filed by merger critics, the Jan. 8 re-vote will give town voters an opportunity to reverse the latest lopsided result.

It won’t be easy.

The merger, which town voters rejected, 2,106-1,262, last month can’t just pass during the upcoming special election, it must pass with the support of at least 1,404 votes — two-thirds the number that voted “no” on Nov. 6 in order to alter the result.

That is why Pandolfo told Barre school commissioners Monday night he is operating under the assumption the transitional board will be seated even though the alternative would be simpler and be accompanied by perks contained in Act 46.

At least in Barre’s case, financial incentives available to districts that voluntarily merge remain available. That includes a 20-cent tax rate reduction that would generate an estimated $5 million in savings over four years and a one-time $150,000 transition grant. An added bonus would be the new district that would include pre-K-8 schools in Barre and Barre Town, as well as jointly owned Spaulding High School, would operate under articles of agreement that were tailored to address concerns expressed by some town residents.

If the merger is approved by the requisite number of town voters, Pandolfo said the board that was elected last month could be sworn in on Jan. 10 and the budget for the merged district would be on the ballots in both communities on Town Meeting Day in March.

If it fails again, it would set the stage for series of special elections that Pandolfo said would likely begin in February and drag into May.

Anticipating that possibility, Pandolfo asked school boards in Barre and Barre Town to appoint one of their members to a committee that — if needed — will consider amendments to the articles of agreement that would otherwise be imposed by the state.

Last week the Barre Town board appointed School Director Chris Hull to represent them and on Monday the Barre board chose School Commissioner Chris Riddell.

Pandolfo said he would recommend the committee focus solely on the composition of the board that will eventually replace the transitional board if the re-vote is unsuccessful. With a 90-day clock for making voter-approved amendments already ticking, Pandolfo said tackling an issue where there is broad agreement makes sense. A four-member board including two representatives from each community who would be jointly elected by voters in both would be required without an amendment.

Pandolfo said a nine-member board, with four representatives directly elected by each community and one member elected at-large, was recommended by two earlier merger study committees and could be swiftly warned by the transitional board before the Feb. 28 deadline.

“Any other changes I think would just be asking for trouble given the timeline,” he said.

Assuming the merger fails again and the transitional board is seated, Pandolfo said Town Meeting Day elections would be exclusively for filling seats on existing school boards, which would continue to operate for several months before being disbanded. Another vote would be needed to elect a new board and yet another vote would be needed to approve a budget for the coming fiscal year. Pandolfo said the latter vote probably would occur in May if the re-vote fails.

Sonya Spaulding, chairwoman of the city’s school board, described the looming re-vote in Barre Town as a “last gasp” and noted the city was simply an interested spectator.

“The ball is 100 percent in their court,” she said of town voters.

“They’re determining their own fate at this point … and ours,” she said.

The merger was twice approved by wide margins in the city and Spaulding said she hoped it would finally pass in the town.

The Spaulding board expressed similar sentiments last week and while Barre Town school directors are divided and plan to weigh their options when they meet next Wednesday, Pandolfo said joining a lawsuit that has been promised on behalf of other districts that have been ordered to merge is one of them.

david.delcore @timesargus.com


Jpkuckens / Josh Kuckens / Staff Photo  

Up his alley

Skip Flanders, of Waterbury, a member of the Ten Pin Gang team, bowls a few practice frames at the Twin City Family Fun Center in Berlin before the start of Tuesday night’s league games.


Local
Draft budget reflect school spending spike

BARRE — Providing public education to students in the two-town, three-school “Barre Unified Union School District” would have a $42 million price tag based on the latest draft of a budget prepared by school administrators.

The budget reflects the combined cost of running elementary schools in Barre and Barre Town, as well as jointly owned Spaulding High School and the Spaulding-based Central Vermont Career Center.

Barring a judicial, or legislative reprieve that undoes the merger recently ordered by the state Board of Education those four budgets will be bundled into one next year and presented to voters in Barre and Barre Town.

The budget’s bottom line is still a moving target and so – for the moment – is when it will be on the ballot. A Town Meeting Day vote isn’t out of the question, but would require Barre Town voters to overturn their recent rejection of the merger the state board has since imposed.

If that doesn’t happen – and there’s a good chance it won’t – the budget vote could be scheduled in late-April, May or possibly June.

The $42 million figure represents the total projected cost of running three currently separate school systems and the regional career center. It doesn’t reflect nearly $7.4 million in projected revenue that would bring the merged district’s education spending to just under $35 million.

If you consolidated the current year’s budgets and deducted the revenue the total would be a little less than $32 million.

The difference based on the latest draft – roughly $2.8 million – amounts to an increase of about 8 percent.

What that means in terms of tax rates will also depend on the outcome of the petitioned re-vote on the merger in Barre Town next month.

Though some key figures needed to calculate the tax rates aren’t yet available administrators have made rough projections with and without the incentives available to districts that voluntarily merge.

Assuming no change in the number of equalized pupil or either community’s common level of appraisal the draft budget would require a 5-cent rate hike in Barre and add 6-cent increase in Barre Town if the merger isn’t approved.

Those rate increases would become rate reductions if Barre Town voters reverse last month’s rejection of the merger and leverage the last of the tax incentives available under Act 46.

Not counting the $150,000 transitional grant the new district would receive the incentives would shave 8 cents off the tax rates in both communities.

Based on the draft budget that would turn Barre’s 5-cent rate hike into a 3-cent reduction and Barre Town’s 6-cent increase into a 2-cent decrease.

The 8-cent savings is part of a package that would shave a total of 20 cents off the tax rates in the two communities over the next four years saving an estimated $5 million.

The draft budget reflects the projected cost of settling a teachers’ contract, an 11.8 percent increase in health insurance cost, a significant increase in maintenance money for both elementary schools, and new positions at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School and Spaulding High School.

david.delcore @timesargus.com


Local
Officials sign letter seeking 'robust' intersection fix

PLAINFIELD — Local officials have signed a letter urging the state to come up with a “robust” fix for the problem intersection at Route 2 and Main Street in Plainfield.

The Select Board signed the letter at its regular meeting Monday night. The letter is addressed to Joe Flynn, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation. Copies will also be sent to Gov. Phil Scott, legislators that represent Plainfield and other officials.

For several years local officials have been trying to get the state to fix the intersection. The issues with the spot, where Main Street dips down into the village at a bend in Route 2 marked by a single blinking yellow light, stem from poor sight lines, and the slope down onto Main Street can be especially hazardous in winter due to ice and snow. The intersection also sits in Plainfield’s village which is a designated historic district.

The letter was prompted by a recent meeting between local and state officials, after which those in Plainfield walked away thinking the state was considering a “quick fix” for the intersection. That solution entails removing a guardrail on the island along Route 2 and installing a slope that would run towards the village. The guardrail has been a problem because it causes sight issues for those trying to turn onto Route 2 from Main Street.

But officials in Plainfiled want a “robust” fix, saying just removing the guardrail does not address the other issues such as a blind curve when driving towards East Montpelier on Route 2 and the steep slope on Main Street. The board attached plans for such a fix to its letter, an alternative for the intersection created by the state in 2015.

That plan, labeled “Alternative 2B,” would remove the island completely and create a T-intersection for Route 2 and Main Street.

“We understand the challenges with a project of that scale, including the potential need to detour Route 2 traffic,” the letter stated. “But given the issues at the intersection, a much more robust solution such as that set out in ‘Alternative 2B’ (attached) would seem to be the only fix to a problem that is not only dangerous for the traveling public but also a hindrance to commerce and business in our village center.”

Local officials have reported the state wants to be able to keep traffic moving on Route 2 while the fix is taking place. That’s a difficult task because officials have pointed out there isn’t much room to work with between the road and the buildings that sit next to it.

If the state decides to take the robust approach, it may mean that part of Main Street would be shut down for three or four months.

“Plainfield has done a lot to be a good partner with the state and to demonstrate our own commitment to improving pedestrian and traffic flow. We installed sidewalks in the lower village and we are in the process of extending the sidewalk network across a bridge over the Winooski River to Route 2. The sidewalk will lead to a crosswalk on Route 2 to our vibrant Town Hall Opera House, home to an increasing number of performances and events. The increasing popularity of the Opera House makes work on the intersection even more necessary,” the letter stated.

Officials in Plainfield pointed out Route 2, which cuts across the state, has seen significant improvements elsewhere, such as the roundabout in Montpelier and the redesign in the center of Danville. Now they want the same attention paid to their section of Route 2.

“Our answer is that it is time for the state to work with Plainfield and do a complete job, not a temporary fix that will not address the well-documented issues at the intersection,” the letter stated.

eric.blaisdell @timesargus.com


Local
Legislators call to help end homelessness

MONTPELIER — An appeal has been made to legislators to fund programs to end homelessness in central Vermont by 2020.

At a public forum Tuesday, nearly half a dozen legislators attended the forum at Christ Episcopal Church, where they heard from representatives from a number of local agencies that deal with the homeless on a number of levels, including housing, employment, nutrition, social services and mental health care.

Hosted by Vermont Interfaith Action in Washington County, membership includes churches in the area, Good Samaritan Haven homeless shelter, Capstone Community Action, Washington County Mental Health, Downstreet Housing and Development, Pathways Vermont and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. The alliance is dedicated to working together to support the area’s most vulnerable individuals and families by providing shelter, food, clothing, housing, heating assistance, mental health and other social services — a combination of which can help avoid pitfalls that lead to greater crises such as homelessness, the separation of families, drug and alcohol addiction, crime and prison time, and associated costs for the state and communities.

The VIA presented a report on its work over the last 2½ years, and representatives of member organizations urged legislators to continue to fund homeless shelter programs to help individuals and families connect to agencies that could provide access to other services.

This year, the Legislature appropriated $300,000 to fund the Good Samaritan Haven in Barre with 30 beds and overflow shelters at the Hedding United Methodist Church in Barre with 14 beds and the Bethany Church in Montpelier with 20 beds. An additional $100,000 from the Legislature this year will be used to open a new 12-bed shelter in Hyde Park. Advocates for the funding versus hotel vouchers said it was a more cost-effective way to connect the homeless with other services.

“As a result, we can celebrate that the number of state-funded hotel nights dropped by 38 percent for the last year in Washington County,” the report said.

The VIA report said the first spot-count of the homeless on a winter night in 2015 found there were 123 individuals in 90 households who were homeless. A recent count this winter showed an increase, with 136 individuals in 108 households who were homeless.

While acknowledging progress in recent years to more effectively shelter the homeless, the report said there were fundamental problems with efforts to do better.

Specific problems included:

— A shortage of clean, safe and affordable housing. The report noted that while more than 100 new units of housing will open in the next two years it would not be enough the address the problem;

— A large and widening gap between the average wage earned by renters and the market cost of housing. A person working full-time at the minimum wage of $10.50 an hour would earn $21,840 a year. The “affordable rent” for that income level — at 30 percent of income — is $546 per month. But the market-rate rent for a one-bedroom home in Washington County is $808 a month — to afford that, a person would have to earn $15.54 an hour. The problem is compounded by a rental vacancy rate of just 1 percent in Washington County, the report said.

— Another obstacle to ending homelessness is a lack of human services to prevent people losing their homes in the first place or to support them when they do find housing. Services identified include assisting people with employment searches, vocational training, maintaining alcohol and drug addiction recovery programs, coaching in budgeting and building communication skills. The report said 80 percent of people housed after chronic homelessness remain housed if they receive ongoing human services’ support.

The report concluded that steps need to be taken to prevent homelessness in the first place by offering early intervention in problems related to housing, such as grants to pay rent to avoid eviction and human services to deal with problems that lead to homelessness. “An ounce of prevention truly can avoid a pound of cure,” the report said.

Legislators were asked what they could do to help end homelessness.

Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, who also serves on the Montpelier Housing Task Force said the homeless problem could be solved, based on the numbers of homeless in the report.

“It’s a small number in the scheme of things and if we just focus our efforts, we can do it,” Hooper said. “You’ve given me some great ideas I plan on taking back (to the Legislature), and working together, we can do this.”

Sen. Anthony Pollina, D-Washington County, said he was interested in developing new models of housing, such as Downstreet Housing’s tiny houses program on Brook Street in Barre in combination with an adjacent apartment building.

Rep. Rob LaClair, R-Barre Town, said he was a landlord with rental properties who has had problems with having to evict problem tenants, but said he would be willing to work with other agencies to avoid problems and reduce the financial risks he faces.

Rep. Kimberly Jessop, D-East Montpelier and Middlesex, said she supported calls for a $15 minimum wage, family leave, and efforts to keep families together.

Speaking afterwards, Pollina noted that instead of the Legislature addressing the problem as a housing problem or an economic justice issue, it had fallen to the interfaith community to meet the needs of the homeless.

“They’re willing to make the commitment that policy makers aren’t willing to make,” Pollina added.

stephen.mills @timesargus.com


Rail

“Where is the sense or sensibility? Where is the leadership? Or even the pragmatists who can point to this kind of behavior and say, ‘This is not how compromise works!’ By its very definition, compromise means neither side gets everything they want. Unless, of course, you are a bully.”

Editorial, A4

In the news

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A new farm bill ensures that maple syrup and honey producers won’t have to label their pure products as containing added sugars. A3


BTA hotspot

Wednesdays

Mah Jong

Games and conversation. Every Wednesday. 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Barre Area Senior Center, 131 South Main St. #4, Barre, bascdirector@yahoo.com, 479-9512.