EAST MONTPELIER — Members of the Washington Central School Board met for the first time since assuming operational authority of a six-school system that is now theirs to run and the record will reflect Monday’s scenic session was literally a back porch forum.
Hosted by School Director Flor Diaz-Smith at her Horn of the Moon Road home, the retreat supplied a pleasant ending to Superintendent Debra Taylor’s first day in her interim job and gave board members representing Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester the chance to discuss their shared future.
Only one of the board’s 10 members — Vera Frazier from Berlin — was unable to make the casual but public meeting that played out on a porch with a tough to top view.
“I wish every meeting could be like this,” Chairman Scott Thompson said as dinner was being served and the sun, which set before the session ended, was still high in the very blue sky.
The retreat — the first of two the board has planned — coincided with Taylor’s first day at work and marked the board’s first meeting since the July 1 launch of a state-ordered merger that extinguished the supervisory union anchored by U-32 Middle and High School.
The new union district’s five-town boundaries mirror those of the supervisory union. However, the merger centralized governance by vesting authority over what is now a pre-K-12 system in the recently elected board that includes two representatives from each community.
Many of those board members still serve on one of the six school boards that were stripped of operational control of their respective schools on July 1 and some – Thompson included – fought to block the merger. Those efforts fizzled in the Legislature and have thus far failed in the courts.
“So here we are,” Thompson told board members basking in the sun on the rustic covered porch of Diaz-Smith’s farmhouse.
Thompson conceded it could be worse.
“It may not be so great how we got here, but, now that we’re here, there are opportunities that we should be taking advantage of,” he said crediting fellow board member and merger critic Chris McVeigh with first making that observation when it appeared the merger was coming like it or not.
McVeigh, who represents Middlesex on on the board, said his mind hadn’t changed.
“Where we are now provides a lot of opportunities,” he said.
Identifying and prioritizing those opportunities, as well as any potential constraints, was the goal of Monday’s session and while School Director Dorothy Naylor was openly critical of the merger even she sounded optimistic about the future.
“To make the ‘best’ better,” she said. “That’s what I kind of think of what we’re doing here.”
Board members spent nearly an hour getting to know each other and their new superintendent during a casual round-table conversation.
“I’m hearing a lot of hope and aspiration here,” Taylor said, suggesting she welcomed the opportunity to assist the board in exploring ways it might improve education of for children in the newly formed district.
Taylor said the foundation was solid.
“I think this is a wonderful school system,” she said. “You’ve already accomplished so much and there’s so much promise and opportunity for the future.”
School Director Lindy Johnson, who, like Diaz-Smith, represents East Montpelier on the board, agreed, noting that while the system could benefit from some strategic improvements it wasn’t in need of an overhaul.
“There’s a lot that’s not broken,” Johnson said. “Things have been running very smoothly (and) there’s a lot of good going on in our schools.”
School Director Jonas Eno-Van Fleet said he was also an advocate of the “Hippocratic approach” — “do no harm” – when weighing possible changes.
In some respects, Thompson said the board’s agenda – particularly in this year – has set itself.
The list includes preparing a budget that won’t be a compilation of separately approved spending plans like the one district voters approved late last month. It will also include negotiations, because the contracts ratified with teachers and support staff earlier this year are both set to expire on June 30, 2020. So, Thompson noted, is Taylor’s contract as interim superintendent. Launching a search for a permanent superintendent will be part of a daunting to-do list that also includes review and re-approval of a lengthy list of policies that were adopted last month.
Board members generally agreed developing a plan for future capital needs across the six-school system should also be a priority and an efficiency study that took a stab at that a few years ago could be a useful, if dated, resource.
Among the ideas tossed out as possibilities for the new unified school system was creating a district-wide elementary foreign language program, providing instrumental instruction at the elementary schools and expanding mentoring opportunities that pair students at U-32 with those at elementary schools.
However, board members acknowledged a better understanding of what is currently being offered where was an important question to answer.
“How are we going to build equity in each of the buildings if we aren’t sure what the others are doing?” School Director George Gross asked, suggesting that question might be answered during the board’s upcoming retreat with school principals and other members of the district’s leadership team.
That three-hour retreat is set for noon at U-32.
McVeigh said “equity” is an issue and may require some “resource reallocation” that could make the upcoming round of budget deliberations trickier than usual.
“Those are going to be difficult conversations that we have to have,” he said.
With the new district still now in its infancy, members agree “trust” and “transparency” would be crucial in coming months and while they weren’t ready to create a committee structure members generally agreed creating a predictable meeting schedule would be important gong forward.
Several said they felt strongly about a previously discussed plan to hold one of the board’s twice-a-month meetings at U-32 and the other at one of the elementary schools on a rotating basis.
“It’s good for us to see the other buildings,” Diaz-Smith said.
“I think we make a mistake if we don’t on a regular basis include the elementary schools (as venues for board meetings),” Naylor agreed.
Though the retreat was largely conversational members did unanimously approve a pair of proposed resolutions for consideration by the Vermont School Boards Association. Both were in response to mergers – like the one in Washington Central – that were ordered under Act 46.
One of the resolutions advocates finding a fair way of assessessing property taxes that takes into consideration the impact “pre-existing debt” has on small towns. The other encourages the creation of guidelines to monitor whether the goals of Act 46 are being met with respect to efficiencies, cost benefits and learning outcomes.
BARRE —Three people have picked up drug charges after a search warrant was executed in Barre Tuesday.
Travon McAllister, 30, of Yonkers, New York, pleaded not guilty Tuesday in Washington County criminal court in Barre to a felony count of cocaine possession. If convicted, McAllister faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. He was ordered held at Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury on $25,000 bail.
James C. Manning, 52, of Barre, pleaded not guilty to two misdemeanor counts of dispensing a regulated drug in a dwelling. If convicted, Manning faces a maximum sentence of four years in prison. He was released on conditions.
Tamara Parker, 47, also of Barre, pleaded not guilty to two misdemeanor counts of dispensing a regulated drug in a dwelling. If convicted, Parker also faces a maximum sentence of four years in prison. She was released on conditions.
Cpl. Jonathan Houle, of the Barre City police, said in his affidavit a search warrant was executed Tuesday on an apartment on Eastern Avenue. Houle said Manning and Parker rented the apartment and McAllister was found inside at the time the warrant was executed.
Houle said McAllister was found on a couch trying to hide something which turned out to be a white, rock-like substance that appeared to be crack cocaine. He said the substance weighed 1.2 ounces and field tested positive for cocaine. McAllister also had $1,274.50 in cash on him, according to court records.
Houle said police found drug paraphernalia and scales inside the residence. He said police also found a jar containing a white powder weighing 4.7 ounces that also field tested positive for cocaine.
Houle said Parker told police McAllister had given Manning crack cocaine in exchange for letting McAllister stay at their home. He said Manning confirmed this, telling police he would use up to two to four grams of crack cocaine a day as payment from McAllister for staying at the home.
Manning told police McAllister had been staying at his place for about three weeks.
Houle said police learned about the drug activity at the residence through a witness who reported it. He said the witness reported traffic coming in and out of the home and a male was selling drugs there.
BARRE — The Green Mountain Transit board has pumped the brakes on a plan to provide a new commuter bus service along the Route 14 corridor.
On a day when the GMT board was told implementation of a broader package of changes to its transportation network in central Vermont could slide from September into early next year, members tabled action on the Route 14 proposal that could still be launched in October.
GMT spokeswoman Jamie Smith said the board tabled action on the proposal supported and set to be subsidized by the state Agency of Transportation until next month during its Tuesday morning meeting.
Smith said the board has requested additional analysis on both “need” and “ridership” before making a final decision involving a proposal to create bus service between Hardwick and Barre.
“They (board members) want to make sure there’s sustainable funding for the route,” she said.
Proposed by AOT in April, the route would be a collaborative endeavor with Rural Community Transit (RCT) providing one weekday round trip between Hardwick and the park-and-ride on Route 14 in East Montpelier and GMT providing the evening round trip, as well as a fare-free transfer to its Route 2 commuter bus.
The Route 2 bus already runs from Montpelier to St. Johnsbury and serves points in between and would add a stop in downtown Barre where AOT has started the phased consolidation of many of its offices in Barre City Place.
Smith said the new route — including the Route 2 transfers — would operate “fare free” and AOT recently agreed to commit 100%of the funding, including foregone fares for one year.
Assuming the board is satisifed with the additional information it requested Tuesday, it could green light the implementation process for establishing the new service next month. That process includes a holding a public hearing on the proposed change prior to final board approval.
Smith said the RCT board has agreed to work jointly on outreach, if the GMT board decides to proceed.
“They (RCT) are on board if we are,” she said.
AOT, Smith said, remains very interested in bringing the commuter service to Barre, as it was in establishing the Barre LINK Express, which began providing weekday commuter service between Barre and Burlington earlier this year.
Neither the LINK express or the Route 14 commuter are part of GMT’s “NextGen Service Plan” for central Vermont. Smith said that plan, which was scheduled to be launched in September, will be delayed for a variety of reasons the board discussed Tuesday.
Smith said one of those reasons involves GMT’s interest in working with AOT during a microtransit feasibility study that could affect assumptions contained in the NextGen plan. AOT, she said, is poised to apply for a federal grant that could fund that study, but likely won’t learn where the money will be forthcoming until November.
Based on that timeline, Smith said it is “unlikely” the NextGen plan, which includes a number of proposed changes to services GMT now provides in the greater Barre-Montpelier area, could be implemented this calendar year. However, she said, a protracted delay is also improbable.
“The board is not interested in delaying for a very long time,” she said, noting that while a new timeline hasn’t been proposed the first quarter of next year could provide the requisite cushion.
Smith said that would provide a better sense of what to expect from the microtransit study, while allowing time for “one more round of public outreach,” some additional number crunching and a more in-depth analysis of a proposed “paratransit service” that is part of the plan.
The delay would also allow GMT staff to focus on tweaking the NextGen service that was launched in Chittenden County last month without readying for a central Vermont rollout at the same time.
Smith said the board has asked for a running update and a proposed timeline for the rolling out the service changes they were initially scheduled to approve on Tuesday.
NORWICH — Rebecca Holcombe, former education secretary, announced Tuesday that she will run for governor of Vermont.
Holcombe will seek the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2020, making her the first candidate to declare in the race.
Holcombe served as education secretary for four years under governors Peter Shumlin and Phil Scott. She announced her resignation in March 2018 over policy disagreements with the Scott administration.
In an interview with the Herald, Holcombe said she is still compiling her platform and seeking feedback from stakeholders around the state. However, she has a long list of priorities, including helping small businesses, lowering the cost of health care and addressing climate change.
“We have to support our small businesses, they’re the engine of the Vermont economy,” she said. “We have to do that not just in the places that are already growing and doing well. ... We need to bring that opportunity to every corner of the state.”
One way she hopes to build rural economies is by creating more green jobs.
“We have some tremendous opportunities to both move people to some of those high-wage green jobs and also to think about how to prepare and position the state in the face of what we see as irrefutable evidence of climate change,” she said.
Holcombe said her goal is to create equal opportunities for all.
“I am going to focus my campaign on the vast majority of Vermonters who are really working hard and feel like they’re running in place because their wages are stagnant,” she said. “I know if they’re better off, we’re all better off.”
Holcombe is an early entrant into the gubernatorial race. Gov. Scott has not confirmed whether he will seek re-election, and has said he will not announce his plans until next spring. There is a buzz surrounding two other potential candidates — Attorney General T.J. Donovan and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman — but neither has announced their candidacy.
Holcombe believes her early announcement is an advantage.
“This gives me the opportunity and the time to get out around the state and listen to people and build that coalition of Vermonters who want change,” she said.
Holcombe last made news when she abruptly resigned as education secretary last spring, giving just one week’s notice.
“I took (Gov. Scott) at his word that he was really serious about making Vermont affordable and more equitable, particularly for those people who really do need access to better opportunities. In the end, I resigned when I realized his actions weren’t matched by his words,” she said of her decision.
Specifically, she cited a proposal to implement a statewide voucher program, which she said “would take millions from our public schools and funnel it to private schools that on average serve more privileged children.”
Scott spokesperson Rebecca Kelley told Seven Days that the governor has never advocated for a statewide voucher system.
Also, Holcombe oversaw the implementation of Act 46, the school district consolidation law that became law in 2015. Looking back, she said not every aspect of Act 46 worked, which she argued would be true of any legislation.
However, she said she believes in the mission behind the law — to make education more efficient and equitable.
“Act 46 was never going to work in every community,” she said. “It worked in many communities — 151 districts voted to merge, and if you look at the ones who merged earliest, they are already finding ways to manage their costs.”
When asked where the education system could improve, Holcombe turned to the bookends: child care and higher education.
“We have an urgent need to make sure every single Vermont child — no matter where they live and what family they were born into — has access to the support they need,” she said.
When it comes to college, she believes the opportunities already exist, and that the next step is to ensure everybody has access to them.
“Before we add new policies, we need to first look at what you already have,” she said. “The temptation is often to run off and try something new, but sometimes it’s just a matter of making what we have work well.”
At several points, Holcombe spoke of the need for new leadership in Vermont.
“We can see abundant evidence that the best decisions come when we bring diverse communities to the table to share different perspectives,” she said. “That’s how we can test whether our ideas are equitable, whether they’re really going to get the greatest value for the communities that we serve.”
In a state that has only elected one woman governor, Holcombe feels it is important to show that women can lead.
“I really want my daughter to know that women can do this, too,” she said. “I think all children need to see leadership can take many forms and that we have a strong future when we work together and refuse to allow ourselves to be divided.”
“Using social media as a propaganda weapon, we have seen a concerted nationalistic shift in the United States, and the repercussions of that movement are revealing how far apart we are on many social, political and policy issues.”
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Season Opening Musical
The Tony award-winning musical “Into the Woods,” comes to life as the Lamoille County Players continues their 67th season. $18, 7-9 p.m. Hyde Park Opera House, 85 Main Street, Hyde Park , firstname.lastname@example.org, 802-888-4507.