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secretary of education
Education secretary urges merged districts to act

BARRE — Secretary of Education Daniel French has issued a procrastinate-at-your-peril warning to voters in school districts that were ordered to merge under Act 46 but have thus far dragged their feet.

Citing Judge Robert Mello’s recent denial of a preliminary injunction requested on behalf of the 33 school districts that sued the state over Act 46, French issued a memorandum providing time-sensitive guidance with respect to those state-ordered mergers.

The decision means unification will continue, lawsuits or not, French wrote, noting districts that claim they don’t have time are mistaken.

“At this time, there are enough days remaining for each newly formed union school district to take all steps legally required to become operational on July 1,” he wrote.

French acknowledged the Vermont Legislature is considering a bill to grant a one-year extension to most of the affected districts. He stressed the current law reflects the July 1 deadline, and ignoring it “will result in serious consequences for students and staff.”

The House-passed bill that would allow for an extension is scheduled to be taken up by the Senate Education Committee when it meets Tuesday.

One feature of that bill would resolve a potential problem French flagged in his memo: School districts without voter-approved budgets by July 1 can borrow 87 percent of their last-passed budgets, but there is no apples-to-apples comparison for merged districts. French indicated he was confident the Legislature would provide clarity on that issue.

That said, French noted no mechanism exists for districts that were ordered to merge to meet their financial obligations absent voter-approved budgets. He urged school officials to “be aware of the importance of acting in a timely manner to avoid disruption of services to students.”

French noted voters in several merged districts adjourned or continued organizational meetings without completing the warned business, including whether to authorize the use of Australian ballot for electing board members.

Several of those meetings will reconvene this month, and two have been warned to reconvene next month.

According to French, postponing action again could force transitional boards to consider unilaterally warning special elections that, in the absence of a voter-approved decision to use Australian ballot, would require the nomination and election of school board members on the floor of an open district meeting.

“The voters will lose the opportunity to decide whether to use Australian ballot, and the transitional board may determine it is most prudent to move forward with an election from the floor for the initial board,” he wrote.

Based on the meeting schedule, elections could be held as early as April 23 in the Orleans Central Supervisory Union and as late as May 21 in the Washington Central and Windham Northeast supervisory unions, as well as the two-town merger involving Enosburg and Richford. Budget votes could be scheduled as early as May 27 and as late as June 21 if voters are cooperative.

If not, the transitional boards may need to warn an election for the initial board and warn a budget for the first year of operations, French wrote.

French indicated if districts continue to resist, the state is prepared to intercede.

“The agency will take every action legally available to bring the district into compliance to ensure students are provided access to substantially equal educational opportunities,” he wrote.

david.delcore @timesargus.com


JOSH KUCKENS / Staff Photo  

Dance around

Jacob Nunnelley, 8, of Montpelier, center, joins his mother Kathryn at Capital City Grange’s Dance, Sing & Jump Around event on Sunday in Berlin.


Local
School budget votes set in Washington Central

EAST MONTPELIER — Following a flurry of school board meetings this week, the stage for a Town Meeting Day sequel is now set in the Washington Central Supervisory Union.

April 9 will be “School District Meeting Day” in four of the supervisory union’s six districts, where currently autonomous boards have all warned budget votes against the backdrop of a state-imposed merger.

The abruptly adjourned organizational meeting for the Washington Central Unified Union School District will reconvene on April 8. That meeting could potentially pave the way for a late-June vote on a merged budget for the pre-K-12 district that includes elementary schools in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester, as well as jointly owned U-32 Middle and High School.

Amid considerable merger-related uncertainty, school directors in Berlin and Calais both warned Town Meeting Day votes on separate budgets that were both approved.

Their counterparts in East Montpelier, Middlesex, Worcester and U-32 chose to wait. However, with an April 15 deadline looming for issuing contracts to teachers, all decided this week to hedge their bets and warn school-specific budgets while waiting for the merger process to play out.

Three of the boards consulted with Burlington attorney Christopher Leopold first, and while Worcester school directors chose not to participate in that meeting, Chairman Will Baker did attend.

Leopold advised the boards it would probably be prudent to separately warn budget votes, understanding the authority to expend any money that is authorized by voters would evaporate if the state-ordered merger isn’t delayed or derailed before July 1.

Hours earlier, Judge Robert Mello denied a preliminary injunction requested by lawyers representing 33 school districts — including four of the six in Washington Central — that are under state order to merge. Mello concluded lawyers requesting the injunction had not demonstrated a likelihood they would prevail on the merits.

Though that won’t be the last word in the court case, it wasn’t good news for those challenging Act 46.

A legislative extension that would create a one-year extension for several school districts — including those in Washington Central — has cleared the House and is widely expected to be considered by the Senate Education Committee next week.

That was the state of play heading into a series of meetings that all produced similar results. The Worcester and U-32 school boards met Wednesday and the East Montpelier, and Middlesex boards met Thursday.

All four boards adopted budgets — some with modest revisions — that they had last looked at in January, and all agreed to present those spending plans to voters on April 9. Three of those budgets will be decided by Australian ballot, and the $15.1 million budget for U-32 will be collectively decided by voters in all five Washington Central towns. That includes Berlin and Calais, where budgets for elementary schools were approved on Town Meeting Day.

The budget proposed for U-32 calls for spending $18,809 per equalized pupil, up 4.17 percent from the current fiscal year. It also reflects a spending increase of $325,000, or about 2.2 percent.

U-32 school directors are comfortable with the budget request, but wary of its prospects of passing amid uncertainty about the merger. The board welcomed news the low-bidder for reconstructing the school’s track had offered to hold its price for 30 days while expressing hope DuBois Construction could be talked into tacking on an extra few days. That, members said, would allow them to avoid deciding whether to pull the trigger on the $793,000 construction contract by April 4 — before the results of the April 9 budget vote are available.

Money for the track project isn’t included in the budget, but the surplus funds that would pay for it could come in handy if the high school spending plan is rejected and the board has to refine the proposal.

The tax implications of the U-32 budget are built into projected tax rates for its five sending school districts.

The high school budget helped blunt the 3-cent increase projected in Berlin and had the opposite effect with respect to the 4.6-cent rate hike in Calais. Elementary school budgets in both of those communities have now been approved and unless there is a petitioned re-vote or they are superseded by a merged budget, they will finance operations of separate pre-K-6 school systems during the fiscal year that starts July 1.

That leaves East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester where local school budgets will be presented to voters on April 9.

It might be the last time that happens — a fact that wasn’t lost on members of any of the three boards during a series of hastily arranged special meetings.

Even if the Senate eventually passes the bill approved by House lawmakers, the districts entitled to the extension would still be required to approve any desired amendments to default articles of agreement by July 1, and complete the transition to a single district run by one board with one budget by July 1, 2020.

East Montpelier and Middlesex residents will vote on school budgets by Australian ballot on April 9. In Worcester, voters set school spending on the floor of an open town meeting like the one school directors have warned for 6 p.m. on April 9 at Doty Memorial School.

Citing the looming merger, the Worcester board zeroed out its annual contribution to a capital fund and hasn’t ruled out tapping an existing surplus to provide a one-time tax reduction before that money is pooled as part of the merger.

Board members expressed mixed opinions about that idea, but agreed it isn’t a question they needed to answer to adopt a budget for their town’s pre-K-6 school.

The budget Worcester voters will be asked to approve calls for spending $1.35 million. That’s roughly $10,000 less than voters approved a year ago and would allow for a projected 2.4-cent rate reduction when coupled with Worcester’s share of running U-32.

Based on the board-adopted budget, spending per equalized pupil in Worcester would be $17,037 — 1.26 percent lower than the current year.

Though it is higher than the state average, that figure compares favorably to all of Worcester’s partners in Washington Central. The $2 million voter-approved budget in Calais calls for spending $17,475 per equalized pupil during the coming year, a 9.82 percent increase, and Berlin’s newly approved $3.6 million budget will require spending $17,637 per equalized pupil, an increase of 4.4 percent.

Heading into Thursday night’s special meeting in Middlesex, school directors were confronting a budget that called for spending $20,128 per equalized pupil, an increase of 4.36 percent. They were also eyeing a projected 7.3-cent rate hike, partly due to a “penalty” associated with the fact that the budget they’d last looked at in January was roughly $16,000 over the state spending threshold.

The Middlesex board dealt with that issue by making an unspecified $20,000 cut before adopting a $3.25 million budget that calls for spending $19,997 per equalized pupil, an increase of 3.68 percent. If approved by voters, the budget would trigger a projected rate increase of 6.8 cents — none of it due to the state penalty.

Though board members didn’t decide what might be cut, the possibility of further reducing a capital fund transfer they had previously cut was floated as an option.

Meanwhile, East Montpelier school directors chose not to do any last-minute tinkering before adopting a proposed $4 million budget. That budget calls for spending roughly $65,000 more on the operation of East Montpelier Elementary School than voters approved a year ago, an increase of 1.6 percent. Spending per equalized pupil would climb .52 percent to $19,747, while the tax rate would drop .7 cents, according to administrative projections.

david.delcore @timesargus.com


Local
State asks judge to drop felony drug charges

BARRE — The state asked a judge Monday to drop felony drug possession charges against a Massachusetts man after Northfield Police Chief John Helfant, a former Berlin cop, allegedly lied in an affidavit establishing probable cause for the man’s arrest.

Helfant arrested Carlos Inostroza, 26, of Springfield, Massachusetts, after locating drugs in Inostroza’s backpack during a vehicle stop at Highgate Apartments in Barre last July. Helfant, then a Berlin police officer, said Inostroza consented to the search, but body camera footage from officers at the scene shows otherwise, defense attorney Avi Springer wrote in a motion in January.

Helfant, who attended the hearing at Washington County criminal court on Monday, complained afterward he was not deposed by either the prosecution or the defense before State’s Attorney Rory Thibault requested the charges be dropped.

Judge Mary L. Morrissey did not rule on the request Monday, instead taking the case under advisement. She plans to review the body camera footage and issue a ruling at a later date. Thibault has referred the case to the attorney general’s office, which confirmed it is investigating the case.

Helfant, through his attorney, has “vehemently” denied the allegation, and he continues to work as the chief of police in Northfield.

According to court records, Helfant said in his affidavit he recognized Inostroza’s vehicle as one involved in an incident the same day, July 12, 2018. Helfant said he followed the vehicle because he knew a woman staying at Highgate had an active arrest warrant, and he wanted to ask the vehicle’s occupants if they’d seen her. Helfant said he saw two rocks of crack cocaine in the car while speaking to the occupants.

One of the passengers, Inostroza, told Helfant he took a bus to Vermont the day before and was staying at his godmother’s, but he didn’t know her last name, according to court records.

Inostroza retrieved his identification from a black backpack inside the car, and according to Helfant’s affidavit, gave Helfant permission to search the bag. Inside, Helfant found 28.8 grams of crack cocaine and 1.8 ounces of marijuana, along with 65 bags of heroin in a container near the backpack, the affidavit says.

Springer’s subsequent motion disputed Helfant’s claims and requested a review of body cam video.

“In the videos, it appears that, contrary to the affidavit of probable cause completed by the arresting officer, Mr. Inostroza did not consent to the search that resulted in the seizure of contraband at issue in the case,” the motion stated.

Springer asked Ashley Hill, the deputy state's attorney handling the case, to review the body cam video. She referred the disputed discrepancy to Thibault, who concurred the video did not show consent. Before Springer's request, Thibault said the prosecution based their case on Helfant's affidavit.

Rather than wait to litigate suppression of the evidence because he did not consent to a search, Inostroza agreed to plead guilty to charges of felony heroin and cocaine possession and a misdemeanor count of marijuana possession last month. He was sentenced to 179 to 180 days in prison, with credit for time served at Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury since his arrest.

Thibault said he didn’t oppose the motion for Inostroza to withdraw his guilty pleas and said he would dismiss the charges if the court found sufficient basis to do so. He noted that despite the drugs found on Inostroza, it did not “excuse or justify unlawful police activity.”

Thibault said although the evidence was great, the means by which it was obtained were called into question. Efforts to enhance the video because of some background noise and additional body cam footage from another officer did not alter Thibault’s conclusion that Helfant did not obtain consent.

“It is beyond dispute that Mr. Inostroza was in violation of the law by having significant quantity of illicit drugs, very damaging drugs to our community, in his bag in that vehicle at the time,” Thibault said in court. “Notwithstanding that, being a bad person doesn’t strip one of their Constitutional rights and protections.”

Inostroza was back home in Massachusetts and listened to the hearing by phone, but made no comment.

Helfant served a short stint with Berlin Police before being named chief in Northfield in the fall. Prior to that, he retired from the Vermont State Police after serving 28 years.

stephen.mills @timesargus.com

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect the prosecutor's role in examining the body cam evidence.


Jpkuckens / Josh Kuckens / Staff Photo  

It’s About Time

Vermont Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Lou Kosma queues a quiet entrance during Sunday’s 2019 Family Concert, “It’s About Time,” at the Barre Opera House.


Local
State: Multiple issues have caused Route 2 disrepair in Plainfield

PLAINFIELD — A local official is not happy about the condition of Route 2 through Plainfield, but the state says the problem is multi-faceted.

When the Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT) paved part of Route 2 in 2014, it stopped at the intersection with Route 214 in Plainfield. Road Commissioner Bram Towbin said that decision left the road that runs through town in complete disrepair.

Towbin said he brought this up to the state when the paving plan was announced.

“It was really unfortunate because it completely ignores our main drag, the main intersection and the gateway of our town,” he said.

Towbin said the state seemingly has a policy to intentionally not pave parts of Route 2 that run through the hearts of towns, instead stopping just before town centers. He said Marshfield is facing a similar issue: Route 2 from Plainfield to Marshfield was worked on, but not the portion that runs through Marshfield village.

He suggested the state is doing this on purpose to slow down traffic in congested areas.

“I don’t know that, but it’s certainly suspicious and troubling,” he said. “I would fault VTrans in terms of where’s the communication with the towns on these paving projects? Certainly the town of Plainfield did not appreciate having the main strip of Route 2 looking like something out of an old west, wagon train movie.”

Chad Allen, director of AOT’s Asset Management Bureau, said he wasn’t aware the state didn’t pave through Marshfield, but confirmed a paving project in Plainfield did stop at the Route 214 intersection in 2014. Allen said there wasn’t enough money at the time to continue paving through the town. He said the road wasn’t in bad enough shape at that time for the state to use what funds it did have available.

“There’s no policy that prevents us from going through the town,” he said, dismissing Towbin’s theory.

A plan to repave Route 2 from Plainfield to Danville was tabled after the state tried to coordinate it with other projects but couldn’t find sufficient funds, Allen said. The state hopes to pave that area in 2021, he said.

Allen said another problem with the roads in Plainfield complicated the paving issue. For several years, local officials have tried to get the state to fix the intersection at Route 2 and Main Street. The issues with the spot — where Main Street dips down into the village at a bend in Route 2, marked by a single blinking yellow light — stem from poor sight lines. The slope down onto Main Street can be especially hazardous in winter due to ice and snow, Allen said.

The intersection also sits in Plainfield’s village, which is a designated historic district.

As part of the town’s effort to get the intersection fixed, local officials met with state officials in 2014. Paving there was paused until that project was completed, Allen said.

In the meantime, Allen said he’s looking at ways to get state road crews to apply a “Band-Aid” to the area until it can be repaved.

eric.blaisdell @timesargus.com


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Josh Kuckens / Staff Photo  

Thetford’s Ellen Veracka, center, looks for an open teammate while navigating Oxbow defenders during Saturday’s Division III girls basketball championship at the Barre Auditorium.


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