BARRE — History was made in the near-empty cafeteria at Spaulding High School on Thursday night as the first forced merger under Act 46 lurched toward its July 1 launch.
The “Barre Unified Union School District” is now official, though Tom Koch, who was elected moderator as the new district’s first piece of business, suggested its tongue-twisting name should be changed.
Koch swore in a first-of-its-kind “transitional board” that will cease to exist on April 9 when a new board is expected to be elected.
The size of that board and how its seats should be filled will be decided by voters in Barre and Barre Town at a special election on Feb. 19. The six-member transitional board also approved the warning for that special election Thursday.
Apart from board members and Town Clerk Donna Kelty, the only voter who attended the organizational meeting of the two-town, three-school district was Barre Town resident Dottye Ricks.
Ricks has long lobbied against a merger that Barre Town voters rejected three times in the last two years. Though they finally approved it, 952-534, during a Tuesday re-vote that was triggered by a petition Ricks submitted, the favorable result fell short of the statutory requirement for reversing the earlier vote.
Based on the challenged results, at least 1,404 town voters — two-thirds of the 2,106 who voted “no” in November — needed to vote “yes,” which did not happen, setting the stage for one of several forced mergers recently ordered by the state Board of Education under Act 46.
Though they have filed one of two lawsuits challenging Act 46, the Stowe and Elmore-Morristown school districts have scheduled an organizational meeting for their merged district on Monday.
School districts in eight other supervisory unions where mergers were ordered have received at least a brief reprieve thanks to an agreement between lawyers in the lawsuit that was filed on their behalf. Organizational meetings in those districts have been postponed until next month — after a hearing on a motion requesting an injunction blocking the mergers until the case is resolved.
None of that affects the merger ordered in a supervisory union that includes currently autonomous elementary school districts in Barre and Barre Town and jointly owned Spaulding High School.
Barre voters have twice approved the merger that was recently imposed. The Spaulding High School board, which is composed of city and town residents, has publicly supported it, and while school directors in Barre Town were divided, they opted not to join the lawsuit.
All three of those boards continue to exist and each has two delegates on the new board, which got a peak at a $33 million draft budget that reflects a 7-cent tax increase in both communities. The budget would cover the combined cost of operating centralized elementary schools in Barre and Barre Town and Spaulding.
The earliest that budget will be voted on is May 14, and Superintendent John Pandolfo said that will require fast action by a board that isn’t expected to be elected until April 9 and must warn the budget vote at least 30 days in advance.
Had Tuesday’s re-vote been successful, the calendar would look very different. The nine-member board elected last November would have been sworn in Thursday, there would be no need to amend articles of agreement at a special election in February and a vote on a combined budget for the merged district could have been scheduled on Town Meeting Day.
Tax incentives available to districts that voluntarily merged would have erased the 7-cent rate hike Pandolfo is now projecting and allowed for a 1-cent reduction in both communities.
In addition to Koch being elected moderator, Kelty was elected clerk and City Clerk Carol Dawes was elected to serve as treasurer. All three currently perform those roles for the Spaulding district.
Though this year’s budget vote will be delayed, those in attendance agreed future budgets will be adopted by Australian ballot on Town Meeting Day, but specified the votes from both communities will not be commingled before they are counted.
Ricks voted against motions allowing the new district to borrow in anticipation of state revenue allowing it to provide residents with a mailed notice that copies of the annual report and the proposed budget were available instead of incurring the cost of distributing them.
How much to pay members of the yet-to-be-elected board, and how that decision should be made, was the most time-consuming question.
Barre pays its school board members $1,500 a year and members of the Barre Town board receive a $2,000 stipend. Both are annually approved by Australian ballot. Members of the Spaulding board are paid $1,500, while the chairman receives $2,000. Those salaries are set at an open meeting much like the one held on Thursday.
Board members settled on stipends of $2,500 for board members and $4,000 for the chairman.
The organizational meeting was preceded by a public hearing on proposed amendments to articles of agreement that would otherwise be imposed by the state and followed by the first meeting of the transitional board.
Following the hearing, a two-member committee agreed to propose two substantive changes to the articles.
One of the changes would provide for a nine-member board with four members directly elected by voters in each community and a ninth member elected at large. That configuration was part of both earlier merger proposals and is considered more attractive than alternatives that would be imposed.
Under the default articles of agreement, the new district would be run by a four-member board with two representatives from each community who are elected by the combined vote of both.
Changing that will require district-wide approval of the amendment.
A second change essentially mirrors previously proposed language and would require voters in the two-town district to approve restructuring the elementary schools or closing any school building. The state’s language would prevent those types of changes for two years, but then leave it up to the board.
Pandolfo said that article must be separately approved by voters in Barre and Barre Town.
The transitional board later approved the warning for the Feb. 19 special election after rejecting Ricks’ suggestion they request an extension from the state Board of Education that would allow that vote to occur on Town Meeting Day.
Ricks proposed the brief extension as part of a broader plan to delay electing a new school board until mid-May and voting on a school budget until mid-June.
Pandolfo said that would be problematic and noted the extension proposed by Ricks was at odds with deadlines written into Act 46.
“It wouldn’t be the state board that would have the authority to say: ‘You don’t have to follow the law,” he said. “That would take a level of court action.”
Though Ricks urged the board to consider that option, it received no support.
“I have zero interest in that. Absolutely zero,” said Sonya Spaulding, who serves as chairwoman of the Barre City School Board and is one of its two delegates to the transitional board.
Spaulding School Director Tim Boltin agreed.
“There’s been plenty of time wasted on this,” he said. “No.”
Those applying, or in the process of re-applying, for food stamp benefits have an important deadline to keep in mind for next week because of the ongoing government shutdown.
By the end of the day on Tuesday, those applying for 3SquaresVT benefits, or who are in the process of renewing those benefits, need to contact the Department for Children and Families, said Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont. Those who don’t will not receive their benefits for February.
Horton said those who need to complete an interview for their application should call 1-877-403-7668 immediately. Those who are in the process of applying, being re-certified, who need to complete an interim report or who’ve had documents requested of them by DCF need to send those papers in right away. Those with questions should call the DCF Benefits Service Center at 1-800-479-6151.
Hunger Free Vermont does outreach and education for 3SquaresVT on DCF’s behalf, said Horton. The group will post information related to food benefits and the shutdown on its website, www.hungerfreevt.org/government-shutdown.
The phone lines at DCF are expected to be busy, as there are about 70,000 in Vermont who use 3SquaresVT, Horton said. She advised people placed on hold to remain on the line until they’re helped.
Monica Taylor, development director for Hunger Free Vermont, said that as of August 2018, there were 3,320 Washington County households on the program, reflecting 5,606 people for a total allotment of $728,025.
Taylor said there were 5,037 households in Rutland County receiving 3SquaresVT benefits in August. That’s 8,509 people, with a total allotment of $1,071,798.
“We are definitely now beginning to see the cost of the shutdown on the hunger programs,” Horton said.
The shutdown entered its 21st day Friday. It began when President Donald Trump declined to sign a spending agreement passed by Congress because it didn’t contain funds for a wall along the southern border.
3SquaresVT is the state-level name for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which flows from the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA). According to a statement from Sean Brown, DCF deputy commissioner, the USDA has authorized SNAP benefits for February to be issued early, on Jan. 20.
Brown told recipients to “budget and plan accordingly.”
According to Horton, the USDA has money for February’s 3SquaresVT benefits, but not for the following month, should the shutdown persists.
“This is an unprecedented situation,” she said Friday. “If this shutdown continues, we will be facing a hunger crisis all over this country.”
News of the Tuesday deadline for certain 3SquaresVT recipients only came Thursday, Horton said, leaving her agency and others working fast to spread the word. She believes most people will do what they need to in order to get their February benefits, but inevitably there will be some who don’t.
Horton said 3SquaresVT benefits won’t cover a person for a month, and many receiving them make use of food pantries, food shelves and food banks.
John Sayles, chief executive officer of the Vermont Foodbank, which helps supply shelves, pantries and meal sites with food, said he also expects most people who need to meet the Tuesday deadline will do so. If the shutdown extends to where regular 3SquaresVT benefits are threatened, then the Foodbank will work something out with its partners.
“There’s only so much we can do,” he said Friday.
The Vermont Foodbank doesn’t sit on large stockpiles of food, he said. A little less than one-third of the Foodbank’s stock comes from the USDA.
Tom Donahue, CEO of BROC-Community Action in Southwestern Vermont, which runs a food pantry, said many of the people it helps with food are also on 3SquaresVT, as neither on their own will see a person through a month.
He said BROC will prepare for the worst, and come February will ramp up its efforts to secure food donations. He said numerous local businesses donate to BROC, including large supermarkets and small independent businesses.
BROC screens people who come to it to see whether they qualify for 3SquaresVT benefits. Of the 4,072 people it screened last year, only 1,005 weren’t using 3SquaresVT. He said this issue may affect thousands of people.
Friday was also the first day many federal workers missed their scheduled paychecks.
U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said Friday he’s asking Vermont federal employees and contractors who need help to contact his office at 802-652-2450 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
“My highest priority is reopening federal government and getting federal employees and contractors back to work for the American people,” said Welch in a statement. “In the meantime, my office is ready to assist, where possible, Vermonters affected by this unnecessary shutdown.”
For thousands of years, industrial hemp has been farmed and used as a fibrous substitute for everything from bricks to blouses, but has suffered due to association with its close cousin, marijuana.
But the Green Mountain State is about to get greener. Because of the passage of the Agriculture Improvement Act on Dec. 20, industrial hemp was freed of its long-standing reputation and legalized federally, making hemp-derived products subject to FDA regulation and opening new avenues of commerce, said Tim Fair, founding partner at Vermont Cannabis Solutions law firm in Burlington.
“It says any cannabis plant less than 0.3-percent THC is considered hemp and therefore not subject to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970,” Fair said. “But states can choose to pass more restrictive laws, just like alcohol. It’s still a state’s right to impose stricter regulation.”
Though hemp has been legal to grow and produce in Vermont since legislators and Gov. Peter Shumlin passed Act 84 in 2013, hemp-derived products such as CBD oil have continued to suffer a bad reputation, despite the fact that they don’t get people high.
“A lot of things are going to change now that it’s federally become legal as of January,” said St. Albans producer Michele Waters, owner and operator at VT Grow Shop, Green Mountain Genetics and Green Mountain Hemp Co., which is in the process of opening a second location on Pearl Street in Burlington. “I hope to see the banks let up and get on board.”
“There’s a lot of facets to this,” Fair said. “There are people who believe this is the death knell for the industry. The truth is, we’re somewhere in the middle.”
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, backed the previous legalization of hemp, saying he’d spoken to a number of people who were using it to make rope and other products, including Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, who farms hemp in the Northeast Kingdom, and was inspired by the economic and agricultural possibilities of the crop.
“Given the changes in federal law and given the number of people who use it, I expect some regulation to be coming,” Sears said.
Waters said the CBD compound helps with blood sugar, blood pressure and the immune system, blocks hormones that create inflammation, helps with anxiety and works directly with the pain receptors.
And now that the FDA is in charge, people will know just how much to take.
“It’s important to have standardized dosages and labels,” Fair said. “None of that is regulated on a federal level. This will serve the consumer better. Maybe a little more expensive and time-consuming for manufacturers, but it will serve consumers.”
Despite the alleged health benefits of the compound, the association with cannabis made acquiring loans from banks, credit card processors and insurance for producers difficult, as many financial institutions didn’t want to risk their reputations by lending to producers, Waters said.
“The risk inherent on any financial institution, was that (it) could be (mis)construed by the Department of Treasury,” Fair said. “Because of the uncertainty, a lot of the financial world didn’t want to risk the federal insurance. ... The FDIC could revoke their charter.”
Producers also found themselves unable to collect standard business deductions, thanks to IRS code 280 E, which applies to any manufacturer of Schedule I or II drugs.
“Now, hemp is no longer subject to that,” Fair said. “We will soon be able to see hemp and CBD products cross state lines with no problem at all.”
“We’re hoping the laws will free up, and this can get more into the public’s hands without the stigmas that people will attach to the cannabis,” Waters said. “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened.”
“A good 50 percent of my business has been CBD sales right from the start,” said Lauren Andrews, RN, clinical aromatherapist and owner of AroMed aroma therapy and CBD shop in Montpelier and Berlin. “Consumers will be able to buy with a lot more confidence.”
Andrews said she acquires only locally-grown, organic hemp for her CBD products from local farmers, the real beneficiaries of the new legislation.
“Farmers will now be able to buy crop insurance, and get loans for equipment that they couldn’t before,” Andrews said.
But not everyone is excited about legalization of hemp. Producers were, up to this point, cannabis cowboys, and many fear regulations will kill small operations by coming in and imposing requirements on their production, Fair said.
“The industry has grown in a largely unregulated market,” Fair said. “There was no oversight, no regulatory framework. Now that hemp has become an agricultural commodity, oversight of hemp falls under the USDA. Once you extract CBD and put it into a product, (it) falls under the FDA under the Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Act.”
Hemp-derived products will henceforth be sorted into three different categories: medical, topical and not for human consumption, which includes products like dog treats, Fair said.
Fair said, the market is already so large and accepted by society as a whole that the FDA won’t be setting unreachable requirements and shutting producers down unless the production facility poses legitimate health risks.
“Our sales are definitely up because of CBD products,” said Tracey Orvis, wellness manager at the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op. “Between 25- and 35-percent up in the vitamin department, all because of CBD.”
The co-op first started selling CBD products in 2017, and now carries around 11 brands of capsules, tinctures, gummies and topical salves by Prism Hemp Works, Champlain Valley Organics and Elmore Mountain Therapeutics, among other local producers. Orvis said she gets calls every day regarding the products, whether they’re from producers hoping to sell to the co-op, or consumers looking for it.
Now, even pre-rolled CBD cigarettes are beginning to hit the market, Fair said.
Rather than be afraid of regulations, Fair said producers and consumers will see tighter restrictions on poor-quality and imitation versions of CBD, such as the industrial hemp grown in China that tests high for pesticides and heavy metals.
“I want to help as many people and pets as possible,” Waters said. “CBD helps to regulate all the systems and functions in the body. It wants to create a homeostasis.”
“There are so many crazy products,” Orvis said. “I took it once, and it helped me sleep ... it helps with pain management. I have a lot of family members who I’ve given it to, who have said it helps a lot.”
The Legislature’s largest freshman class in recent memory has brought with it numerous changes in committee leadership.
Seven standing house committees got new leaders as the session opened this week. Rep. Kathryn Webb, D-Shelburne, is the new chairwoman of the House Education Committee and was the only newly minted leader to respond to a media inquiry Friday.
“We have a very new committee,” she said. “More than half the members have not been on the committee, so we’re currently dealing with the background information.”
Other House committees with new leadership include Commerce and Economic Development (Rep. Michael Marcotte, R-Coventry); Energy and Technology (Rep. Timothy Briglin, D-Thetford); General, Housing and Military Affairs (Rep. Thomas Stevens, D-Waterbury); Government Operations (Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, D-Bradford); Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife (Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury) and Transportation (Rep. Curtis McCormack, D-Burlington).
“There was an effort to balance committees based on demographics, district, party, gender,” Webb said. “That is more complicated than seating at a wedding.”
The Senate saw less turnover, so only two Senate committees have new leadership. Sen. Virginia Lyons, D-Chittenden, has taken over Health and Welfare while Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, is now chairman of Institutions.
One of the first bills the House Education Committee will take up, Webb said, will concern ethnic and racial issues in schools.
“It’s basically following from a report that indicated education is one of the areas where racial discrimination exists,” she said. “It’s addressing a cultural change that Vermont needs to make.”
The bill won’t address that change so much as begin to grapple with how to address it — it concerns creating a study committee that would report back to the Legislature.
Webb said she knows there is a lot of interest in potential changes to Act 46, and that the Legislature is discussing what actions are appropriate while legal challenges are still pending against the state’s school district consolidation law. She said there are questions to be answered about whether the Agency of Education has the staffing level it needs and that a bill on universal pre-K is expected.
“We have three reports coming,” she said regarding the latter issue. “There may be some technical tweaks this year, but we probably won’t really get into it until next year.”
Trash haulers and waste-management districts forge ahead with recycling efforts despite some market challenges. B3
The Vermont Burlesque Festival is bringing its “Granite City Showcase” to the Barre Opera House. D1