BARRE — Plans to transform the Central Vermont Career Center into a stand-alone school district have cleared another key hurdle and proponents are now preparing for a mid-December date with the state Board of Education.
It isn’t clear how much to make of the fact the Barre-based career center’s bid for autonomy will be on the state board’s agenda when it meets Dec. 15, but CVCC Director Jody Emerson considers it the latest in a string of promising developments.
The state Agency of Education has suggested what Emerson described Friday as some “mostly minor clarifying edits” to a governance document that would serve as a blueprint for the proposed district. However, she said the vetting process hasn’t raised any red flags so far and indicated the agency has been generally supportive in its back and forth with the committee’s consultant, Michael Deweese.
According to Emerson, the best evidence is the fact the proposal is on the state board’s agenda next month.
“They (agency officials) believed it was ready to move forward,” she said.
The agency’s review was one of the few remaining pivot points in a process that, with the state board’s blessing, would culminate in Town Meeting Day votes in 18 central Vermont communities in March.
Though it isn’t yet clear whether Education Secretary Dan French will make a formal recommendation with respect to the proposal, Emerson hasn’t heard anything that would indicate he would suggest it be denied.
“Everything I’m hearing is positive,” she said of a proposal that would create a truly regional governance structure for what has always been a regional educational resource.
Emerson said generally favorable reviews she received during October visits with school boards in six affected districts were cause for optimism. Those districts include the one in Barre, which has been solely responsible for oversight of the career center since it opened under a different name on the Spaulding High School campus more than 50 years ago.
Earlier this month, Emerson, who was hired by the Barre board earlier this year, secured its approval of a three-year lease that outlines the terms under which the center will continue to occupy its 41,000-square-foot wing at Spaulding.
That lease is with a district that doesn’t yet exist, but, with the blessing of the state board and the collective approval of voters in 18 communities, could be ready for launch next July — a year after Emerson took over as director of the career center and nearly 15 months after an 11-member committee first considered whether to recommend a change in governance.
Fresh off a Thursday night open house that drew 176 residents, including three area lawmakers, Emerson said the committee will meet on Tuesday to prepare for its looming meeting with the state board. That meeting, she said, will be spent reviewing proposed adjustments to the articles of agreement, deciding who should attend the Dec. 15 meeting and discussing a communications plan in the event the state board greenlights the proposal.
Emerson said communication will be key, because while board members have been briefed on the proposed change voters may need to be brought up to speed about what it would and wouldn’t mean in the run up to Town Meeting Day.
“We’re really going to have to get the word out,” she said.
One popular misconception — one belied by the just-approved lease — is that it would necessitate the career center’s relocation. A move may eventually happen and the possibility is actively being explored, but the wing at Spaulding will remain the center’s home for the foreseeable future.
A favorable vote would mean all six districts that send some of their students to the career center would have more than an advisory voice in that process going forward.
Due to their comparatively large size, some would have more say than others.
Based on the proposed articles of agreement, school boards of all six districts — Barre, Cabot, Harwood, Montpelier-Roxbury, Twinfield and Washington Central — would appoint one of their members to the new regional board for the career center. Due to their comparatively large size, four of those districts — Barre, Harwood, Montpelier-Roxbury and Washington Central would each be entitled to one additional representative on the new board. Those four members would be collectively elected by voters in all 18 towns to round out the 10-member board.
If things go well on Dec. 15, candidates for those four seats — like proposed creation of the Central Vermont Career Center School District — would be on the ballot in affected towns in March.
That list is long. It includes both Barres — the city and the town — as well as Montpelier and Roxbury. Washington Central’s five towns — Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester — would be asked to weigh in and so would the six — Duxbury, Fayston, Moretown, Waitsfield and Warren and Waterbury — in the Harwood district. Twinfield’s two towns — Plainfield and Marshfield would have a vote and so would Cabot.
The proposed articles of agreement contemplates the question involving the creation of the new district and the board elections be included on separate ballots that would be collected after the polls in each community on Town Meeting Day, and then comingled before being counted.
The proposal doesn’t break new ground, but it will be a first for current members of the state board because the last time a similar change was approved was in 2004. Vermont currently has three autonomous centers run by regional boards. Assuming state board and then voter approval, the central Vermont center would join career centers in Bennington, Middlebury and Springfield in using that model.
Those centers are all separately governed, but still tethered to the high schools that hosted when they were founded. River Valley Technical Center is located in a wing of Springfield High School, while the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center occupies a wing of Middlebury Union High School. The Southwest Vermont Career Center has its own building, but it is on the campus of Mount Anthony Union High School.
Local doctors say they are seeing the increase in drug overdoses reported by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and while they believe they understand some of the causes, they are working to reduce the problem among local substance abusers.
A report from the CDC released this week found that more than 100,000 people had died from drug overdoses from April 2020 to April 2021, an increase of 28.5% nationally from about 78,000 during the same period from April 2019 to 2020. Among U.S. states, Vermont saw the biggest percentage increase, 70%, going from 123 deaths to 209 in the period covered by the CDC report.
Dr. Ben Smith, medical director of the emergency department at Central Vermont Medical Center, said staff members at his hospital have seen an increase from the beginning of the pandemic.
Smith said it was especially disappointing because Vermont had been making progress in decreasing the number of deaths from overdoses through 2019 but now the trend has “dramatically reversed.”
“Isolation is like the antithesis of recovery for a lot of these folks. It’s really been a punch to the gut for people struggling with substance use disorder,” he said.
People struggling with substance use disorder often have other health needs. So many patients needing those services come through the emergency department, Smith said.
Smith noted that among the challenges for patients and the health care providers is that many “street drugs,” from what are generally accepted to be in that category like heroin to fake prescription medications, designed to look like Xanax or oxycodone, are now laced with fentanyl.
The presence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid used for treating severe pain, which the CDC says is “50 to 100 times more potent than morphine,” is not only dangerous because of the greater risk of death, but also because many of the users may not be aware they’re taking fentanyl.
The CDC reports almost 73% of overdose deaths involve synthetic opioids.
Dr. Saeed Ahmed, medical director of West Ridge Center at Rutland Regional Medical Center, said he’s aware of fentanyl being present at times even in a drug like marijuana that generally presents little risk.
This can also present a threat when a person buys a counterfeit medication.
“Someone who is naïve to fentanyl, and they go and try to get Xanax or Klonopin or Ativan, they end up getting fentanyl. They have no tolerance to opioids, they have no tolerance to fentanyl. They end up dying,” Ahmed said.
Like Smith, Ahmed said he believed the spread of the COVID virus and the use of opioids was becoming a “dual pandemic.”
“COVID caused economic instability in our patients and individuals in general, caused homelessness, people lost their homes, lost their jobs. People became socially isolated which is a big, big factor in opioids and people had limited access to the treatment centers,” he said.
According to Ahmed, patients can be very supportive of others who are abusing substances. They can provide something like naloxone, also known as Narcan, without even being asked. But that kind of peer support won’t happen in isolation.
Ahmed said there were no group meetings for patients, no Alcoholic Anonymous meetings and no Narcotics Anonymous meetings during the pandemic.
“This becomes a terrible situation when patients have no access to treatment. People were reluctant to come to the clinics because they were fearful of being exposed to the virus. Similarly, the health care system became fearful because there were numerous deaths among health care staff. We lost a lot of services,” he said.
Ahmed pointed out the problem went beyond Vermont.
Smith said the health care providers at Central Vermont have been trying to help by providing materials to patients including clean needles, naloxone, which can reverse the effects of drug overdose and fentanyl testing strips that can allow someone to see whether the substance they’re about to use is laced.
Ahmed said some of the efforts being taken at West Ridge include the increased use of telehealth. He said that can be helpful for patients who are still trying to avoid being among groups of people but can also reduce the stigma of getting treatment.
This barrier to treatment can be especially prevalent at places like West Ridge that offer medication-assisted therapy (MAT) treatment, like methadone. Ahmed said community members are aware that many of West Ridge’s patients have a substance abuse issue and, as a result, those patients may not want to be seen coming or going from the facility.
Ahmed is also emphasizing the “harm reduction” model to reduce the likelihood of drug overdoses. The model includes the distribution of naloxone and fentanyl testing strips.
Smith pointed out the ongoing danger faced by those who are abusing substances.
“We know that when they do come to the ER, if they’ve been resuscitated or we resuscitate them, if someone comes to the (emergency department) after an overdose, that person has a one in 10 chance of dying in the subsequent calendar year so those patients are extraordinarily high risk,” he said.
Smith and Ahmed said they wanted members of the community to know that if they or a loved one is abusing a substance and needs treatment, they should not hesitate to seek treatment.
Smith added community members should also be aware of a “severe increase in alcohol use,” sometimes by people who are also abusing opioids.
“The number of young people, in their 30s, 40s, 50s, with terrible, end-stage liver failure from which it’s very hard to recover, in the last year and a half from the beginning of the pandemic has been really fairly staggering,” he said.
CVMC is rolling out a program to treat alcohol withdrawal in the emergency department, according to Smith.
“In addition to reminding ourselves about the dangers of opioid use and isolation, I think it’s important to remember that alcohol is also an increasing killer among us right now,” he said.
BURLINGTON — A fertility doctor, who is accused of secretly providing his sperm to impregnate two women in Central Vermont more than 40 years ago, will have his disciplinary hearing before the Vermont Medical Practice Board in early December.
Dr. John Boyd Coates III also learned this week he is due to go on trial in U.S. District Court in January to determine the financial damages for the first mother. He also faces a second civil lawsuit in federal court from the mother of the second child.
Coates never told either mother he was going to use his own sperm instead of the promised specimen he claimed would come from a medical school student, according to two lawsuits.
Coates practiced from 1974 to 1986 in Washington County, including at Central Vermont Hospital and the office of Associates in Gynecology and Obstetrics in Berlin.
Coates also was associated with University of Vermont Medical Center and Mountain View Physicians Office in Colchester from 1986-2009, records show.
Coates, who is now retired and living in Shelburne, got a setback on Friday when he learned the child of the second mother would likely be allowed to testify at his state misconduct hearing on Dec. 7 and 8.
Retired Vermont Judge George F. Belcher, who will be the Hearing Officer for the two-day session, ruled the potential testimony of the child — who is now in her 40s — appeared relevant.
During the Friday hearing, Montpelier lawyer Peter Joslin, on behalf of Coates, argued the child of the second mother should be prohibited from testifying at the Medical Practice Board hearing.
Joslin argued the child had not been born at the time and therefore he believed she did not have relevant information.
Prosecutor Megan Campbell countered the testimony was critical to show the harm of the misconduct by Coates. She said case law supports the state’s position that the mother’s child could offer important testimony.
Joslin insisted that her testimony concerning three of the six unprofessional counts would be immaterial and irrelevant. He claimed it would be prejudicial, improper and there were no legal grounds.
Under questioning from Belcher, Joslin acknowledged he had been allowed to question the daughter of patient 2 during a deposition in a federal court proceeding.
Belcher said after reading all the legal filings, hearing arguments, and researching the cases cited by lawyers he would allow the woman to testify. He said he would file a written decision with his reasoning, but noted in part the witness did not have to be a patient of Coates — only a member of the public.
While the public was allowed to attend the 50-minute hearing Friday and listen to arguments on the initial motion to preclude her testimony and the responses, the Vermont Health Department blocked the release of the legal documents to the Rutland Herald and Times Argus.
Charon Goldwyn, a Public Records officer for the health department, said late Friday afternoon she believed that motions and responses filed in connection with a public hearing are confidential and cannot be released in disciplinary cases. It came in response to a public records request after the hearing.
The state earlier this fall provided documents outlining the six administrative charges after an investigation team from the Medical Practice Board had determined there was reason to file charges.
Joslin also asked Friday that before the final hearing, there is a ruling or agreement about how the two patients will be referred to during testimony: by their real names or by patient 1 and 2.
Campbell noted the two mothers and the two daughters have been identified in public during earlier proceedings, but she had not heard their preference. The mothers filed their civil lawsuits in their own names.
Belcher said the hearing panel and the medical board are sensitive to the issue, but at the same time he believes they will start off with the names being used.
Joslin also had questions about filing exhibits for the hearing under seal to prevent public access.
Belcher said he was “Unlikely to just, carte blanche, throw things under seal.”
He added, “if you want something under seal, we would need a good and important reason to do that and would need the legal authority to do that as well.”
Coates is facing six disciplinary counts and possible revocation of his medical license, according to the Vermont Medical Practice Board. The state also wants an administrative penalty of at least $4,000.
The first three administrative charges involve the initial patient and counts 4 through 6 relate to the second patient.
The mothers, who were unknown to each other at the time, delivered their respective babies in December 1977 and February 1979, records show.
Earlier this week, during a hearing in the U.S. District Court in Burlington, Joslin also said his client might object to another witness when a civil lawsuit involving patient 1 goes to trial in January. Joslin appeared to want patient 2 blocked from testimony in that case.
Coates has admitted in the first parental case that he secretly introduced his sperm into the patient, court records and lawyers have noted.
The federal trial in January is solely to determine the damages that the first couple should receive for the fraud, according to Burlington lawyer Jerry O’Neill, who, along with Celeste Lamarie, represent the plaintiffs.
O’Neill said patient 1, her husband, a medical expert, and Coates are on the witness list and possibly patient 2.
Joslin said he might object.
Under questioning by Senior Judge William K. Sessions III, O’Neill said he estimates the jury trial would take about two days, but could go into a third day.
Sessions said he was inclined to use a six- or eight-member jury, which would hold with COVID-19 protocols for proper distancing.
He said the trial date will depend on multiple factors, including whether the lawyers would waive a jury and allow the court to decide the case.
Joslin said he is trying to juggle the two hearings in between closing his longtime law firm in Montpelier. He said he will be associated with his son, who is a lawyer in Albany, New York.
The Division I All-State high school football team was released this week following last weekend’s state championships. B1