MONTPELIER — Agriculture, the statuesque matriarch of the State House was hoisted to lofty heights to retake her perch atop the golden dome on Friday.
It was the culmination of a six-month, $2 million restoration of the dome that involved re-gilding with 24-carat gold leaf, repainting the rotunda and the carving of a new 14½-foot statue, symbolic of the state’s agrarian economy.
The event drew hundreds of spectators to witness the historic replacement of the statue, the third to grace the building in its 160-year history.
The new statue is a faithful reinterpretation of the 1858 original design by Brattleboro native Larkin Mead, which was carved by fellow Brattleboro native Johann Henkel. It lasted 80 years before wood rot required a replacement, provided in 1938 by Sergeant-at-Arms Dwight Dwinell and two other local woodcarvers. After another 80 years, it, too, rotted.
Enter Calais woodworker Chris Miller to carve a new statue out of Central American mahogany based on a clay model by Jerry Williams, of Barre Sculpture Studios. The mahogany is disease and water-resistant, and with careful maintenance is expected to long-outlast its pine predecessors.
There was a carnival-like atmosphere on Friday. Schoolchildren on an historic field trip mingled with state leaders visitors and guests outside the State House to take selfies with the statue on the capitol grounds before it was hoisted into place.
The head of Dwinell’s model was also on display. There were souvenir wood chips from the new carving and free 802 Ceres coffee from Capitol Grounds, named for the colloquial name given to second statue, representing the Roman goddess of agriculture. After formal ceremonies and the hoisting aloft of the statue, Bread and Puppet Theater staged a Druid circle with musical chants and rhythms on the State House lawn.
There were also Ceres-On-A-Stick bookmarks that became an online viral sensation to promote the statue project far beyond Vermont’s borders. Started by Montpelier resident Brenda Greika, Friday’s event was a crowning moment for her.
“I am honored, blessed and grateful that I’ve been made a part of Vermont’s history in an accidental way,” Greika said. “I just love this state and it means a lot to me, and when I look her, she’s all of that. She’s the godmother of the state.”
David Schutz, curator of state buildings, was in his element as he greeted colleagues, friends and visitors to the event.
I’m getting a little emotional, as I knew I would,” Schutz said. “We’re so incredibly proud of Chris and Jerry who’ve done an absolutely phenomenal job creating this statue. It’s been beyond our wildest dreams.”
Miller was equally excited. “It is a big deal and it means a lot to everybody in Vermont,” he said.
How did Miller feel on the ceremonial day?
“Tired,” said Miller, who spent weeks working 12 hours a day to carve the statue. “It feels great. It all went as smoothly as it could in the time frame we had.”
Miller added that the best part of the process was having over 3,000 visitors to the Barre Granite Museum in Barre to watch him carve the statue.
Asked what’s next, Miller replied, “Vacation,” adding that he has four commissions in wood and that would keep him busy in the new year.
Miller’s son, Silas, was also on-hand to celebrate his father’s triumph.
“I think he’s put in his well-earned time and talent, and he’s been doing this for at least 30 years,” he said. “I can’t think of a better person to do this. He loves the state as much as anybody and it’s a really good situation.”
Williams, who based his clay model on the classic Hellenistic flowing drapery favored for Greek and Roman sculpture, was in celebratory mood.
“I think it’s the culmination of all the work and a pretty proud moment,” Williams said. I didn’t think it would happen this soon. I really thought it wouldn’t happen until the spring but Chris just kept hammering away.”
Master of ceremonies was Chris Cole, commissioner of buildings and general services. He thanked project architect Tricia Harper, Schutz, other state officials and contractors involved in the project, and legislators who funded it.
Gov. Phil Scott similarly thanked everyone involved and the public for showing up at the event to commemorate the refurbishment of “the most beautiful state house in the country.”
As the former owner of a construction company, Scott said he had enjoyed watching the complicated engineering to erect scaffolding to re-gild the State House dome from his office. Scott said he also got to ascend the summit of the State House to apply some of the gold leaf to the dome and had a chance to carve a few chips of wood from the statue during Miller’s work.
During the artist application process, Scott said it was important to him that Vermonters were involved in creating the new statue.
“I was thrilled to learn that Jerry Williams and Chris Miller, two Vermonters, were selected,” Scott said. “For the last several months, Chris and Jerry have worked extremely hard, working really long hours to deliver this piece.”
Last month, Scott named Williams and Miller winners of the 2018 Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.
There were also tributes from House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, and Montpelier High School Honor Choir sang “These Green Mountains.”
Schutz paid tribute to Vermont which he said “stood the most for community, freedom and unity.”
“Curators have the great pleasure of being in touch with an incredible community of artists throughout this state,” he added before introducing the Miller and Williams.
Miller thanked the governor and a long list of people involved in the project.
“The reason this statue is so beautiful is simply because Jerry designed it that way,” Miller said. “With all the many hours it took to carve this, I had a beautiful model to reference and measure from. Jerry had the hard job. He had to create this figure from thin air.”
After checking with other state capitals in the country, Miller also paid tribute to Schutz for being “the most determined, most creative, most visionary and goofiest curator in the country.”
Williams kept the humor going when he addressed the crowd.
“There must be a million, a million and a half of you out there,” said Williams.
Harper said afterward, “It’s been a lot of years waiting for this project to come into fruition and I’m just happy I could be the architect on this project and that it’s been so successful.”
Miller said after the model was set in place: “It’s really great to see it up there.”
Williams added: “It happened, it happened.”
EAST MONTPELIER — A committee that has been working on a document that would govern a merged school district anchored by U-32 Middle and High School ran out of low-hanging fruit on Thursday.
Now comes the hard part.
Dancing around what, if anything, can be done to iron out perceived inequities associated with differing debt that currently autonomous elementary school districts in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester would bring to the new merged district is no longer an option.
Neither is side-stepping the question of how to decide any future proposal to close a school in a district that would essentially replace the Washington Central Supervisory Union.
Those predictably thorny issues remain unresolved, as does a separate article that would outline the conditions under which the new district would acquire and, if deemed necessary, sell any of the six schools it would inherit as part of one of the several mergers the state Board of Education imposed earlier this week.
The state board’s decisions on Wednesday brought new clarity to the committee’s running conversations. In addition to ordering the Washington Central merger under a three-year-old law — Act 46 — that previously encouraged and incentivized such alliances, the state board adopted default articles of agreement that will kick in if voters in all five towns don’t approve an alternative in less than 90 days.
Enter the committee, which includes a representative from each of Washington Central’s six school boards. The panel is tentatively eyeing a Feb. 19 special election in all five towns, while acknowledging they don’t control the scheduling of the vote.
That isn’t all they don’t control. At best, the articles the committee is working on will be advisory, though there won’t be much time for the transition board contemplated in the law to prepare and warn an alternative before the 90-day clock runs out.
Superintendent Bill Kimball said it helps that four of the soon-to-be-seated transition board’s 10 members are also members of the committee and that the panel has the collective trust of the separate school boards.
However, when talk turned to whether the committee had the power to retain an attorney to assist with its effort, Kimball acknowledged the group is operating in a procedural gray area.
“I’m not sure there is any ‘right’ way,” he said.
Kimball said waiting until Wednesday for the supervisory union’s executive committee to retain Burlington lawyer Chris Leopold would jeopardize Leopold’s ability to prepare and vet a draft document reflecting decisions the committee has already made for a day-long meeting next Friday.
Chairwoman Flor Diaz-Smith agreed with Kimball’s assessment.
“We need help,” she said.
Diaz-Smith, an East Montpelier school director, said the committee will need to leave Friday’s session with a complete recommendation that can be reduced to writing by Leopold, reviewed and approved by the committee on Dec. 19, and turned over to the transition board early next month.
“If we don’t get this done, we don’t have a vote,” she said.
The committee has yet to substantively address what members agree are the most controversial aspects of the work they were asked to do.
A separate committee is expected to offer its insight on the debt issue during Wednesday’s supervisory union board meeting and Diaz-Smith discouraged a deep discussion of an article that would spell decisions involving closing schools would be made.
“That one is going to take awhile,” she predicted, after committee members agreed no school would be closed in the first two years of the new district’s operation.
There isn’t a plan to close any schools after that, but some in Calais and Worcester fear their small schools could be vulnerable.
The default articles of agreement provide two years of protection and require any subsequent decision to close a school be made by the combined vote of the merged district.
Calais School Director Dorothy Naylor suggested the committee set the bar higher. She said approval of voters in the town where the school is located should be a prerequisite and she wouldn’t be averse to requiring a unanimous vote of the school board as well.
There are other options, but Diaz-Smith urged committee members to hold their ideas.
“We’re not going to forget about (it),” she said.
At this stage only a successful legal challenge would derail the six-district merger. Three of the Washington Central school boards – Berlin, Calais and Middlesex – have already voted to join the lawsuit promised by the Alliance for Vermont School Board Members and a fourth — Worcester — will consider the question during a special meeting Wednesday. The East Montpelier and U-32 boards have both opted not to join the lawsuit.
BARRE — The state Board of Education fulfilled its legislative mandate on Friday by releasing a report detailing its decisions for dealing with dozens of school districts that were unable or unwilling to merge under a controversial three-year-old law.
There are no surprises in the 38-page document, and that itself is no surprise.
The board telegraphed its intentions through string of provisional decisions the last of which were made on Nov. 15 in Barre.
Those decisions were finalized when the board met Wednesday in St. Albans, and while another meeting was planned for noon Friday, it was deemed unnecessary and canceled.
Instead the board released the report on the day it was due — Nov. 30 — under a law — Act 46 — that encouraged, motivated and has now compelled school-district mergers.
The board merged 42 districts from 36 towns — from Barre to Brattleboro — to form 11 new union school districts. Seven of those new districts, including those in the Barre and Washington Central supervisory unions, are unified union districts that will be responsible for pre-K-12 education. The other four, including the Bennington and its sister districts in the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, are union elementary school districts.
Also, the board enlarged three existing union school districts, created a net reduction of 34 districts and conditionally required an additional four districts to merger with four existing union districts.
As expected, the board didn’t require merger in many cases, and in some where mergers were “possible,” it concluded they weren’t “practicable.” Cabot and Twinfield fell into the latter category.
The board’s final decisions resulted in 47 districts retaining their current governance structure.
The final report is posted on the state Agency of Education’s website and can be found at bit.ly/Act46_Final_mergers
Managers from Facebook’s News Feed hold a listening session in Burlington. B3
Time to expand
A local group expands a backcountry winter recreation area. C1
A new read
New Yorker cartoonist Ed Koren, a longtime Vermont resident, just released his 10th book, “Koren: In the Wild.” D1