BARRE — The looming launch of the Barre Unified Union School District should be a pleasantly peaceful transition for nearly 400 unionized instructional staff and the school board that will soon employ them.
Superintendent John Pandolfo said tentative settlements were recently reached in contract talks with 280 unionized teachers and 110 paraeducators employed at elementary schools in Barre and Barre Town, Spaulding High School and the Spaulding-based central Vermont career center.
Pandolfo said the unions have done their part – ratifying the one-year agreement on May 29 and the board of the merged district is expected to follow suit when it meet next Thursday.
Until then, Pandolfo is keeping details of the settlements under wraps.
During meetings on back-to-back nights this week Pandolfo privately briefed school directors from Barre Town and Spaulding High School on the proposed contract and he will do the same during Monday’s meeting of the Barre City School Board.
None of those boards will be asked to ratify the proposed contracts because all three will cede operational authority of their currently autonomous districts to the new merged board on July 1. That latter board will have the final say capping a process that started in January and is comfortably on track to conclude before the current contracts expire on June 30.
Though the board didn’t exist when negotiations began, four of its nine recently elected members participated in the final bargaining sessions.
Pandolfo said two of them – Sonya Spaulding and Tim Boltin – served on the initial three-member negotiating team that included Barre Town School Director Jay Paterson. Boltin represents Barre on the Spaulding board and Spaulding is chairwoman of the Barre City School Board. Both were elected to the unified board in April and were joined on the negotiating team by its chairman Paul Malone and Gina Akley, while Paterson stepped aside. Both Malone and Akley, live in Barre Town.
According to Pandolfo the settlements were concurrently negotiated with teachers and paraeducators over several sessions and reflect a number of what he characterized as “relatively minor changes,” unspecified new money for wages and a decision to mostly steer clear of health insurance.
Pandolfo said details of the contracts would be made public after it has been ratified by the board.
The duration was never a mystery. State law that dictates a shift to new statewide health insurance plan for educators on July 1, 2020 and required any newly bargained contracts to expire at that time.
In Barre that required negotiating a pair of one-year contracts to replace the two that were expiring.
Pandolfo said he expected the contracts would be easily ratified by the board.
“We left the final meeting with the board’s negotiators satisfied with the outcome and excited to have it done before the contracts expire and the merger begins,” he said. “It’s one less thing to worry about.”
Wrapping up negotiations ahead of schedule is a welcome change in Barre.
Teachers are coming off a two-year contract that wasn’t ratified until seven months after the earlier agreement expired. Those negotiations spanned 15 months and included a failed attempt at fact-finding sandwiched in between two marathon mediation sessions.
Paraeducators have now ratified their third straight one-year contract, though this one should seamlessly replace current agreement. That wasn’t the case last year when the paraeducators’ contract expired nearly two months before a successor agreement was ratified.
While the Barre, Barre Town and Spaulding districts are all merging into one, Pandolfo said the unions are also consolidating.
The Barre Education Association has historically covered teachers and paraeducators in the Barre and Spaulding districts, while the Barre Town Education Association’s members include teachers at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School and there is a separate bargaining unit for Barre Town paraprofessionals.
Pandolfo said the new contracts will have two signatories – the Barre Unified Union School District and the Barre Educators Association.
MONTPELIER — The attorney for residents who have appealed permits for a public parking garage in the Capital City continues to challenge efforts to remedy mistakes that were made by city officials.
In a letter to city officials on Thursday, attorney James Dumont again said the City Council cannot and would fail to remedy errors in the warning and ballot article asking voters to approve a $10.5 million bond in the November elections.
Dumont also raised other issues about whether the city ignored its own master plan recommendations when it proposed the garage project, failed to obtain necessary easements that made the project application incomplete, and misled residents about tax implications of the project.
Dumont represent the Friends of Montpelier, a group of 13 residents who have appealed permits issued by the Development Review Board for a hotel and public parking garage on 2.8 acres of land behind the Capitol Plaza Hotel off State Street. The appellants have not appealed a permit for the hotel, but they have appealed permits to subdivide the land and to build the garage, which would be owned and operated by the city. The appellant group has also appealed an Act 250 permit for the garage project. Both appeals will be heard by the Environmental Court. A status conference with the court is scheduled for Monday.
Dumont’s June 6 letter reiterates a similar letter to the City Council last month that said the city could not rectify an error in the warning and ballot article for the bond vote in November. Both simply asked voters to approve $9.2 million to build the garage and $1.3 million for infrastructure improvements, such as sidewalks, sewer and water services, streetscapes and lighting, and contaminated soil remediation — totaling the $10.5 million bond request voters approved.
But because the project falls within the city’s newly created Tax Incremental Finance district, the warning and ballot article were required to have a detailed list of “related costs” in the bond which included $600,000 for architectural design and engineering, and $50,000 for financial consultants — a total of $650,000.
It was an oversight the city wanted to remedy with a “validation resolution” it proposed at its May 22 City Council meeting.
But Dumont, in his first letter to the council about the validation resolution and during an appearance at the May 22 meeting, said state statute prohibited the use of the validation resolution to correct errors in a warning and ballot article for a TIF district project. The only way to correct the error would be to warn the bond request with the related costs included in the ballot article and ask residents to vote again, he said.
The council decided to table a vote on resolution validation until it consulted with attorneys.
In his June 6 letter, Dumont also raised other issues with the permitting process for the garage project:
— The project is inconsistent with the Montpelier Master Plan: Dumont said the master plan recommended the city invest in alternatives to parking structures – such as public transportation networks, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and satellite parking lots – to reduce traffic congestion, air pollution and pedestrian safety hazards;
— The DRB issued permits without easement agreements for public access to the garage project – and has still to negotiate and approve them, meaning that the application is incomplete and should not have received a permit;
— The city failed to notify the City Council and residents of the 2018 state Joint Fiscal Office report that said TIF district projects significantly under-performed in terms of property tax revenue generated, potentially exposing Montpelier taxpayers to higher taxes to repay the bond;
— Residents were misled about whether only taxes from the new hotel would be used to repay the bond when in fact all new incremental tax revenue generated within the TIF district must be used to repay the debt, contrary to what City Manager Fraser told residents and the City Council.
Asked to respond, Fraser said in an email, “This matter will be discussed at next week’s City Council meeting with our attorney. Mr. Dumont’s letter is a restatement of issues previously raised with the city.”
The City Council meets Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.
BARRE TOWN — Local officials have asked the Traffic Safety Advisory Committee to look into a potential sidewalk on Hill Street after a resident asked for one on his property.
Josh Howard owns a home between Trow Hill Grocery and a playground. In an interview last week, Howard said the store has an ice cream stand so kids are constantly walking back and forth between the store and the playground. He said he reached out to the town to see if it would be able to build a sidewalk on his property and was told the town didn’t want to build a sidewalk there because they didn’t want people to get the idea to call the town requesting sidewalks to be installed.
Assistant Town Manager Elaine Wang said last week the town isn’t against building a sidewalk there, but it’s not a priority right now because the town is focusing on other projects. Wang said sidewalks are expensive to build and maintain, adding that just because a resident thinks a sidewalk should be installed on a certain road, that doesn’t mean the project would make sense for the town. She said the Select Board would have to sign off on the project, and it would need to go through the budget process.
Howard’s plea got the attention of the board who discussed the project at its regular meeting Tuesday.
Board member Norma Malone asked if the sidewalk project was ever looked at by the town’s traffic safety committee or if it should be. Town Manager Carl Rogers said the board could refer the matter to the committee to see what it thinks.
Board member Paul White had been on that committee for 17 years and he couldn’t recall it dealing with pedestrian issues outside of speed limit requests, pavement markings and signage.
“I don’t remember specifically getting a request for a sidewalk,” White said.
White said if the committee does recommend a sidewalk there then there are other issues the town would have to deal with to install it such as right-of-way issues and engineering.
Rogers said when sidewalks have been installed in the town in the past they were grant funded. He said in terms of construction the sidewalk wouldn’t be “a great deal” because it would only go across one person’s property.
“The engineering that (White) referred to would be significant because there is a slope from the shoulder of the road down into that person’s parking area. And then closer to the store’s parking area there are utility poles that would be in the way,” Rogers said.
Malone said she travels that stretch of Hill Street frequently and she often sees pedestrians walking in the road there. She said since the playground has been renovated she’s seen groups of kids walking between the park and the store.
White agreed, but he noted there is a sidewalk on the other side of the store on Hill Street and it’s on the other side of the road so to connect that sidewalk with this proposed one the town would have to install a crosswalk. He said he was fine with referring the project to the traffic committee but the town will have to be prepared for whatever recommendation it makes.
“Because I don’t know why they wouldn’t recommend, strictly from a safety standpoint, I don’t know why they wouldn’t recommend a sidewalk there,” he said.
The board then decided to refer the project to the committee.
Vermont’s hiking and biking trails may be wet, but they are mostly serviceable, according to the people who maintain them.
An unusually wet spring has seen day after day of rain, and the resulting conditions are believed to have contributed to a landslide that closed a popular hiking trail on Mount Mansfield earlier this week.
“The normal opening of hiking season is Memorial Day Weekend,” said Mike Debonis, executive director of the Green Mountain Club. “Last weekend we definitely asked people to stay away from the higher elevations, 3,000 to 3,500 feet. ... It’s still cold up top and other places are still muddy. Things will dry out as the days get longer and we get more solar heating.”
Debonis said the lower elevations were OK, and that the Green Mountain Club’s trail maintenance crews have been out working.
“Things are drying out, but it’s definitely a little later than it normally is,” he said. “The top of Mount Mansfield, the ridgeline, is snow-free. Once you get into the trees ... you’re going to find snow.”
Debonis urged hikers headed for high elevations to be prepared for winter conditions.
“Even if it’s sunny in the valley, you get up to the top of Killington, it’s going to be cold,” he said.
Local trail networks reported differing conditions.
Peter Kopsco, president of the Millstone Trails Association, said that group’s 1,500-acre network in Websterville opened but didn’t stay open.
“We got a bunch of rain last night and haven’t opened them today,” he said Thursday. “It has been a wet spring.”
Kopsco said he wasn’t sure how many days they had closed the trails, but that it had been several. He said the decision to close them is largely subjective.
“We use our judgement,” he said. “If it looks like it’s going to be pouring rain, sometimes we close in advance. ... If we get a half-day of rain, we’ll usually close the trails and they’ll be closed until the next day.”
Down in Rutland, Pine Hill Partnership Shelly Lutz said the hiking and cycling trails in Pine Hill Park were wet but functional.
“Once the leaves started to pop out on the trees, that helped dry things up even though it was constantly raining,” she said. “It’s amazing how much water those trees suck up when the leaves pop out. Today it was damp, Was it muddy? No.”
Lutz said Pine Hill Park doesn’t usually have moisture problems.
“We’re basically rock,” she said. “We don’t have any soil. We drain pretty well.”
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