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Trail blazing

Some Vermont ski areas are finding ways to stay independent, bucking the industry trend of consolidation. B4



Peak foliage has arrived in central Vermont. Photographer Jeb Wallace-Brodeur shares some of its brilliance. A7

Rail — VT ARTS


The Carpenters Tribute Concert, starring Sally Olson and Ned Mills, comes to Brandon Town Hall on Friday, Oct. 18. D1


Getting colder

With fall in full swing and winter approaching, there is a list of tasks that must be completed to maintain a healthy garden. C1

jebcas / Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo  

Branching Out

Nate Ebert, from Foxfire Tree Care of Plainfield, removes branches Friday from an ailing maple tree on the lawn of the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Montpelier.

Survey gives School Board something to think about

BARRE — The Barre Unified School Board wants time to ponder the results of a recently completed survey that members hope will be helpful as they prepare a budget for a merged district that includes elementary schools in Barre and Barre Town, as well as Spaulding High School.

Board members were told during their Thursday night meeting that response to the 27-question survey, which was available both online and in printed form, was respectable. More than 400 people took the time to fill it out in recent weeks – providing feedback that School Director Sonya Spaulding said should serve help frame the board’s first real round of budget deliberations.

Elected in April, board members rubber-stamped the $45.1 million spending proposal that was collectively approved by voters in Barre and Barre Town, 631-361, during a special election in May.

Though several members – including Spaulding and Chairman Paul Malone – served on the transitional board that trimmed the budget’s bottom line by roughly $640,000 before it was presented to voters, most of those changes involved deferring proposals to add new positions.

With a first draft of a budget for the merged district expected next month, the board is readying to take its first critical look at the cost of providing pre-K-12 education in the two-town, three school district that was launched July 1.

Enter the survey, which was viewed as a way to solicit input from a broad cross-section of community members with respect to perceived educational opportunities and priorities in the context of school spending.

While the number of respondents – 409 – was viewed as a success, Spaulding lamented it wasn’t as diverse as she had hoped.

Nearly 75 percent of the respondents – 301 of them – are parents with students attending at least one of the district’s three schools.

That isn’t a bad thing, but in a sample size that includes 30 students, Spaulding said it might be worthwhile – if possible – to isolate the responses of 70 community members who don’t have children in any of the schools.

“Right now this already has some bias in it,” Spaulding said, suggesting parents might view the school system that serves their children differently from taxpayers who don’t rely on it at all.

Though some of the demographic results are difficult to determine due to how the questions were framed, it appears there was a much stronger response in Barre Town than there was in Barre.

That is definitely true with respect to parents with elementary school-aged students. Of that group, 163 indicated they had a child enrolled at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School School, compared to 83 with students at Barre City Elementary and Middle School. Some of those parents also have students enrolled at Spaulding High School, though it is impossible to discern how many or where they live.

Based on the just-released survey results, 136 of the parent-respondents indicated they had children enrolled at Spaulding High School. At least some of them also have students at one of the elementary schools, or are among the 11 parents who indicated they have children attending private schools.

It isn’t clear how many of them live in Barre or Barre Town, but it is clear at least one of them doesn’t live in either community.

Based on written comments that were as voluminous as they were varied, one respondent noted they live in Orange and their child is a tuition student at Spaulding.

Survey respondents also included 35 school district employees, and while it isn’t clear how many of them live in the district, it doesn’t appear any are parents of students who do.

Though the survey was something of a blunt instrument with respect to residency, the vast majority of respondents live in Barre or Barre Town and nearly two-thirds – 256 – have form more than a decade.

The vast majority of respondents – 365 – are homeowners and that figure likely includes some of the 30 students who filled out the survey because no one skipped the question and only eight indicated they were living with relatives. The list also included 35 renters and one person who is staying in temporary housing.

Despite the parent-heavy sample, Spaulding said the answer to one key question: “How would you rate Barre’s education spending?” was cause for pause. Though the paper version asked respondents to answer with a numerical rating with one being “too low” and five being “too high” the online version provided a scale of 1 to 100.

According to the survey results, the average response of the 46 of the 404 people who answered the question was 46 – a signal that while school spending might be a little on the low side, it is pretty close to just right.

Both opinions were reflected in written comments, board members wanted time to review.

“There’s a lot to digest,” Spaulding said, noting the board’s finance committee discussed the survey results at length and noted the diametrically opposed opinions.

Responding to a question involving the “opportunities” facing the new merged district “save money” was a common response.

However, several noted it may be time to invest more in a system that has historically been among the lowest spending in Vermont when it comes to a key metric – cost per equalized pupil. That, they argued was a dubious badge of honor.

The “opportunity” in the estimation of one respondent: “… To finally start spending more so we can get the opportunities and materials for our students at least to average.”

Opinions differed on the merger, whether teachers are paid enough and restructuring schools.

Some indicated creating a single elementary school and a single middle school, instead of two separate pre-K-8 schools is a model worth looking at in terms of educational equity and economy. Others specifically raised concerns about that idea and argued the existing structure should be retained.

Busing surfaced in several comments. Some want transportation provided for middle school athletics others complained that transportation isn’t provided to students attending Spaulding High School. The latter, some said, is a hardship for families who don’t live within walking distance of the school and don’t have the means to buy and insure a vehicle for their high school-age children.

The comments – all 24 pages of them – cover a lot of competing ground. Some were critical, others encouraging and many proposed ideas that will warrant discussion during the board’s budget deliberations.

Asked to rank 14 areas of potential spending, respondents thought some were clearly more important than others.

Providing education on bullying and harassment was described as “essential” to the district’s yet-to-be-drafted mission by 214 respondents and “important” by another 150. Support for financial literacy and teaching money management skills was nearly identical, with 213 respondents describing it as “essential” and 150 as “important.”

Advanced placement courses, cultural arts programs and drug and alcohol education and prevention weren’t far behind. Nearly 90 percent of respondents – 364 – rated courses for high-achieving high school students as “essential” or “important” and about 87 percent – 358 – said the same was true of arts offerings like band, music, drama and dance. Nearly 85 percent – 245 – described drug and alcohol education as “essential” or “important.”

Athletics, after-school programs, enrichment activities, alternative programs, and providing “up to date technology in every classroom” all enjoyed broad, but somewhat softer support. Of that group, athletics was the only rated by more respondents as “essential” – 171 – than “important “161.” The reverse was true, in some cases narrowly in each of the other areas.

Summer school was described as more “important” than “essential” by three times as many respondents, though, roughly 59 percent – 241 – put it in one of those two categories. Another 130 described it as “good to have.”

Support was even softer for adult education programs. Nearly 42 percent – 171 – described them as “good to have,” while 105 indicated they were “important” and only 43 said they were “essential.”

Of the areas surveyed sexual orientation and gender education was viewed as least important. Described as “essential” by 89 respondents and “important” by another 106, it was considered neither by 95 people who took the survey.

Spaulding said the finance committee plans to prepare an executive summary to distill the results of the survey in coming weeks.

david.delcore @timesargus.com

City ponders tax stabilization, TIF conflict

MONTPELIER — A revision of Montpelier’s tax stabilization policy has raised concerns about potential conflicts with the city’s newly created Tax Incremental Financing district.

The issue arose at a meeting of City Council Wednesday during discussion about revising the city’s tax stabilization policy.

Review of the tax stabilization policy followed a request by Councilor Ashley Hill some months ago, when she adamantly opposed city taxpayers having to bear the burden of tax breaks for new housing or commercial development because of the tax stabilization program in a city with high property taxes and rents. Hill voted against recent tax stabilization requests for Caledonia Spirits on Barre Street and Timber Homes on Elm Street.

Hill was not present at Wednesday’s discussion.

However, the discussion also raised another issue for the council: Properties within the city’s newly created Tax Incremental Financing, or TIF, district would not be eligible for tax stabilization, according to the revised policy the council is being asked to review and approve at subsequent public hearings yet to be scheduled.

The TIF district, approved in August by the Vermont Economic Progress Council, allows the city to use education property taxes to support infrastructure improvements — such as roads, sidewalks, sewer, water and utilities — to encourage a developer to build in the city because of reduced overheads.

Fraser said he had heard a range of opinions about the conflict between a TIF district and tax stabilization, including that the city could not allow tax stabilization within a TIF district.

“Or, you can do it, but the city has to make up the difference,” Fraser said, meaning that the loss of tax revenue due to tax stabilization in the TIF district would have to be passed on to other property taxpayers in the city.

Fraser said another response he received was that a developer could receive tax stabilization if they were not benefiting from any TIF funds for infrastructure improvements.

Fraser said he had been in touch with VEPC to get clarification about the conflict between the TIF and tax stabilization programs. He said VEPC was consulting with its attorneys to clarify the potential conflict.

VEPC Executive Director Megan Sullivan said TIF rules were currently under review and confirmed that the conflict between TIF and tax stabilization programs would be reviewed.

“We are focused on reviewing this with all governing statutes and TIF Rule to understand the parameters around this question,” Sullivan said in an email Friday. “We will be connecting with the city as soon as practicable to give them an answer.”

The potential conflict between the two programs creates something of dilemma for the council which is anxious to build more housing in a city with a housing shortage and attract new businesses and jobs.

It also undercuts the last month’s approval by the Vermont Downtown Board of the city’s 10-year report card on progress made in properly defining the city’s growth center to concentrate development in the downtown to prevent urban sprawl under “smart growth” policies. The maps for the TIF district and the growth center in the city are virtually identical.

The concern is that the lack of tax stabilization in the TIF district would discourage new housing and commercial development in the city and push it outside the city, adding to urban sprawl and the city’s carbon footprint.

Under the review of the tax stabilization policy, Fraser said that the current policy has multiple benefit levels of stabilization, such as a reduction in property value of one third for up to three years or for seven years, or a reduction in property value of one half for seven years or 10 years.

Under the proposed revised policy, Fraser said the policy would have one base award with possible add-on years for “very specific things.”

The base award would be a reduction in property value of one half for up to five years, with the possibility of an additional five years based on specified criteria, for both industrial and commercial projects.

Under the proposed policy the council is being asked to consider, the criteria for a base award would require the property and/or renovations and/or business personal property – such as equipment and furniture which can be included in the overall estimated value of the property – would have to be assessed at $400,000 or more; or be assessed at $100,000 or more for businesses with 25 or fewer full-time employees or with $2 million or less in annual gross sales; or for the creation or renovation of five or more commercial residential units; or for a project that created significant employment opportunities in the city.

One year, up to a total of five years, could be added to the length of tax stabilization for a number of objectives outlined in the City Master Plan. They include easements for riverfront walkways and parks, pocket parks, recreation trails and conservation easements to protect or create key natural features, open space, greenways and specimen trees.

Other benefits to the city that would accrue additional years of tax stabilization include meeting exceptional or enhanced aesthetic standards, such as burying above-ground power lines; preserving public views or vistas and maintaining or enhancing an historic building or landscape; creating a unique or significant public amenity; a net increase of 15 or more residential units in the city; or the project would create 20 full-time jobs at a pay rate to match or exceed the city’s lowest full-time hourly rate.

Other provisions of the proposed policy would require that new construction or renovation of property must have sprinklers, unless waived through the municipal appeal process. A project could also qualify for tax stabilization if could be shown that it would provide a positive tax benefit for the city, defined to mean it would not require additional city services in excess of the new tax revenues.

The council is also being asked to define other provisions for energy efficiency standards, historic preservation standards and environmental improvements.

The review of the tax stabilization policy is expected to resume at the next council meeting, Oct. 23, at 6:30 p.m.

stephen.mills @timesargus.com

jebcas / Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo  

Orange You Busy?

A crew of volunteers from the National Life Group carve more than 100 pumpkins Friday in preparation for Saturday’s Enchanted Forest event in Montpelier’s Hubbard Park. The annual celebration explores the mystery of nature with theater, storytelling, wagon rides, candlelit trails and more on a magical walk through the park from 3 to 8 p.m.