Fourteen percent of Vermonters on food assistance could find themselves booted off by proposed changes to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The Trump administration has proposed the changes, and a report by Mathematica and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released this week found it would mean an end to food assistance for 3.6 million people nationwide, with individual states seeing varying impact. Vermont’s 14% put it well ahead of the national average of about 9%. Those involved in feeding impoverished Vermonters on the local level decried the proposal Thursday.
In Barre, Capstone Community Action Executive Director Sue Minter said the SNAP proposal was one in a series from the Trump Administration aimed at reducing people’s access to social services.
“They’re doing it in a way that’s not putting a program on a chopping block, but very much behind the scenes,” she said. “This is a very significant proposal and what we’re doing now is making sure we comment and making sure our voices are known.”
Public comments on the proposal are being taken at federalregister.gov.
“Whatever cuts the federal government puts in place, those will be shouldered by our Legislature and our philanthropic efforts,” Minter said. “Our mission is to serve the needs. ... Our lines are not getting shorter. The idea that the war on poverty is won is ridiculous. Last year, the number of people needing assistance just to stay warm in the winter increased by 36%.”
In Rutland, BROC works under contract for the state to sign people up for the food assistance program and help them renew their memberships.
“Our goal is to have 100 people a year that we do out of our shop,” Executive Director Tom Donahue said. “We also screen everyone coming through our food shelf, which is thousands, to make sure they receive that assistance.”
Donahue said neither the local food shelves nor the federal program are enough to meet the need on their own.
“Combined, it’s more helpful,” he said. “Cutting back on (SNAP) would be difficult for people in Vermont and across the nation. It seems unusual in a time when we’re trying to strengthen the country in many different ways, to cut back on feeding Americans. ... Reducing access is undermining the fabric of our neighborhoods.”
Donahue said how much the program provides varies significantly based on household size, income and expenses, but the average monthly benefit per household is $235 a month.
“Not (a lot) if you’re eating healthy,” he said. “The problem is, to stretch those dollars, people are eating a lot of really bad food. ... Then you end up with other problems.
MONTPELIER — Parents of students at Main Street Middle School in the Capital City are raising concerns about a request to raise money to pay for out-of-school activities.
Parents wrote concerns on social media and voiced them at a meeting of the Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools Board this week.
They questioned why students were being pressured to help raise money for field trips and other activities, and wondered whether children would be penalized — as in not participate — if families did not help raise funds.
The issue came to a head Tuesday when students were informed at a school assembly that they would be asked to join in the new fundraising promotion. Some parents took exception to the request and took to the Friends of Montpelier School Facebook page to vent concerns.
But school officials and members of the MSMS Parents Group said the initiative was simply a new model for raising funds for out-of-school activities, as in previous years.
The new fundraising model uses a reusable plastic card with the names and logos of supporting businesses that offer discounts to customers.
The card is sold for $20, of which $10 goes back to the school. If the school sells more than 500 cards, the return to the school increases to $12 per card.
Students also win prizes for the number of cards sold.
“Students were shown the fundraiser (Tuesday), came home with the cards, and some parents were not pleased with that process,” said Superintendent Libby Bonesteel on Thursday.
“Are other parents as furious as I am about the fundraising assembly that was held at MSMS (Tuesday)?” wrote parent Jill Guest Remick on social media. “As a child who grew up in a poorer part of the state, I am particularly sensitive to the pressure this puts on children of lower socio-economic status. I also think it is a disgusting message of consumerism that has no place during the school day.”
Kelly Lynch added: “As an advocate for kids who live in poverty, these fundraisers are shaming. I know what you’re going to say... but we have funds for these kids! Yes, but the families are shamed into having to ask for more money. Public school is called public because it is supposed to be free. Why do we have to PAY? It isn’t equitable.”
But Lynnea Timpone, president of the MSMS Parents Group, said the group had simply signed up a new vendor to raise funds for the school after previous efforts using a coupon book had failed badly and cost the group $1,000 in printing for books that were not sold.
Instead, the parents’ group has forged an alliance with Adrenaline Fundraising, a national, for-profit based in Washington. The MSMS parents’ group is working with a local representative based in Williston.
According to Timpone and Bonesteel, there are many Vermont schools that have had success with the vendor, including local schools like U-32 Middle and High School and Spaulding High School in Barre.
Bonesteel also acknowledged that the Adrenaline Fundraising model was popular in other schools in Vermont.
“Quite honestly, it’s the fundraising mechanism that schools across Vermont do use,” Bonesteel said, adding that it is common for all four schools in the district to raise funds for out-of-school activities.
But in an effort to address the concerns of parents, she said the School Board Policy Committee would look into it and return with recommendations on fundraising district-wide.
Timpone took to social media this week to explain how the new fundraising model worked. Timpone noted that the parents’ group had held many meetings in recent months but few parents had attended.
“What I preached over and over again is, ‘Please we would have love to have your input,’ we talked about it for three months at parents’ group meetings which are noticed by the school, but nobody ever shows up,” Timpone said. “We would love more opinions and energy.”
Both Timpone and Bonesteel stressed that no student would be excluded from field trips or other extra-curricular activities if they did not raise funds, and there was no pressure to do so.
Timpone said she had done much of the work herself to organize the fundraising effort before forming the MSMS Parents Group Committee with three other members to help coordinate activities.
Last year, the parents’ group raised more than $80,000 that funded two long-distance trips to Montreal and Boston, as well as a teacher appreciation breakfast, the eighth grade graduation dance, photo booths at school dances and graduations, among other offerings.
MSMS Parents Group meetings are held in the MSMS library on the first Tuesday of the month at 5:30 p.m.
BARRE — A Barre man has admitted to selling heroin that led to a fatal overdose.
Anthony Milo, 32, pleaded guilty Wednesday to felony counts of selling a regulated drug with death resulting, heroin sale and cocaine sale. Milo was sentenced to eight to 18 years to serve, all suspended except for 4½ years. He’s been held at Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury on $2,500 bail since his arraignment in June 2018.
The state agreed to dismiss a second felony count of selling cocaine, a felony count of selling a narcotic and misdemeanor counts of possessing cocaine, per the plea agreement.
Detective James Pontbriand, of the Barre City police, said in his affidavit an untimely death was reported in May 2018 at Highgate Apartments in Barre. Pontbriand said he learned 32-year-old Jesse Eklund was visiting a friend after work. When Eklund had gone upstairs to take a shower but hadn’t returned for an hour, a witness told police they went to check on him and found him face down on the floor with his body blocking the door. The witness then called 911.
Emergency responders pronounced Eklund dead at the scene. Pontbriand said he found drug paraphernalia at the scene as well as several empty baggies that are typically used to store heroin. He said the bags had a Playboy bunny stamped on them. Pontbriand said a medical examiner determined Eklund had died from a heroin overdose.
Pontbriand said he learned from other witnesses that Eklund had visited Milo earlier that day and the pair had discussed a drug deal on Facebook Messenger. He said the messages showed Eklund asking Milo what he had, and Milo told him “playboy.”
Milo told Eklund what he had was “amazing” and “legit and strong,” according to the affidavit. Pontbriand said Milo attempted to flee when a search warrant was executed on his home in May 2018. He said police found a backpack in the home with Milo’s identification inside as well as a small amount of cocaine and bags with the same Playboy stamp on them as those that were found with Eklund.
Pontbriand said Milo was cited for cocaine possession and released. After he was released, Pontbriand said he asked Milo about Eklund and he admitted to helping Eklund get drugs, but denied physically giving him the drugs.
For the cocaine and heroin selling convictions, police said Milo sold drugs to informants involved with the Vermont Drug Task Force in May 2017 and May 2018. The task force said Milo sold an informant heroin on May 2, 2017, cocaine on March 21, 2018 and May 23, 2018 and the stimulant Adderall on May 1, 2018.
In court Wednesday, Milo took responsibility for selling the heroin to Eklund. He wrote a statement for the court saying he thinks about Eklund every day and he’ll have to live with what he did.
“... Wednesday’s comprehensive debate on the issue was so important to many Democratic voters seeking a candidate who stands out for what is perceived to be a global crisis — perhaps of cataclysmic proportions.”
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EAST MONTPELIER — The Vermont School Boards Association just lost one of its dues-paying members and the Washington Central School Board lost at least a little bit of its momentum.
During a sometimes-emotional discussion that occurred near the end of its Wednesday night meeting, the Washington Central board deadlocked, 4-4, on a motion to retain its membership in an organization some argued betrayed the trust of many of its members by opposing a delay of several state-ordered mergers.
Two weeks after publicly stating he would not participate in what he characterized Wednesday as a “should we stay or should we go” decision, Chairman Scott Thompson cast what proved to be the decisive vote – forging a tie School Director Vera Frazier opted not to break.
Frazier’s abstention and the absence of fellow Berlin board member George Gross created a tie that Thompson observed effectively ended Washington Central’s participation in the VSBA.
“The motion fails and we go on,” he said, capping a near hour-long discussion that divided members during an otherwise productive meeting.
The lines were drawn early on with School Directors Chris McVeigh and Dorothy Naylor signaling they would not support Washington Central’s membership in the VSBA, while board members Lindy Johnson and Flor Diaz-Smith openly worried the Act 46-related rebuke would be detrimental to the district, the board, and the students it serves.
McVeigh spoke first, expressing his displeasure with the VSBA’s handling of the controversial law that encouraged, incentivized and ultimately compelled some school district mergers and its last-minute decision to oppose a legislative delay that would have enabled Washington Central to retain its multi-board structure for one more year.
“Democracy is ... freedom of association and deciding what organizations you want to be associated with,” McVeigh said, adding: “I would urge that we not support the VSBA this year.”
Naylor agreed, arguing a legislative reprieve would have deferred merger-related tax increases in Calais and Worcester for one year.
Johnson challenged what she argued was a myopic view of the services provided by the VSBA, describing the organization as a valuable resource that is the educational equivalent of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.
“I look at them as bigger than Act 46,” she said of the VSBA.
So does Diaz-Smith.
Diaz-Smith represents East Montpelier on the Washington Central board and school boards in Washington and Orange County on the VSBA board.
Diaz-Smith conceded the position the VSBA board took on a legislative delay may have contained some objectionable language, but it was well-intended and reflected the view of a majority of the school boards in the state, including the central Vermont region she represents.
Rather than cutting ties, Diaz-Smith suggested the board consider mending relationships while retaining its membership at a time when having a voice in the formulation of education policy is important.
“I think it would be a mistake for us to move away from the VSBA right now now,” she said.
That view was shared by at least one member of a small audience that waited more than two hours to weigh in.
East Montpelier resident John Pandolfo, whose day job is superintendent of schools in Barre, told board members severing ties with VSBA would be “short-sighted” and – Act 46 aside – the organization had provided valuable advocacy on educational initiatives ranging from universal pre-K to flexible pathways for students. He said it also provided the district with dozens of polices – all of which are legally vetted and most of which were adopted verbatim.
Pandolfo said the policy work alone was worth the roughly $7,000 in dues the district pays.
“I understand this is a very emotional issue but I’m asking the board to consider being the stewards that they’re obligated to be of the taxpayers … and the students of this district,” he said.
Three other residents – Paul Cate from East Montpelier, Corinne Stridsberg from Berlin and Rick Kehne from Calais – urged the board to send a message to the VSBA by withdrawing from the organization.
Kehne was easily the most adamant, calling the VSBA’s role in the Act 46 as “egregious” and arguing it shouldn’t be ignored.
“Giving them the benefit of the doubt and staying in actually validates their action,” Kehne said. “If we go out now the onus is on them to prove that they are worthy to represent us.”
Thompson, who moderated the discussion, said he believed it was time to withdraw from the VSBA until it proved it was prepared “to have our backs instead of stabbing us in the back.”
“It hasn’t supported us,” he said, suggesting the board may have more leverage as a boycotting customer than an active participant.
Diaz-Smith said she doubted it and School Director Jonas Eno-Van Fleet questioned the wisdom of withdrawing from the statewide organization that – even according to critics – provides valuable services.
“I don’t see how leaving the VSBA makes us a better district, or creates a better education for our students,” he said, adding: “It seems punitive.”
Eno-Van Fleet said he was also troubled the polarizing issue could undercut what he characterized as an encouraging “moderation of tone” among board members with very different opinions about the school district merger.
“I feel like we’ve gone backward a little bit tonight,” he said.
In the end the board split down the middle. Eno-Van Fleet, Johnson and Diaz-Smith were joined by School Director Marylynne Strachan voting to retain membership in the VSBA, while McVeigh, Naylor, Thompson and School Director Jaiel Pulskamp opposed the motion.
Frazier said she was torn and abstained as a result. She acknowledged the value of VSBA participation, but said she was troubled the organization’s board hadn’t acknowledged what she viewed as a breach of trust.
“They did not help us,” she said. “They need to take ownership of that.”
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