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Washington Central voters approve merged budget, amend articles of agreement

EAST MONTPELIER — Voters in a new five-town union school district collectively approved a $34 million spending plan to operate the consolidated six-school system that is ready to launch next week.

On a day when turnout was light, the budget that will finance elementary schools in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester, as well as U-32 Middle and High School, passed 497-307.

It wasn’t a clean sweep in the Washington Central Unified Union School District, but it didn’t need to be.

Ballots cast Tuesday in all five communities were tabulated separately and the budget passed in four of them while failing, 98-129, in Calais.

The 31-vote margin of defeat in Calais wasn’t the closest of the evening. The budget passed by a slim 16 votes, 60-44, in Worcester and by just three votes, 58-55, in Berlin. The budget was comfortably approved, 102-39, in Middlesex and passed by an even wider margin, 179-40, in East Montpelier.

Scott Thompson, chairman of the new Washington Central board, acknowledged the “significant protest vote in Calais” and noted that support for the budget varied based on its tax impacts. East Montpelier and Middlesex both fare well under the merger, while Calais and Worcester are hit hardest.

Thompson, who lives in Calais, has been an outspoken critic of the merger and is a party to one of the three lawsuits that challenged the state’s ability to compel them, said he was relieved the board, which meets Wednesday night, won’t have to worry about scheduling a budget re-vote.

“I’m happy about that,” he said.

“The show must go on and the show will go on,” he said.

Thompson had indicated before the vote that the likely result of a budget defeat would be a rapidly warned re-vote on essentially the same spending plan.

That would have further delayed tax bills that will already be late in two of the five towns. Berlin and this year for the first time, Middlesex, collect taxes on a quarterly basis with the first installment being due on Aug. 15. Due to the 30-day petition period for forcing a budget re-vote and a requirement taxes aren’t due until 30 days after the bills are mailed, the due date for the first installment will be later.

Meanwhile, in Worcester, two bills will likely be mailed out — one in early July reflecting municipal taxes that are due Aug. 15 and another later on that includes school taxes that will be due on Nov. 15.

Calais has two installments, but no hard date for the first, and taxes are due Nov. 15 in East Montpelier.

Voters interviewed Tuesday expressed mixed opinions about the budget and the looming merger.

Fletcher Dean said he and his wife Jane, of Calais, have been monitoring the lively discussion about the budget and the merger on social media.

“There’s been a bit of a populist protest on the forced merger,” he said, noting much of that discussion has focused on the “unfair transfer of debt.”

Berlin, Middlesex and East Montpelier financed significant building renovations in recent years with multi-million-dollar bond issues that will be inherited by the new district.

Dean and his wife did not say whether they voted against the budget or how they voted on any of the five proposed amendments to the default articles of agreement for the district.

All five amendments were approved overwhelmingly after each passed by wide margins in all five towns. That included one that essentially allows any of the towns to veto the future closure of their local elementary schools.

In East Montpelier, Mark and Susan Stephen said they supported the merger and the unified budget.

“We’re very strong supporters of the law and the schools,” he said, acknowledging there are those that don’t.

Mark Stephen said that is why he voted against the last of the five proposed amendments — one he interpreted as an invitation to potentially extend a legal challenge beyond an already promised appeal.

“I don’t want to give those who are opposed too many bites at the apple,” he said. “It’s time to move forward.”

A superior court judge has dismissed some of the claims contained in a lawsuit filed on behalf of 33 school districts, including four of the six in Washington Central, and recently rejected the rest, setting the stage for a Supreme Court appeal.

In Berlin, Frank and Louise Mier said they weren’t fans of the forced merger, but supported the budget to run the new pre-K-12 district anyway.

“There’s no point in taking it out on our school system, the problem is the state,” he said.

Louise Mier agreed, suggesting while she had a problem with the mergers ordered under Act 46, she didn’t object to the school spending plan, which is essentially a compilation of elementary school budgets separately approved by voters of the new district and one — U-32 — that was collectively approved.

“We supported them before,” she said of the budgets for Berlin Elementary School and U-32.

In Middlesex, Jessica Lyle-Harvey said she voted “yes” down the line. The merger, she said, was “inevitable,” the budget reasonable and she was unpersuaded the shift in governance structure would be terribly consequential.

“I don’t think much will change,” she said. “I guess we’ll see.”


Jpkuckens / Josh Kuckens / Staff Photo  

Cycling in the Rain

Don Stoppe leads a group of cyclists from Plymouth, N.H. through rainy conditions along Barre-Montpelier Road on Tuesday.

Vt. farmers inducted into hall of fame

Vermont Creamery co-founders Bob Reese and Allison Hooper were inducted into the Specialty Food Association Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City on Sunday.

The Specialty Food Association represents thousands of artisanal food producers with annual sales of $150 billion, the fastest growing sector of the food market in the United States. On Sunday, the association inducted eight individuals whose accomplishments within the specialty food industry were recognized.

Vermont Creamery was founded in Websterville in 1984, when Reese and Hooper were pioneers of the artisan cheese movement in the United States, introducing Americans to fresh and aged goat cheeses, European-style cultured butter and crème fraîche, which have won hundreds of national and international awards. In its 35th year of business, Vermont Creamery supports a network of more than 17 family farms, promoting sustainable agriculture in the region. B Corp-certified in 2014, the creamery was ranked one of the “Best Places to Work in Vermont” by Vermont Business Magazine. In March 2017, Reese and Hooper sold the business, which remains independently operated, to Minnesota-based Land ’O Lakes, one of America’s largest agribusiness and food companies.

“It’s certainly an honor to be included in such an unbelievable group of food entrepreneurs, artisan food producers within the Specialty Food Association,” Reese said in an interview Monday. “We did our first show back in 1987, and that was a launching point where we could see the movement of international imported cheeses switching over to interest in local foods being produced in the United States.

“That was a gratifying moment because we thought we could never compete with these international cheeses. But then we would go to a show and someone said, ‘It’s about time someone is making local goat cheeses — I’ve been waiting for this for so long,’ so it was a magical moment,” he added.

Reese said the artisanal food movement offered Vermont farmers the chance to overcome the slow failure of the dairy industry as overproduction lowered milk prices, putting many Vermont farms in jeopardy. Reese noted that there were over 8,000 dairy farms in 1984, while today, there are just over 700.

“In 1984, when we started Vermont Creamery, there were only seven licensed cheese companies in the state, and today, the Vermont Cheese Makers Association lists 55 cheese makers, and last year, there were 40 exhibiting at the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival at Shelburne Farms,” Reese said. “We were pioneering all of this in the beginning.

“I think there’s maybe a dozen farmstead artisanal cheese companies making fresh goat cheese and selling it locally, so that’s a real tribute to Vermont being a state of entrepreneurs, Vermont making high-quality milk that can create high-quality cheese. There’s also a lifestyle commitment where you have a family farm with the younger generation starting to operate the value-added parts of the business. It’s just a win-win,” Reese added.

“We are grateful for the validation from our peers in the specialty food business,” said co-founder Allison Hooper. “Having transitioned ownership two years ago makes it especially poignant to be recognized for our legacy.

“I’m glad we haven’t been forgotten. Those 35 years that we were doing this were really significant. That’s when all the development was happening, all of the awareness was happening, and now, it’s become very competitive.

“Bob and I started this business with $2,400. We just bootstrapped the thing together, making a mistake here and there, and every once in a while, doing something right, making it work. Who knew that we would have created what we did and really provided some momentum for a lot of others to do similar things? It’s a great honor,” she added.

“Bob and Allison ingrained an entrepreneurial spirit in Vermont Creamery that remains at the heart of who we are today,” said Adeline Druart, president of Vermont Creamery. “It takes a village to build a business, but without their vision, our dream to bringing artisan cheese and cultured butter to Americans would have never been realized.”

For more information about the Hall of Fame, or the inductees, visit

To learn more about Vermont Creamery, visit


Berlin voters approve school option, easement, lease extension

BERLIN — Voters at a special meeting Monday approved three documents designed to protect the town’s interests in Berlin Elementary School following the July 1 launch of the state-ordered merger that will necessitate it changing hands.

The looming transfer will feature restrictions approved at Monday’s town meeting-style session. The meeting was the last for the Berlin School Board before it cedes operational authority of its pre-K-6 system to the 10-member board of the Washington Central Unified Union School District next week.

Vera Frazier, who serves as chairwoman of the local board and one of Berlin’s two representatives on the new merged board, urged approval of three documents — an option, an easement and a lease extension. All, she said, were drafted by the board’s lawyer following a May 8 meeting with the Select Board.

Frazier acknowledged one of the documents — the option — mirrors language included in default articles of agreement for the merged district. It would, she said, give the town the right to purchase the school property for $1 in the event it ever ceases to be used for the “direct delivery of education.”

Though the articles of agreement say the same thing, Frazier said, it is possible they could be changed in the future — a decision that wouldn’t be made exclusively by Berlin voters or their elected representatives.

“We felt it best to have another layer of protection,” she said, noting that attorney Scott Cameron was comfortable with the language the board had proposed.

During a meeting that was easy on Moderator Paul Gillies there was limited discussion, no real debate and no dissent. There was praise for school directors who moved swiftly to react to property-related issues that were flagged late in the merger process.

“I want to give the School Board credit for pursuing this and trying to protect the interests of the town,” Select Board member Jeremy Hanson said referring to the now-approved option.

The option also reserves the opportunity to subdivide the 1.28-acre portion of the land that the local district now leases to the Berlin Volunteer Fire Department for its primary fire station. Once subdivided, the option allows that portion of the school property to be conveyed to the town for $1 regardless of whether the rest of the property is still being used by the new school district.

Responding to a question posed by resident Robert Wernecke, Frazier said there wasn’t time for the local board to complete the subdivision process before July 1, and it viewed inserting language into the option and asking voters to approve an extension of the local school district’s long-term lease with the fire department as the best way to proceed.

Voters unanimously agreed to extend the lease with the fire department through 2088. Though there are still 20 years left on the original $1-a-year lease that was signed in 1989, voters exercised the previously contemplated option of extending it for 49 years.

Former board member Peter Schober recalled the 30-year-old decision to approve 50 years of a 99-year lease.

“At the time, 50 years seemed like a long time,” he said. “It doesn’t so much now.”

Schober also spoke in favor of the easement deed Cameron prepared at the request of the School Board. He said a prior board recognized the school as “an asset of the town” when it opted to make it more accessible for use by residents.

The easement deed, which was unanimously approved, codifies the town’s expectation it would enjoy continued use of the facility for a variety of uses. Those uses range from holding its annual town meeting and most other elections at the school, to use of the property for recreational purposes and its continued availability as an emergency shelter.

Ture Nelson, who serves on the local emergency management committee, said the latter was an important consideration.

Former chairman Chris Winters, who stepped down from the board in March, echoed the sentiments expressed earlier in the meeting by Hanson.

“I would like to thank this School Board for continuing to work in the face of your ultimate extinction … and doing what’s best for the town and for stepping up when people really needed you to,” Winters said. “Thank you for that.”

The documents approved by Berlin voters Monday night are similar, but not identical to those executed by the Calais School Board last week and the ones voters in Middlesex will consider during a special school district meeting set for 5:30 p.m. Friday at Rumney Memorial School. School boards in East Montpelier and Worcester — the other two elementary school districts that are part of a Washington Central merger that includes U-32 Middle and High School — saw no need to invest in what Frazier characterized as “an added layer of security.”


Sue Allen to leave Capital City post

MONTPELIER — Assistant City Manager Sue Allen has announced she will be stepping down later this year and leaving the area after decades of being involved in media and politics in the Capital City.

Allen, 61, is leaving because her husband, Jim Picone, is taking a job as a physician’s assistant in general practice medicine at Grace Cottage Family Health and Hospital in Townshend.

So, we’re gonna move,” Allen said in an interview Monday. “He was looking around for a job around here, and all over the state, and this one came up. It’s an exciting opportunity for us.

“There’s a sadness for us leaving Montpelier and this area but we also have friends down there, so it will be an interesting, fun adventure,” Allen added.

Allen said the couple will probably rent out their Calais home while they look around for places to rent or buy down south. “We’ll be a little up in the air about that,” Allen said.

“I’ll be around for a while yet — I have the 1 Taylor Street project going, the garage project going, things that I don’t just want to walk away from and I want to make sure someone is in place to pick up those pieces,” Allen said. She was referring to the Taylor Street transit center and housing complex, due for completion in August; and the proposed public parking garage on the Capitol Plaza Hotel parking lot, although local residents have appealed permits for the project.

“The garage is in a legal process, it’s moving forward through the courts and I would love to think it could be a negotiated process,” Allen said.

Allen has been at the center of media and political life in the state since she arrived in Vermont in 1986. At the time, she was working as a researcher at USA Today, owned by the Gannett newspapers group in greater Washington, D.C.

“I decided I wanted to be a reporter and they told me I could pick a paper, anywhere in the country, and go learn, which is what I did,” Allen said.

She picked the Burlington Free Press, working under editor Jim Welch, and also worked for The Associated Press in Vermont for a while.

“At the Free Press, I was a political reporter, in the Montpelier bureau, and covered the State House and politics,” Allen said. “At the Associated Press, I did general assignment reporting but also did political reporting and covered the State House.”

From 1996 to 2003, she was special assistant and press secretary to former Gov. Howard Dean, including almost a year on Dean’s presidential campaign before she stepped down to return to the Burlington Free Press as an editorial writer, from 2004 to 2006.

“I was press secretary to Howard Dean and really, really enjoyed it and got my first taste of public service, and I loved that ever since,” Allen said.

From 2006 to 2010, Allen was the editor at The Times Argus, and also worked as the executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont from 2010 to 2011.

From 2011 to 2017, Allen was the special assistant and deputy chief of staff to former Gov. Peter Shumlin.

“With Shumlin, I started as press secretary, and then after two years, became deputy chief of staff for the last four years, so I was with him the whole way,” Allen said.

“Both governors were very similar,” Allen continued. “They were very action-focused. They really wanted to make change. They didn’t want to just tread water and sit in place. With Howard Dean, it was land conservation and health care and expanding health care for more Vermonters, particularly children.

“With Shumlin, it was single-payer health care and all the things that he worked on in his administration — closing Vermont Yankee (nuclear power plant). They were just similar that way. They were also kind of no-nonsense: They said what they meant and did what they said, and I appreciated that,” she added.

Allen became assistant city manager in Montpelier in May 2017.

“I became assistant city manager under City Manager Bill Fraser,” Allen said. “Bill and I worked out what I was good at and how best to use the role. I took on projects like 1 Taylor Street and the garage.

“The things I most enjoyed were the ice-skating rink on the State House lawn and bringing the farmer’s market up to State Street, things that just made the city a little more vibrant and a fun place to live,” Allen continued.

“But I’m sad about leaving Montpelier,” added Allen. “Somebody once said that Montpelier is on fire, and they meant that as a compliment. Things are happening and this city is just booming. I’m a firm believer that if cities don’t change, they die. They need to move forward, change and be vibrant.”



“There is possibly no more simple pleasure than spreading a blanket on the town green, opening the picnic cooler and enjoying a concert from the bandstand while children laugh and play, and grandparents smile at the newest generation.”

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