MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott has announced restaurants can open for outdoor seating, some medical procedures can resume and businesses such as salons and barbershops, can start back up May 29 in response to the state’s positive handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The governor said depending on data tracking the virus that causes COVID-19, he’s looking to increase the number of people allowed to group up from 10 to 25 starting June 1. He also announced churches can open at 25% capacity.
It wasn’t all good news because the governor announced that fairs and festivals have been canceled for the summer, including the Vermont State Fair in Rutland and the Champlain Valley Fair — two very popular summertime events. Events that take place in the fall may be able to go forward, but Scott said it would depend on where things stand in the coming months.
The numbers being reported from the Department of Health continue to be encouraging. The state has ramped up its testing ability and state officials expected that to mean an increase in positive tests. But the department reported only two new cases of the virus Friday, increasing the total confirmed cases in the state from 950 to 952. There also has not been another death from the virus. That total remains 54.
Scott said he’s taking a conservative approach to reopening the economy because of what’s going on regionally. New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts continue to be in worse shape than Vermont in combating the virus.
“Because we’re not on an island, and some of our neighbors still have a significant number of new and active cases,” he said.
The governor said businesses that can start back up will need to follow health and safety requirements from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
Restaurants must have their tables spaced at least 10 feet apart and no more than 50 people can be seated. They are required to use disposable menus and a total of 10 people from only two households are allowed to sit at the same table.
Salons and barbershops are only allowed to operate at 25% capacity, or one customer per 200 square feet, or 10 total customers and staff members combined, whichever is greater. Those businesses can only take appointments, so no more walk-ins.
Restaurants, bars, salons and barbershops, as well as lodging businesses, are required to keep a log of those they have served for 30 days in an effort to help contact tracing if needed.
Gyms and spas aren’t allowed to open yet, but Scott said he’s looking to announce a time frame for them in a week.
Scott said he’s tried not to get too far ahead of the data when making decisions, but “the reality is, we’re still far from being back to normal.” He said the Vermont Fairs and Field Days Association has asked him for guidance on whether this summer’s events should proceed. The governor said the state’s not ready for “large, unstructured events with hundreds, if not thousands, of people coming into one area without control and the ability to physically separate.”
Scott said all traditional fairs and festivals have been canceled for the season. He said this order does not close fairgrounds or prohibit operations that may meet the health and safety requirements put forth in the coming months.
Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the state Department of Health, said some medical procedures can move forward. They include inpatient surgeries and procedures; outpatient services, including clinic visits, diagnostic imaging and limited outpatient surgeries and procedures; and elective dental services.
Levine said health care providers will have to screen patients, staff and visitors for symptoms of the virus. They will also need to have adequate supplies of personal protective equipment and procedures in place to test staff, as well as patients who will be having surgery.
MONTPELIER — A financial storm may be brewing for school districts around the state, but members of the Montpelier Roxbury School Board were told Wednesday night they’ve got a reasonably sturdy umbrella.
After flagging more than $610,000 in savings – some admittedly more speculative than others – Superintendent Libby Bonesteel spoke with some confidence about the fiscal stability of a school district that is suddenly operating in “the land of the unknown.”
“We are in a very solid place going into a very uncertain future financially and we probably have way more flexibility … than many districts across the state,” she said.
Though it came even as a school year that was interrupted by a global pandemic is coming to a chaotic close and there appear to be nothing but question marks with respect to what school will look like in the fall, Bonesteel’s cautiously optimistic assertion isn’t without justification.
The two-town district Bonesteel is responsible for running carried a sizable surplus – nearly $890,000 into the current fiscal year and it doesn’t appear the COVID-19 crisis will put a dent in it.
In fact, Bonesteel told board members, the reverse appears to be true.
With barely a month left in a fiscal year that will end on June 30, board members were told “conservative estimates” suggest the fund balance will swell by about $240,000.
Bonesteel virtually walked board members through those “real” savings.
Bonesteel explained the mid-year retirement of one instructional assistant and the death of another saved $50,000 because neither position was filled and the district received a credit of $50,000 from its busing company because student transportation was ended when in-person instruction was suspended in March.
Due to a medical issue there was a bumpy transition in school resource officers that Bonesteel said saved the district $27,000.
Spring sports and other co-curricular activities never happened saving the district another $30,000 and Bonesteel said the district spent $25,000 less than anticipated on books, $25,000 less on supplies and $20,000 less on field trips.
Bonesteel said the district gave up trying to fill a half-time custodial position at Roxbury Village School that opened up in the middle of the year and, using existing personnel, was able to save another $14,000.
There have been unanticipated costs associated with the district’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, but Bonseteel is currently predicting they will essentially be offset by yet-to-be-quantified heating and utility savings that can be traced to four mostly dormant school buildings.
School Director Andrew Stein said if that forecast holds the district’s cash reserves will increase from 3.5 to 4.5 percent of its $25.3 million budget.
“This isn’t the time you want to add to your fund balance to really pad your reserves, but we know heading into next year and the year after that we’re going to have some very difficult financial waters to navigate so we can use this then to navigate those,” he said.
Stein got no argument from Bonesteel or Business Manager Grant Geisler.
“That is exactly the story we want to tell,” Bonesteel said.
“This is why we build a fund balance,” Geisler agreed. “For something dramatic.”
Bonesteel went on to identify more than $370,000 in potential savings that could be realized during the fiscal year that starts July 1.
At least one will be.
The budget approved by voters in March included $10,000 more than will actually be needed to cover the cost of the school resource officer.
Bonesteel said opting not to fill the two instructional assistants positions would save $73,000 and abandoning plans to hire a half-time custodian for Roxbury Village School would save another $28,000.
The biggest potential savings – $150,000 – would involve strategically deferring capital improvements that aren’t safety-related.
Scrapping plans to hire a weekend custodian would save $20,000 and Bonesteel noted perceived need – expanding community access to the schools – probably won’t be allowed as long as concerns about COVID-19 are still lingering.
The other two possible areas of savings reflect the level of uncertainty associated with the coming school year.
If field trips aren’t allowed – and Bonesteel said that’s a good bet for at least part of the school year it would save $60,000.
Bonesteel said fall sports are also a “big question,” though she described that $30,000 as “the weakest potential savings” on a list that was $371,000 long.
Stein said if only half of those savings are realized it would push the district’s fund balance to 5.2 percent of the budget voters approved in March.
However, Geisler warned those savings could quickly be eroded, citing busing as a potential wildcard, particularly if social distancing guidelines are still in place when schools reopen.
“That’s one of the big unknowns,” he said.
Board members, who had discussed expanding busing to include middle school students openly wondered whether eliminating transportation for all but students from Roxbury might make sense. They quickly concluded that conversation was premature.
With lawmakers wrestling with how to replenish Vermont’s pandemic-depleted education fund, Bonesteel acknowledged the possibility of the state “clawing back” 5 percent of education spending that would otherwise be due to the district is real, but it is something the district could absorb.
“We will be able to do that even without the savings,” she said.
Bonesteel said the district is planning to invest $30,000 in Chromebooks to bolster its remote learning capabilities and she expects there will be other COVID-19 expenses that are being separately tracked for reimbursement purposes.
EAST MONTPELIER — Bracing for a brutal budget season they were told may force them to seriously consider cutting staff, members of the Washington Central School Board have approved an administrative recommendation that will essentially incentivize early retirement in the five-town district.
The proposal provoked mixed reviews during Wednesday night’s virtual board meeting and that division was ultimately reflected in the, 8-4, vote approving a plan to extend the early retirement offer to 55 eligible employees across the pre-K-12 district anchored by U-32 Middle and High School.
Citing “dire” financial projections that could influence a fiscal year that won’t start for another 13 months, Interim Superintendent Debra Taylor pitched the plan she said enjoyed her support, the endorsement of incoming superintendent Brian Olkowski and the backing of administrators across the six-school district.
The board-approved proposal will guarantee the mix of professional and support staff who accept the offer by Sept. 15 50 percent of their annual salary paid in three annual installments and one year of continued health insurance with the district paying 80 percent of the premiums for a single plan.
The plan is to extend that offer to the 55 employees who have worked for some facet of the now-merged school system for at least 15 years and whose age and years of service add up to at least 70.
Board members were told 28 professional staff and 27 support staff fit that profile and administrators expect roughly 40 percent of them might opt for early retirement.
Taylor said that would save money, provide administrators and the board with flexibility when budget season rolls around and be a “humane” alternative to eliminating positions based on seniority.
“It would be an opportunity to make decisions that could result in reduced staff without the pain of a reduction in force, which … is really challenging and … has long term effects,” she said.
Assuming 22 employees accept the offer and four of those positions are left vacant, Taylor said the district would save more more than $500,000 over four years, with nearly half of that savings – $227,000 – anticipated in the fiscal year that will start July 1, 2021.
School Directors Stephen Looke and Lindy Johnson, were skeptical savings would be realized, while others, including board members Chris McVeigh and Diane Nichols-Flemming worried about inviting an exodus of seasoned teachers, administrators and support staff at a time when their experience could be a crucial commodity.
Looke said he “strenuously opposed” an idea that had been deployed in the past without achieving the hoped for results.
“I don’t think we can afford to do this,” he said. “It’s going to cost us money it’s not going to save us money in the near term and it’s the near term when we need to save money.”
Johnson agreed noting past promises of savings associated with similar programs have never materialized and questioning the wisdom of arbitrarily rewarding people for what some might do anyway and others are doing without any incentives this year.
“I really have problems with the early retirement system,” she said.
Nichols-Flemming and McVeigh said the too were torn with respect to a plan that was proposed in response to a grim financial forecast caused by public health crisis that has shuttered school across the state and has had students learning from home since mid-March.
It isn’t yet clear what public education in Vermont will look like when August rolls around and – money aside – Nichols-Flemming said she wasn’t certain encouraging early retirement was a prudent strategy.
“Is it wise for us to encourage our most experienced teachers to be leaving when we actually might need (their) guidance as this changing landscape happens?” she asked.
McVeigh sounded a similar concern noting the projected savings – if realized – amount to less than 1 percent of the district’s $30 million budget.
“I’m not convinced savings justifies losing experienced staff,” he said.
School Director Flor Diaz-Smith said she was initially skeptical, but was swayed by the projected savings and the assertion if staff reductions are required that conversation would be comparatively painless if the board had a set menu of soon-to-be-vacant positions to consider.
“It’s more humane,” she said, echoing the word Taylor used at the outset to frame the discussion.
Taylor said there was value in being able to bank on savings associated with replacing employees at high end of the salary schedule with less expensive alternatives and a strategic advantage in being able to consider eliminating some of those positions through attrition.
At times Taylor spoke more certainly than others about the prospect of having to issue reduction in force (RIF) notices to staff due to budget constraints next year, prompting Nichols-Flemming to express concern about that message.
“I do not want it reported out of this board meeting that we have an understanding that our staff are going to be RIFed,” she said. “We haven’t even begun that fight.”
Taylor said the proposal wasn’t intended to get ahead of the board, but rather to provide it with more palatable options heading into a budget season when spending reductions could be encouraged, if not required.
The discussion ended with an, 8-4, virtual vote that will give employees eligible for the early retirement package ample time to weigh the board’s offer before making a decision by the mid-September deadline.
By then Taylor will have moved on, Olkowski will have settled in as superintendent and work on the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, 2021 will just be getting under way.
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