EAST MONTPELIER — This week’s meeting of the Washington Central Unified Union School Board was almost an old-fashioned serial — ending on a cliffhanger with more to come.
Part of the drama involved whether the new district should continue to be a dues-paying member of the Vermont School Boards Association. That hour-long discussion dominated the meeting and ended with Chairman Scott Thompson’s “to be continued” pronouncement.
Thompson, who is a party to one of the lawsuits challenging state-ordered mergers like the one in Washington Central, opened the meeting in even more dramatic fashion.
“I have one major goal for this meeting, which may be ambitious, but I’m shooting for it anyway,” he said. “By the end of the meeting, we don’t all leave hating each other, because this is going to be a tough one.
“There will be laughter perhaps, there may be tears, and … there could be … a spectacular Hollywood-style trainwreck before we’re done,” he added.
Thompson wasn’t talking about what turned into a sometimes-spirited debate over whether the new board should sever ties with VSBA due to positions that organization took with respect to the law — Act 46 — that initially encouraged and incentivized and is now compelling school district mergers. He was talking about requests from the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank and Community Bank that the board acknowledge the assumption of debt incurred by four of the six districts — U-32, Berlin, East Montpelier and Middlesex — which, like districts in Calais and Worcester, will cease to exist on July 1.
The board arrived at the debt-related agenda item nearly two-and-a-half hours into a meeting that didn’t last much longer, and Thompson marked the moment.
“Here’s the trainwreck,” he said quietly.
Except it wasn’t — at least not yet.
School Director Dorothy Naylor saw to that.
Naylor, who, like Thompson, represents Calais on the merged board, suggested members table action on the bank’s requests until it meets again on June 26.
Business Administrator Lori Bibeau said both banks have asked the board to execute the debt-related document and return them with copies of the minutes from the meeting at which they are approved, as well as the new district’s articles of agreement by July 1.
“The loans have to go somewhere,” Bibeau said.
According to the state-imposed articles of agreement, all of the “liabilities and assets” of the six Washington Central districts must be assumed by the merged district, including the debt incurred by some of them.
Disparity in debt — Calais and Worcester have none — has dogged merger discussions in Washington Central for three years and remains one of the unresolved issues before a superior court judge who has thus far consistently ruled against other challenges to Act 46.
Board members were told a ruling on the debt claim could come any day and delaying a decision on the documents supplied by the banks until June 26 should not create a problem.
With a vote set for June 25 on the $34 million budget that would collectively finance the operation of five town-based elementary schools and jointly owned U-32 Middle and High School, the board had already penciled June 26 in as a meeting date. Now it is written in ink, because whether the budget passes or fails, a decision on the debt documents must be made.
Board members held their tongues on the topic Wednesday night, though they briefly clashed over what some characterized as an “inflammatory” document drafted by Thompson in an effort to explain the proposed budget.
Thompson was encouraged to dial down the rhetoric and stick to a fact-based budget presentation.
A lively debate over the board’s participation in the VSBA also ended without a decision, though Thompson said that was the plan from the start.
Unwilling to rush what he characterized as an important decision, Thompson said at least one other meeting would be required.
Several representatives of the VSBA, including Executive Director Nicole Mace and Neil Odell, vice president of the VSBA Board, attended the meeting. Odell outlined the varied services — from policy work and training to legislative advocacy — that the organization provides.
It was the VSBA’s performance in the latter area with respect to Act 46 that has prompted some to question whether Washington Central should withdraw, saving roughly $7,200 in annual dues. That drumbeat got louder when the organization abandoned its “neutral, but engaged” position with respect to legislation that would have delayed state-ordered mergers for one year.
The VSBA came out against competing proposals that passed the House and Senate, but were never reconciled.
On a night when the VSBA was dinged for filing an unfair labor practices claim against the Vermont NEA during ongoing negotiations of a statewide health insurance plan, its handling of Act 46 in general and testimony with respect to the delay legislation were roundly criticized by some.
“What I have seen here is an abuse of representation,” Calais School Director Rick Kehne said, his voice rising. “You are the Vermont … School Boards Association, you are not the Vermont ... Superintendents Association. You are not the Vermont … Agency of Education … You are there to represent us and you have thrown us under the bus!”
Warned by board member Chris McVeigh that he was crossing the line, and urged by fellow Calais resident John Brabant to address the board not the VSBA delegation, Kehne did. He urged the board to withdraw from the VSBA, calling its handling of Act 46 “unconscionable” and characterizing its last-minute opposition to a legislative delay as a betrayal.
“This was a chance for that association to actually stand up and guard our flanks and instead they machined us from behind,” he said.
Brabant, a select board member in Calais, was equally emphatic. He urged board members to watch the video of Odell’s testimony before the Senate Education Committee when it was considering the one-year delay before making a decision.
“They did not represent the collective interests of the five individual elementary school districts that, prior to the merger, made up our supervisory union,” he said. “They castigated … us, they demonized us and generally labeled … our elementary school boards who voted to challenge the state-forced merger as ‘obstructionists.’”
Rubin Bennett, a nine-year member of the East Montpelier School Board, offered a much different perspective. He said the VSBA is a valuable organization that does its best to represent the sometimes varied views of its membership.
“This is a democratic organization,” Bennett said. “That means there are going to be times when the organization takes a position that is counter to ours, whatever collective ‘ours’ we might be talking about.”
Bennett acknowledged there have been occasions when the VSBA’s positions have differed from the interests of one, some or all of the Washington Central districts, but argued that isn’t what board members should be asking themselves.
“Do you get what you put in?” he asked. “My experience working with these boards, (is) it’s resounding ‘yes.’”
Two members of the Montpelier-Roxbury School Board urged the Washington Central board to retain its membership, as did Barre Superintendent John Pandolfo, who lives in East Montpelier. He was unable to attend the meeting, but sent an email that was read into the record by School Director Lindy Johnson before Thompson suspended the discussion.
“To be continued,” he said.
Although the board deferred a decision on the debt documents and VSBA dues, members approved a slate of required policies, advanced several others that will need to be in place before school starts to second reading, awarded fuel bids and agreed to borrow nearly $10 million from one of the banks that has asked it to acknowledge the assumption of debt.
MONTPELIER — The City Council passed a “validation resolution” Wednesday to correct errors in the warning and ballot article for a $10.5 million bond for a public parking garage approved by voters in November.
City attorney Paul Giuliani said state statute allowed the city to correct the errors. The warning and ballot article did not include specific details of the scope of the project and “related costs,” such as $600,000 for architectural design and engineering and $50,000 for financial consultants, which are included in the bond.
The validation resolution followed a legal challenge from residents who have appealed permits for a 348-space parking garage associated with an 81-room Hampton Inn hotel project on land behind the Capitol Plaza Hotel off State Street. Attorney James Dumont, representing the Friends of Montpelier — a group of 13 residents — has appealed city permits and an Act 250 permit for the garage project. Both appeals will be heard by the Environmental Court. Dumont said the validation resolution may also be appealed to Vermont Superior Court.
In two letters to the City Council, Dumont said the Legislature added the notice requirements to municipal bond voting for projects in Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) districts. Dumont said the omission of the related costs cannot be “cured” by a validation resolution. Dumont cited case law in other states that said errors in similar bond votes had made them “void.” Dumont contends that the warning and ballot article for the bond need to be corrected and voted on again.
City Manager Bill Fraser and Giuliani disagreed.
Fraser has said the council warned the garage bond in the same way that it had warned other municipal bond votes in the past.
Giuliani said there was a “strong and irrevocable presumption and validity” with municipal votes.
Giuliani noted that a challenge to the bond vote had to come within 15 days after the vote.
“That never occurred with the November meeting on this particular bond vote election,” Giuliani said. “Nor was there any petition filed seeking reconsideration or rescission of that vote.”
Giuliani noted that the statute governing municipal bond votes in TIF districts is complicated, adding, “There’s some question as to whether all the Is were dotted and whether the Ts were crossed” in the Montpelier bond warning and article.
“But again, the Legislature stepped in and said, ‘Here’s how you fix the problem,’” Giuliani continued. “You go back to the City Council or the legislative body, you identify where the glitch is … and you pass a validation resolution... Statutes, by their terms, validate and confirm and regularize that original election as if these irregularities never occurred.
“The decision is yours, obviously. It’s not up to you as a City Council to defend or justify what happened in November. Those actions are presumed valid. If somebody wishes to contest or object, there’s a process for that,” he added.
Resident Sandra Vitzthum raised other concerns about reports of financial irregularities in a TIF district in St. Albans, which has a Hampton Inn and garage project that mirrors the project proposed for Montpelier.
State Auditor Doug Hoffer has criticized St. Albans’ handling of TIF district funds, which he said may have contravened state laws and shortchanged the property education tax fund that helps finance projects in TIF districts.
Fraser frequently cited the St. Albans project — and used the same financial consultants — as a model for the Montpelier project. Vitzthum asked if there was a bid process to appoint the financial consultants, Burke and White, of Burlington, for the Montpelier project.
Vitzthum also noted that there were questions about whether the St. Albans garage may be taxable and whether the proposed Montpelier garage would also be taxable once the bond is repaid after 20 years.
Vitzthum said there was concern about whether the St. Albans hotel and garage project had warning and ballot article validation issues similar to Montpelier’s.
After two minutes at the mic, Vitzthum was not allowed to continue and her questions were not answered.
The council voted 4-0 to pass the validation resolution.
Speaking after the meeting, Dumont said, “This is not a surprise. Attorney Giuliani is a great lawyer. I don’t agree with him. I’m going to write up a careful, thorough memo for my clients and they’re going to decide what to do.”
MONTPELIER — A small army of residents of a Capital City neighborhood lobbied for a speed limit reduction on Berlin Street at a City Council meeting this week.
More than a dozen residents turned out Wednesday to complain that the 35 mph speed limit is too high and poses dangers for pedestrians, particularly children and the elderly, as well as cyclists. They asked that the speed limit be reduced to 25 mph to conform with the 25 mph speed limit on other city streets.
In a report to the council, Public Works Director Tom McArdle said a study showed that there were mitigating factors that justified a speed limit reduction and recommended it be posted at 30 mph. The discussion was the first public hearing to consider changing the speed limit on Berlin Street.
McArdle’s report said that Berlin Street had seen an increase in daily traffic trips from 4,700 in 1991 to 6,000 in 2001. From 2013 to 2018, daily traffic trips had increased from 6,500 to 7,391, an increase of 12 percent, McArdle said. Lowering the speed limit would require an engineering and traffic investigation under state regulations, he added.
In his report, McArdle noted that Berlin Street is classified as a “minor arterial” connecting the city to Central Vermont Medical Center, the Berlin Mall and several other new businesses and was also a connector to the Barre beltway and the interstate, and serves as a convenient alternative route for commuters.
In the Berlin Street neighborhood within Montpelier city limits, McArdle’s report noted that access to properties off Berlin Street “is a secondary purpose and is generally viewed as a functional conflict,” meaning the street had a dual purpose.
“The road has historically dual roles of mobility and access and is typical of many roads evolving into conflict over time with growth and a corresponding traffic volume increase,” the report said. “The majority of traffic is believed to be through-traffic, with trip origins and destinations located outside the study area.”
It is the use of the Berlin Street as a through-traffic road, with motorists often exceeding the speed limit and using it as a “rat run” to avoid slower traffic on the Route 2/Route 302 travel corridor, that has residents concerned about safety in the neighborhood.
Residents voiced concern that motorists traveling into the city along the Berlin Turnpike from Berlin, posted at 40 mph, were sometimes not aware they were entering a residential area with a lower speed limit that posed dangers. It was suggested that “reduce speed ahead” and “Welcome to Montpelier” signs be erected to notify motorists they were entering a residential area and the city.
Residents also noted there was a sidewalk on the westerly side of the street only, between the River Street and Cedar Hill Lane, where it crosses to the east side of the street at a marked crosswalk and extends to Hebert Road. There is no sidewalk from Hebert Road connecting with the Sherwood Drive neighborhood or along the westerly side of the street between Hebert Road and Sherwood Drive.
For many residents, there were concerns about children crossing the road, even at the two marked crosswalks at Cedar Hill Lane and Wilson Street, because of speeding motorists. Elderly people and others trying to clear driveways of snow in winter were also concerned about the speed of traffic just feet away.
Vicki Lane, who has lived on Berlin Street for 25 years, said she supported a 25 mph speed limit, but would also support McArdle’s recommended 30 mph compromise suggested speed limit.
“You’re taking life in your hands to walk across the street and visit your neighbor across the street, and when you’re trying to clear your driveway of snow it’s a real challenge, particularly for those of us on the hill,” Lane said, adding that the crosswalks also needed warning flashing lights.
James Brady, who lives on Prospect Street, recommended that Montpelier adopt a citywide 25 mph speed limit within city limits, like those imposed in Barre and Burlington.
Mary Carol Dobbins, who lives at the top of the street at the corner with Sherwood Drive, said she was “blown away” at how fast people drive by her home. People and children were also afraid to walk to the family center on Sherwood Drive because of speeding traffic.
“It’s a large, active neighborhood and if people are not walking it, it’s because we’re afraid to walk it,” Dobbins said. “We would like to much more often to walk it.
“So please protect our safety, we’d appreciate that. Twenty-five miles an hour will be ignored to a certain extent. People will drive faster than that. Please keep it to 25 (mph) … people can adjust their habits,” she added.
Councilor Dona Bate said the council was working on a traffic calming policy that could also look at adding safety measures on Berlin Street.
The council adjourned the first public hearing to consider lowering the speed limit to 30 mph recommended by McArdle and will hold a second public hearing at its June 26 meeting.
BARRE TOWN — The town has approved the process by which people can use alcohol at the recreation field.
At its regular meeting Tuesday night, the Select Board heard from Town Manager Carl Rogers about an ordinance the town had recently adopted.
The ordinance, which concerns alcohol use at the recreation field, was first altered in December. The board, at that time, decided to allow for the consumption of alcohol only at the picnic shelter at the field and only during events that have been reserved in advance with the town.
The change was needed because the town is in possession of the recreation area next to the Barre Town Middle and Elementary School. In 2016, the School Board asked the town if it would be interested in acquiring 28 acres of land the school owned. The thought process was to make sure the town kept control of the land in the event the Barre schools merged in accordance with the Act 46 school consolidation law.
The Recreation Board reviewed the town’s ordinance and made changes to make sure conduct prohibited in other recreation areas the town owns, such as playgrounds, applies to the recreation area at the school.
But since that initial ordinance change, Rogers reported three out of the four softball leagues that use the recreation field for games expressed concerns about it. Rogers said the leagues reported few alcohol-related incidents during games, and the police chief reported the same.
So the language of the ordinance was tweaked to allow alcohol at certain parts of the recreation field with a permit from the town.
With the ordinance changed again, Rogers spoke to the Select Board Tuesday about who should sign off on requests for alcohol use at the recreation field. Rogers said his office had reached out to Michael Monte, the town’s attorney, for language that could be added to the permit people already fill out that would include a disclaimer and approval statement for alcohol use, but he hadn’t heard back from him.
In his weekly notes to the board, Rogers said his office handles approvals for those looking to reserve the picnic shelter at the field while the Recreation Board handles reservations of the field. Rogers asked the board to continue that process for the two entities with the added question on the permit if alcohol use was planned.
Board member Paul White said when someone reserves the picnic shelter the town charges them a fee for things like trash pickup. White wanted to know if there would be an additional fee for those looking to drink alcohol there. Rogers said the town hasn’t done that since the ordinance has been adopted.
In terms of restrictions, Rogers said he’s considered the idea of not allowing people to use alcohol at the picnic shelter if kids are playing soccer on the field. Board chairman Tom White said he didn’t see an issue with alcohol use at the picnic shelter when kids are using the field because they would be separated from each other.
Paul White said if there is no additional fee or any vetting of people using alcohol at the picnic shelter then the town should assume people are always going to be using alcohol at the shelter when they reserve it. Assistant Town Manager Elaine Wang said by checking the box saying alcohol will be used it gives a heads up to the police department. Board member Bob Nelson said the check box will also include language from the town attorney to make sure alcohol use is properly regulated.
The board then unanimously approved a motion allowing Rogers’ office and the Recreation Board to sign off on alcohol use at the field.
“We all know that the make-up of the American family has evolved. What’s interesting is how many men who don’t have biological children of their own are eager to be dads.”
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Climb Out of the Darkness
Awareness-raising event devoted to perinatal mental health. Community walk on the bike path to the Peace Park and back. Share your story and raise money for Good Beginnings. 10 a.m.-noon State House Lawn, 115 State St., Montpelier, email@example.com, 802-595-7953.