Welcome! Here is a bit about me to ease you in.

Me in the executive office of the Vermont Cynic newsroom April 2016 during my time as editor-in-chief at the Vermont Cynic, where my love for journalism began.

The first newspaper I was ever published in was made out of glue, magic markers, and oversized construction paper. It contained the stories of each member of her fifth-grade class. Some of my peers resisted the idea writing or illustrating at first, but  my friend and I  said  it would not be a class paper unless the whole class was represented.

A decade later, my passion remains the same: representing many voices to understand a higher truth. At 18, I went to a meeting for her college newspaper where I found that my passion had a name — journalism. I went on to serve as the editor-in-chief for that paper, the Vermont Cynic.

The Cynic has been named the 19th best paper in the nation by the Princeton Review.

In October 2016, a story  I cowrote as a part of the Cynic’s investigative news team was named the American Collegiate Press’ Diversity Story of the Year. During the story, we interviewed over fifty sources during over the course of a month, a four-part series and nearly 15,000 words.

It happened then: the moment. The moment when a journalist realizes that their life will belong to the pursuit of truth: a rebirth, a baptism, an awakening. Mine came at 4 a.m. during a document gold-mine we found while working on this story.

I had the privilege of working under two editors during the process.  One is now covering congress, the other is the news editor at a daily newspaper. I wrote alongside Bryan O’Keefe, who would later become the Cynic’s managing editor during my term as editor-in-chief.

The enterprise team always pushed the bounds of what we could accomplish in a way no other role has ever done for me. There is no doubt this collaboration is why each of us is where we are today.

Myself and then managing editor Bryan O’Keefe outside the Vermont Cynic newsroom during my time as editor-in-chief.

In summer of 2016, I was lucky enough to intern with one of Vermont’s most respected news organizations, VTDigger again pushing me past the bounds I thought possible. With the help of the Burlington Bureau Chief, one of the best journalist I know,  I covered the city of Burlington (BTV), acting as a full-time reporter, producing 800-word stories on a daily deadline.

I was asked back to intern directly in their Montpelier newsroom this Summer, where I currently work beside the edit staff to prepare stories for online publication.

In addition to my time spent in the media wing of UVM’s student center, I love being an active member of the UVM community. I have been  a Lead Resident Advisor (’16-’17) and before that, a Resident Advisor(’15-’16). I was also the student program director of UVM’s Dean Signature Integrated Social Science Program (’15-’16), after having the opportunity to be a part of the program my first-year.

On the off days — I am a dancing, book reading, people watching, bagel-loving native New Yorker.

Fun fact: My high school superlative was biggest chatterbox.  Reach out, I would love to chat.


UVM is Being Sued for Equal Pay

(Author’s note: This story was originally published by the Vermont Cynic on Dec. 2, 2015. Graphics for this story are by Aviva Loeb for the Vermont Cynic.) 

UVM is being sued by a former employee on the grounds that she was paid less than her male counterparts based on her gender, according to documents obtained by the Cynic from the Vermont Superior Court.

A civil lawsuit was filed Dec. 12, 2014 against the University on behalf of former UVM employee Cynthia Ruescher alleging they had violated equal pay law, according to the lawsuit.

UVM employed Ruescher as an IT professional in Enterprise Technology Services in February 2001, according to University officials.

UntitledShe was let go April 8, 2015 due to a University-wide budget cut, according to her letter of termination.

UVM strongly denies the allegations of unfair pay, University communications Director Enrique Corredera said in a Nov. 30 email.

Ruescher and her attorney have not responded to the Cynic’s requests for comment.

UVM has an “internal process” to deal with discrimination, Corderra stated in the email.

“We work hard to ensure that our employment and compensation practices are fair and equitable, and we are confident we will prevail in court,” he stated in the email.

See UVM’s full official statement at the bottom.

The case will be ready for trial by April 1, 2016, according to the lawsuit.

UVM hired Ruescher in 2001, Corredera stated in the email.

There were disparities in pay, title and training opportunities, according to the lawsuit. Opportunities were offered to Ruescher’s male counterparts but not to her, the lawsuit stated.

UVM asserts that a project position, which included training, was offered to all employees in the department, according to the University’s Feb. 25 answer to the lawsuit’s initial complaint.

Ruescher claims she was denied this opportunity, according to the lawsuit.

Ruescher claims that there was “illegal retaliation” when she asked UVM why there was a difference between her pay and her counterpart’s pay in 2012, the lawsuit stated.

UVM denies these claims in their answer, which states that her complaint did not go through UVM’s “grievance procedure.”

Situations in which a person is being discriminated against for their sex is “expressly excluded” from UVM’s grievance process, according to UVM’s employment grievance policy.

Ruescher claims in the lawsuit that she filed requests for Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigations twice in 2013, according to the lawsuit.

The EEOC is “responsible for enforcing federal laws” that make it illegal to discriminate in the workplace, according to their website.

An EEOC investigator was sent to UVM to look into this claim in June 2014, according to the lawsuit.

“We are not comfortable talking in detail about a matter that is in litigation, except to say that we strongly deny the allegations raised in the lawsuit. The university has effective internal processes to review any complaint involving discrimination or unfairness in pay. Furthermore, the university regularly reviews pay equity, and when appropriate, upon review of the individual facts, makes necessary adjustments. We work hard to ensure that our employment and compensation practices are fair and equitable, and we are confident we will prevail in court,” Corredera said in the Nov. 30 email.



Town Meeting Day: 36 municipalities to take up climate change resolution

Over the past five months, the Burlington-based nonprofit, 350 Vermont, has organized a petition drive for a climate change resolution that is now on more than 30 local ballots.

The non-binding resolution urges state and municipal governments to take aggressive action to reduce fossil fuel emissions that contribute to the warming of the Earth.

Activists with 350 Vermont say the state has made “insufficient progress” toward renewable energy goals that would curb carbon dioxide emissions. To that end, the resolution asks the state to halt the expansion of pipelines and set deadlines for renewable goals. Towns are asked to halt gas pipeline expansions, and to help weatherize and install rooftop solar on municipal and school buildings.

Vermont is to derive 25 percent of its energy from renewables by 2025, according to goals set by a 2016 Comprehensive Energy Plan under former Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat. The plan includes expansion of solar programs and updates to building energy codes. About 16 percent of Vermont’s energy came from renewables in 2015.

Jaiel Pulskamp, the spokesperson for 350 Vermont, said last week the group was amazed to get climate change petitions in more than 30 towns.

“Vermonters are ready to transition off of fossil fuels, they want to see solar on school buildings, they want to see electric buses and more public transportation,” Pulskamp said.

The organization has worked since 2010 on various climate change education initiatives and grassroots activism.

Mary M. Sullivan, D-Burlington. Courtesy photo

Lawmakers, including Rep. Mary Sullivan, D-Burlington, joined 350 Vermont at a press conference in the Statehouse last week and urged legislators to back statewide climate action bills.

“We are moving beyond a fossil fuel age, I think it’s incumbent upon the leaders of this state to move with it,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan sponsored H.746, which is currently being taken up by the House Committee of Energy and Technology. The bill would also prohibit fossil fuel infrastructure, i.e., oil and gas pipelines, from being built without certification by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Steve Crowley, a member of the Vermont chapter of the Sierra club, said “resolutions are most effective as a starting place” and will spur community involvement.

The following towns will take up the resolution: Arlington, Bennington, Bethel, Brattleboro, Bristol, Burlington, Calais, Cornwall, Dorset, Dummerston, East Montpelier, Guilford, Huntington, Lincoln, Manchester, Marlboro, Marshfield, Monkton, Montpelier, Northfield, Peacham, Peru, Plainfield, Putney, Rupert, Shaftsbury, Sharon, Stowe, Strafford, Thetford, Tunbridge, Wardsboro, Weston, Williston, Woodbury, and Worcester.


Castleton University to stem $1.5M shortfall with layoffs

This story was published by VTDigger on Feb. 26, 2018.

Faculty at Castleton University came back from the Presidents Week break to news that some positions at the college will be cut by the end of the year.

The yet-to-be-determined positions are being eliminated to stem a $1.5 million loss in revenue.

Harry McEnerny, professor and chair of the Theater Arts Department, said he is concerned that the cuts will disproportionately impact the arts and humanities as they have at other institutions of higher education in the state and across the nation.

“We’re a liberal arts college,” McEnerny said. “I just hope moving forward we keep the liberal arts part of that.”

When the University of Vermont cut courses last fall, the fine arts courses were hit hardest, leading to the resignation of the chair of the department of music.

Flo Keyes, chair of the Faculty Federation, the faculty union at Castleton, said that no one wants to see courses eliminated, but it only happens when “it is simply necessary to restructure financially.”

Jeff Weld, the spokesperson for Castleton University, said the school must address a projected 2019 shortfall.

“With national downward trends in enrollment, we need to figure out a way to be more efficient,” Weld said.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center college enrollment nationwide has been dropping since 2011.

Weld said the trend is expected to continue through 2029. There could be an overall enrollment decline of 19 percent.

Faculty cuts will be made based on which courses students need to graduate in order to minimize the impact on students, Weld said.

Three faculty groups will assess student enrollment trends and make a recommendation to the administration by April 1.

It is still uncertain how the cuts will hit non-tenured faculty, Weld said. Details of the demographics of the layoffs will not be known until faculty groups make recommendations in April.

While there will be some layoffs, many of the positions will be eliminated through attrition — retiring members of the faculty who will not be replaced or non-tenured faculty members who will not be reappointed.

Castleton University President Karen Scolforo said the reductions will position the college for future economic growth.

“We will not pass along the burden of external forces to our students. It is a difficult process to undertake, but this restructuring is necessary,” Scolforo said in a Feb. 22 news release.

“I am committed to transparency and collaboration,” Scolforo said. “I’ve met with all employee groups, informed them of our current circumstances and requested their partnership and support. I expect that we will spend the duration of this semester considering multiple options before making any final decisions.”

Any staff and administrators will receive layoff notices by April 15, which is also the date by which faculty task forces will make their recommendations to the university president, Weld said. Decisions on academic positions will be made by May 15. Any tenured faculty affected must be notified no later than Dec. 1, but that is not expected to be necessary, Weld said.


Scott places rush order on equal pay, but law still would take effect July 1

This story was published by VTDigger on Feb. 14, 2018.

Gov. Phil Scott has told the leaders of both the Vermont House and Senate that he wants the Legislature to act quickly to pass equal pay bills, so he can sign them into law before Town Meeting Day on March 6.

In a letter sent to Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, and released to the media, on Monday, Scott urged them to pass the bills that would “close the gap between what women and men are paid, among other provisions to increase pay equity.”

“As you’ve acknowledged, Vermont needs to restore its workforce to grow the economy and sustain – and increase – public investments we all value,” the governor’s letter said.

“Closing the wage gap could reduce Vermont’s poverty rate by 57 percent and add $1 billion to our state’s economy. More importantly, it would help us get one step closer to providing equality for all.”

The letter referred to two bills before legislators, S.275, which relates to equal pay, and H.294, which prohibits employers from asking prospective employees and job applicants to disclose salaries and benefits from previous jobs.

The House passed its bill on Tuesday.

Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, sponsor of the Senate bill, said the Senate likely would take up the legislation only after the so-called crossover date, which falls after Town Meeting Day.

Scott pointed out in his letter that women working full time, year-round in Vermont are paid 84 cents to every dollar earned by men in comparable jobs. And women out of college earn about $3 per hour less than men with the same level of education.

Of the 20,000 households in Vermont that have women as the primary breadwinner, 23 percent have income that is below the poverty line.

Scott’s support for pay parity legislation contrasts with his relative lack of enthusiasm for another bill seen as important to Vermont working women — family leave. When family leave legislation was introduced in last year’s legislative session, Scott’s response was that any family leave law requiring a tax increase would be met with a veto.

The House last year passed H.196, offering universal six-week paid family leave, which would be funded by a .14 percent payroll tax.

Asked about the family leave bill passed by the House, Scott’s spokeswoman Rebecca Kelley said the governor would support a paid leave program only if it were voluntary — employees wanting the option of family leave would have to set aside a portion of their own pay to fund it.

Kelley said the governor’s goal in writing directly to legislative leaders was to establish early action on the bipartisan promise to work towards closing the pay gap. However, whether the bill becomes law by Town Meeting Day, or toward the end of the session, it would go into effect on the same date, July 1.

“Advancing our work to ensure equal pay for equal work is an [opportunity] for us to come together on a bipartisan basis and make meaningful change,” Scott wrote.

The Senate version of the bill, S.275, also would amend the Vermont Fair Employment Practices Act to extend protected status to minority race and sexual orientation in addition to banning salary transparency.

Matt Birong, owner of 3-squares café in Vergennes, who testified in favor of the pay parity bills, said it is common for employers to use previous salary pay as an indicator of how much someone should be paid, instead of making the salary based on the job or the candidate.

As for the gender pay gap, he said, it starts small, but “it increases over the course of their careers, the biggest gaps being towards the end, this is from compounded pay inequality.”

The fact that the conversation is continuing shows how truly deeply inequality is embedded, he said.

“I can’t believe we’re still having this conversation,” Birong said.


House leaders press Senate to take up paid leave bill

This story was published by VTDigger on Feb. 12, 2018

Vermont would be the sixth state to offer paid family leave if the state Senate passes a House bill that was approved last year.

Under the 1992 federal Family and Medical Leave Act, employees have the right to take up to 12 weeks off to care for a child, spouse or family member and retain benefits, such as health care, but there is no government or mandated employer plan to subsidize that time off.

Legislation passed by the House last year creates a state insurance program that provides paid support for certain employees who take six weeks off to care for a newborn, a foster child or family members who are seriously ill. The program is only available to workers who work 30 hours or more per week and are employed by businesses that have 10 or more employees.

House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski said only 60 percent of Americans have access to unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave act.  Vermonters do not have access to paid leave. The legislation would give more employees access to the benefit.

“All of us want a Vermont where families and communities can thrive and where the Vermont dream is accessible to everyone,” Krowinski said at a press conference Thursday.

The House proposal, H.196, would be funded by a 0.14 percent payroll tax paid by employees only. The payroll tax is applied up to $150,000 of income. The state would collect about $15.9 million for the paid leave benefit annually. The program would cost $1.2 million a year to administer, according to the Vermont Joint Fiscal Office.

Employees would receive 80 percent of their pay during the leave period, up to two times the livable wage set by the Joint Fiscal Office, not to exceed $1,040 per week. Workers must have been employed for 12 months to qualify. About 123,000 workers would be eligible for the benefit, according to information from Main Street Alliance, an advocacy group that is pushing for the initiative. Information about what percentage of those employees would avail themselves of paid leave were not provided.

While paid leave has been a priority for House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, the legislation faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, where the No. 1 goal this year is raising the minimum wage from $10.50 per hour to $15 per hour by 2024.

Senate leader Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, has said the minimum wage increase will benefit tens of thousands of people immediately, while the paid leave initiative is a regressive tax on workers and not everyone benefits. Ashe won’t block paid leave, but he won’t put his political muscle behind it either.

There is a companion bill in the Senate, S.82, that will be taken up by the Senate Economic Development Committee. The Senate bill targets an even broader portion of Vermont’s workforce by expanding paid family leave to include workers with businesses that have fewer than five employees.

Few employers voluntarily offer paid leave. Those that do offer the perk use it as a recruiting tool. Sivan Cotel, owner of Stonecutter Spirits, a local business in Middlebury, and a member of Vermont Main Street Alliance, said that he was able to get recent graduates to stay in Vermont and work for his company because he offered paid leave.

Cotel believes paid leave and other legislative initiatives, including an increase in the minimum wage and pay parity for women can help to boost the state’s workforce.

“We can make these programs statewide differentiators that help us grow Vermont in thoughtful and meaningful ways,” he said. “These efforts will attract more workers for Vermont by leveling the playing field for all businesses.”

States that already have paid family and medical leave programs include New York, Rhode Island, Washington, California, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

According to Jackson Brainerd, a policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures, Vermont’s 80 percent wage replacement level is higher than the average of 50 percent to 60 percent offered by the other states.

“If the wage replacement is low, lower income workers won’t take the leave because the wage is not enough for them to live on,” Brainerd said.

Anne Ward, a Berlin resident who attended the Statehouse press conference, said the paid leave bill is especially important for foster families.

With 1,200 children in the custody of the state, foster parents are needed now more than ever, she said.

When Ward took time off from work to care for a foster child, she faced a major financial setback. Foster families need financial support to care for children with emotional and physical challenges.

“We need to do better for Vermont’s children,” she said.

The press conference was hosted by the Vermont Main Street Alliance, a group that advocates policy that interests a network of small business owners in Vermont. The alliance says 90 percent of Vermonters in the workforce are employed by companies with 20 or fewer employees.

Correction: A statement by Rep. Jill Krowinski on numbers of people covered under family leave policies has been corrected. She said that 60 percent of Americans do not have access to unpaid family and medical leave, not that 40 percent of Vermonters do not have access to paid leave. 


State librarian mum on dropping Dorothy Canfield Fisher from award

This story was published by VTDigger.org on Feb. 11.

State Librarian Scott Murphy was asked last month by the Vermont Board of Libraries to act on a recommendation to remove the name of Dorothy Canfield Fisher from the prestigious children’s book award.

If Murphy has formed an opinion on the matter, he is clearly not saying. In fact, after several emails, phone messages and visits to his office by a VTDigger reporter, he has not responded in any way.

During a Jan. 11 meeting, the board voted 7-0 to recommend that Fisher’s name be dropped from the award. The resolution that was adopted — an amended version of one originally presented by Chairman Bruce Post — limited the board’s justification for the name change to a concern that it was no longer relevant to today’s young people.

Post said a new title should “appeal to the contemporary understanding of student readers” and should be reviewed every 15 years with that in mind. He also said he wanted to avoid “confusing Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s initials with DCF, which is the Department of Children and Families, also DCF.”

By accepting the final language, the Board of Libraries effectively sidestepped the thorny issue of Fisher’s connections to the eugenics movement, the topic that initially had prompted the board to consider changing the book award’s name.

Last April, Abenaki educator Judy Dow appeared before the board and outlined Fisher’s ties to the eugenics movement. She cited the author’s role with the Vermont Commission on Country Life, which helped bring eugenics to the forefront in Vermont by promoting “better breeding.”

Dow pointed to some of Fisher’s writings that she said disparaged American Indians and French Canadians and the author’s ties to the more formal Vermont Eugenics Movement of the 1920s and ‘30s.

During the board’s review, others argued that evidence of Fisher’s connections to eugenics was nonexistent or, at best, inconclusive. In a letter to the board, Fisher’s granddaughter Vivian Hixon said that although the eugenics movement involved many racists, Fisher was not one of them.

Hixon, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, said that NAACP founder Mary White Ovington wrote: “We can always count on Dorothy Canfield.” Hixon also pointed to her grandmother’s advocacy of black writers such as Richard Wright as evidence that she was not racially biased.

An audience member at the January board meeting argued nothing had been presented that “actually tied Dorothy Canfield Fisher to the eugenics movement.” To which Dow replied: “I came in (to the meeting last April) with bags and bags of evidence that Dorothy Canfield Fisher was a eugenicist.”

The movement was the primary catalyst for the Vermont Legislature’s enactment of a law in 1931 permitting the forced sterilization of “idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded or insane persons.” More than 250 sterilizations occurred in Vermont, based on records housed at the University of Vermont, with the last procedure conducted in 1957. During the formative years of the eugenics movement, several UVM scholars were central figures in promoting the effort as a way to restore Vermont’s “Yankee roots.”

Reading from his original resolution, Post outlined to the board how “(Fisher’s) association, however loose and whatever her motivation, with the Vermont Eugenics Movement” helped form the official state policy that led to the sterilization law. “Through government-initiated sterilization of men and women,” he said, citizens were deprived of “their natural right to bear and raise children.”

Scott Murphy
Vermont State Librarian Scott Murphy, left, has to decide whether remove the name of Dorothy Canfield Fisher from a book award program. At right is Bruce Post, state Board of Libraries chairman.

The nine-month Board of Libraries review of the Fisher award occurred during a time of national discussion about whether certain statues and other symbols of racial discrimination ought to be removed. And closer to home, the South Burlington School Board was in the process of dropping the name “Rebels” as its high school mascot.

The award was created in 1957 to honor “excellence in children’s literature,” according to the Board of Libraries website. The winner is selected by Vermont students in Grades 4-8 from a list of 30 nominees. Students are asked to read at least five of the books before voting. Winners over the award’s 60-year history include Suzanne Collins, Carl Hiaasen, Judy Blume and David Budbill. The awards program also includes an annual conference, with this year’s taking place at the Lake Morey Resort in Fairlee.

Clearly sensing the discomfort of some board members in going beyond the recommendation of a name change to make it more contemporary, Post at one point said: “I have no problem stripping out the reference to eugenics.”

The chairman’s original resolution also included a recommendation that top state officials establish a special panel to look at Vermont’s role in eugenics and offer a public accounting.

The proposal called on “the governor, speaker of the Vermont House, president pro tem of the Senate and the president of the University of Vermont — who represent those institutions that were the main promoters and perpetrators of the Vermont Eugenics Movement — to convene a special commission to investigate the issue.”

The commission would “examine how to educate the Vermont public and publicly atone for the eugenics movement,” Post said. Laws similar to Vermont’s were adopted in more than 30 other states. A handful of them have offered formal apologies for involuntary sterilizations but North Carolina and Virginia are believed to be the only two that have set up a process to compensate individual victims or their families.

Several library board members expressed a concern that including such a recommendation might go beyond the jurisdiction of the board. And member Lars Torres asked: “To what degree do we bludgeon the state?”

Post himself did not disagree that the Board of Libraries may not be the proper vehicle for launching a review of the state’s involvement in the eugenics movement. However, he emphatically argued that such an examination was essential.

“Vermont can’t ignore the issue of eugenics any more,” the chairman said. “We need to own up to it. It needs a much more comprehensive look.”

So far, there are scant indications that any sort of formal examination of the issue and Vermont’s role is likely to happen anytime soon. Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-Grand Isle-Chittenden, said they know of no current legislative proposal to that effect.

And UVM spokesman Enrique Corredera said that while research has been conducted in the past, there are no current efforts in place to address the university’s role in the eugenics movement and no plans to do so in the future.

Benning said there has been “hallway talk” in the Statehouse about the decision to change the Dorothy Canfield Fisher award, particularly from some of the more senior lawmakers who believe Fisher is a cornerstone of Vermont literary history. He said while he is sure that every legislator “abhors” what happened during the eugenics movement, he is unsure if retrospective action is the proper course.

“I think it has become, does the wrong outweigh their contributions?” Benning said. “Or do their contributions outweigh the wrong they may have done?”

As for the idea of possible reparations, Benning was doubtful that would ever happen in Vermont. “I can’t see many Vermonters being too happy paying for the sins of their ancestors in their taxes,” he said.

Johnson said that there is always space to look back and examine mistakes of the past. However, she said the issue “has to be taken up by all parts of society, not just these bodies. It needs to be taught and remembered.”

Meanwhile, it’s now up to State Librarian Scott Murphy to decide whether to accept the recommendation to change the name of the Dorothy Canfield Fisher award.

In late July, the Vermont School Library Association also sent Murphy a resolution calling for a name change that included a reference to the controversy. The resolution, adopted unanimously by the 14 board members attending the group’s summer retreat, was not widely publicized and only included in the minutes of the meeting. The resolution said:

We, the governing board of the Vermont School Library Association, value the tradition of Vermont’s children’s choice book awards. Due to recent controversies surrounding the name and its acronym, we recommend changing the name of the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award. By changing the name, we have the opportunity bring the focus of the award back to literacy and inclusivity.

During the state Board of Libraries’ more than hour-long meeting last month, Murphy spoke not a word, only nodding slightly near its conclusion when asked if a name change could be implemented by the next award cycle beginning in the fall.

If the librarian’s made up his mind, he’s clearly not saying.


Desperate dairy farmers given lifeline in federal budget

This story was published by VTDigger on Feb. 9, 2018

BURLINGTON — Less than a day after passing a massive budget deal in Washington, Sen. Patrick Leahy was in Vermont touting a farming bill in the federal package that secured more than $1.1 billion in subsidies to stabilize the dairy industry.

Dairy farmers have seen their incomes steadily decline in recent years, and with milk prices at a 20-year low, there have been reports of farmers selling off their herds, or worse. Dairy co-op Agri-Mark recently sent farmers the phone numbers for suicide prevention hotlines.

The new bill extends and expands the Margin Protection Program, which went into effect last year. Leahy said he worked with Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., to secure the new provisions.

“We were in session to about 3:30 a.m. this morning,” Leahy said. “We made sure to get in a great deal of help for dairy farmers. This is an example of the way the Senate is supposed to work. I said, it is staying in the bill or the bill is not going forward.”

The program provides a subsidized insurance plan if farmers lose money on milk production. Under the new bill, this safety net is made wider due to extended enrollment and lower premiums that will allow more small- and medium-sized farms to be covered. It also waives a $100 fee for farmers in the greatest need.

Despite being part of the approved budget deal, the bill still needs to pass through the Senate and House before being signed into law by President Donald Trump.

Leahy said the results of the bill would be felt by farmers “quickly.”

Bob Wellington, vice president of Agri-Mark, said at the press conference that there would be an education and awareness program that will get farmers ready to enroll as soon as legislation is officially passed.

“There is going to be no wait on the farmers’ part,” he said. “They need that money.”

Wellington said the bill would go a long way in keeping the struggling industry afloat until it could stage a recovery, as it did in the years after the 2008 recession.

While the bill is not going to raise farmers’ incomes to where they were years ago, he said they could now move ahead with a much-needed sense of stability, and most importantly keep their farms operating.

“The problem is once you lose a dairy farmer, you never get them back,” he said.


UVM union criticizes ‘obsession with image’, and larger classes, fewer faculty

This story was published by VTDigger on Feb. 4, 2018

BURLINGTON — University of Vermont’s faculty union is concerned about cuts in the number of non-tenured lecturers ahead, the cancellation of classes this semester and stalled contract negotiations.

At an event last week, the union said a national trend in higher education that puts an emphasis on marketing and high end infrastructure at the expense of academics has come to UVM.

At an “Open the Books” forum Thursday, United Academics, the union representing UVM faculty said the decision last fall to cut several courses from the College of Arts and Sciences, and recently revealed plans for reductions in the ranks of full-time and part-time lecturers, are symptoms of a larger national trend called “marketization.” Universities everywhere, including UVM, are allocating more money to infrastructure, marketing and student incentives such as merit scholarships in an effort to broaden the university’s appeal.

Beth Mintz, a professor of sociology and a panel member, said the shifts in funding are geared toward attracting more students and improving UVM’s standing in university rankings.

The Open the Books panel examined of the role of UVM’s budgeting formula, known as “incentive based budgeting.” Incentive-based budgeting, or IBB, allots money to colleges based on a number of factors such as enrollment and the cost of offering the class. It is UVM’s version of the responsibility-centered management model in use at public universities across the country.

Implementation of IBB has contributed to a longtime trend away from hiring tenure-track faculty toward the use of non-tenure track lecturers. Lecturers carry larger course loads — as much as double the number of courses as their tenure-track counterparts — and earn a fraction of the salary of a typical tenure-track faculty member, said Nancy Welch, a panel member and a professor of English.

Welch said the university employs 64 fewer assistant professors and 37 more lecturers than it did 12 years ago. This has translated into larger class sizes, she said. Over the course of the past 20 years, many classes have grown by nearly three times their original size.

The university is also investing in infrastructure, such as new dorms, an athletic center and a new library bridge, to draw more students.

“Our argument is not that we think UVM can unbuild the library bridge and give the money to faculty and students,” Welch said. “But we think the simultaneous spending on bridges while cutting courses and faculty is a symptom of larger trends, and these trends can be turned around bit by bit.”

While the College of Arts and Sciences has borne the brunt this year, every college will feel the effects eventually, said Thomas Streeter, a professor of sociology and president of the faculty union.

Panelist Esther Rosen, a UVM junior and editor of the alternative campus newspaper The Water Tower News, said class sizes have grown. The course, Healthy Brains Healthy Bodies, for example, had been open to 15 students the first few years. Now it is a lecture attended by more than 200 students.

Rosen said despite the increase in class size, the course itself is unchanged: Fifty percent of the class grade is attendance. But the large number of students has led to an inevitable slip in educational quality, she said.

Rosen said that while students personally have witnessed the changing face of UVM — as a result of daily navigating construction sites — they question what the payoff is.

“The obsession with image hasn’t been lost on the students,” Rosen said. “The change doesn’t necessarily translate into the student experience.”

The faculty union and the university have been in contract negotiations for the past year. An impasse was declared in September, and in November it was announced that mediation had failed. The issues separating the two parties involve salaries and aspects of faculty intellectual property rights. The next phase of negotiations — fact-finding — is to begin Feb. 12.

“The University is committed to presenting accurate, comprehensive, factual data and information in the fact-finding process,” Wanda Heading-Grant, vice president of human resources, said in a letter emailed Thursday to students.

In an email response Streeter, the uniong president, said “the administration’s thinking is based on a narrow, blinkered, short term set of concerns.”

If the fact-finding phase fails, the university administration and the faculty union each will submit contract proposals to the Vermont Labor Relations Board.


Black Lives Matter flag raised at Montpelier High School

This story was originally published by VTDigger.org on Feb. 1, 2018

Aretha Franklin’s voice singing “Young, Gifted and Black” broke through a two-minute silence as Montpelier High School raised the Black Lives Matter flag on Thursday morning, the first day of Black History Month.

More than 200 students, teachers, school administrators, community members, and some from law enforcement, gathered in front of the school for the event, which though widely supported by the school community also had generated some outside controversy.

Despite threats earlier in the week that out-of-state groups would rally against the flag, there were no protesters in sight.

The school board voted unanimously to fly the flag throughout the month of February, in response to a letter from the Racial Justice Alliance coalition, a student organization at the school.

Student members of the coalition spoke as the black and white flag flapped from school’s flagpole, below the American flag.

“This flag is a symbol for every black student in this country and a call to end institutional racism,” said MaryAnn Songhurst, a Montpelier High School sophomore and member of the Racial Justice Alliance, a student organization. “Know that the people in this school stand with you in this fight for social justice.”

Joelyn Mensah, one of the leaders of the effort to raise the flag, told those gathered for the ceremony, that students of color “want to be seen, and demand to be represented in our education.”

The school’s principal, Matt McRaith, offered his thoughts. “This is a visible commitment to our black students,” McRaith said of the flag. “We can and we must be better.”

Students at the high school started speaking out a year ago, about their experiences of racism in the school. McRaith is one of the school officials who has been working with them to address the issues raised.

McRaith told students he has learned much from the experience. “With your help, I am better able to understand my privilege,” he said.

Vermont’s secretary of education, Rebecca Holcombe, also attended the flag-raising. She talked of studies that have revealed systemic inequalities within education in Vermont, inequalities that she said span both race and class.

Among the findings, she said, are that students of color are disciplined more and have lower outcomes on exams, both a result of institutional racism and bias within education.

The Montpelier school district is overwhelmingly white, with 3.2 percent of its students identified as African-American, and 4.6 as Hispanic.

Holcombe said that in addition to being a community protest against bias, the event was also a demonstration of free speech.

“This is a case study in democracy,” she said.

School Superintendent Brian Ricca said that while there was some backlash over the past week, the response to the events of the day and the preceding weeks has been overwhelming positive.


Lawmakers hope to broaden effort to combat racial bias

this story was orginally published by VTDigger.org on Jan. 31, 2018

Lawmakers are moving ahead with proposals to examine racial bias in government and education in what they say is an effort to level the playing field for all Vermonters.

Among the legislative initiatives is a bill (S.281), sponsored by Sen. Debbie Ingram, D-Chittenden, that would establish a commission to take a broad-based look at racial disparities in government at every level and in all sectors. It also would make racial profiling illegal.

The panel, to be known as the Equity Commission for the Mitigation of Systemic Racism, would collect data on specific incidences of racism, monitor procedures and provide oversight. Law enforcement, education, employment and housing are among the state systems on which it would focus.

On the House side, Rep. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington, plans to introduce a bill in the next few days that would address racial disparities and other forms of prejudice specifically in the area of education.

“We know that this took centuries to build and it’s going to take all of us to tear it down,” Morris said last week. “We have to find a way to acknowledge where we come from so that we can do better and not continue to make the same mistakes.”

Her remarks came during a Systemic Racism Awareness Day event at the Statehouse in Montpelier. She was joined by advocates for racial justice at the all-day gathering, which was aimed at eliminating institutional racism through legislative reform.

The event, hosted by the Racial Justice Reform Coalition, followed the release of a report last month by the Vermont Human Rights Commission that looked at how people of color fared in education, employment, housing, health care and economic development. The coalition hopes that this session’s legislative efforts will help broaden the application of Act 54, which was signed into law last year.

Act 54 created an advisory panel to provide recommendations to address racial disparities in statewide criminal and juvenile justice systems. It also called for development of a strategy to address bias within state systems of education, labor and employment, and access to housing and health care.

In a statement announcing the Statehouse gathering, the coalition said it viewed Act 54 as a good first step and urged lawmakers to strengthen S.281 to “ensure that Vermont is doing all it can to protect and advance justice and equality for all within our borders.” The group also called for passage of Morris’ bill in the House.

Those intersectional approaches, such as addressing racism through looking at disparities in health care, were removed before final adoption of Act 54. A number of legislators were concerned that is was “too much too soon” or “too complex,” said Morris, herself a co-sponsor of the bill (H.308) that became Act 54.

“There is intersectionality in so many other places,” Morris said. “It would be counterproductive to focus on one when we need to see the threads between all these places.”


Samantha Power: China will fill global power vacuum

This  story was published by VTDigger.org on Jan. 30, 2018

Samantha Power, the former ambassador to the UN, gave an ominous assessment of the state of global politics under President Donald Trump at a public discussion in Burlington Saturday.

She takes a dim view of Trump’s international policy stances. “There is no captain in the democratic world right now,” she said.

There is now a global “power vacuum” that emerged as American foreign policy tilts toward what Power calls “Charles Lindbergh” isolationism.

That vacuum gives China an opportunity to become the No. 1. world economic power. “With the stage vacant, there is only one player licking their chops right now,” she said.

Power, now a professor at Harvard University, came to Nectar’s in Burlington Saturday to support Mayor Miro Weinberger’s third campaign for mayor of Burlington. The two sat on a stage of Nectar’s bar with craft beer in hand as Power spoke about the state of America to over 100 Vermonters.

Under Trump, basic diplomatic certainties based on alliances and trade agreements have been undermined, Power said.

Power said she has hope that Congress, the courts and local and state governments will maintain the nation’s democratic traditions.

”Our narrative as a country is getting built alongside the Trumpian narrative,” she said, “but our narrative is also what our governors and our mayors are doing, our private sector, our Congress and our courts and the unprecedented number of women running for office.”

Last week, the Justice Department demanded policing policy records from the city of Burlington. The federal government has targeted Burlington as part of a nationwide crackdown on sanctuary cities. Federal law prohibits jurisdictions from instituting policies that prevent officials from sharing information with federal authorities about the immigration status of residents. Burlington is one of 300 sanctuary cities in the United States.

Weinberger has said he will turn over records, but he stands by the city’s decision to refuse to help the federal government implement “draconian immigration policy.”

“Part of a mayor’s job, increasingly in the last year is becoming part of immigration issues,” he said. “We just want to police Burlington in the way we’ve done for decades.”

Power said that she thinks it will be up to young people to rebuild diplomacy. She pointed to the new movie she became a part of, “The Final Year,” which began as a look at Obama’s last year in office and became mainly about his foreign policy. Power said the movie is a way to reach out to young people who will be essential to rebuilding American foreign policy.

“We are going to have to have to have a major reclamation of our diplomatic apparatus very soon,” she said.

The documentary was released Jan. 19.

Weinberger met Power in the office of the Yale radio station 30 years ago. The two went on to finish their undergraduate degrees together and eventually became housemates in graduate school while at Harvard. Power became one of the most significant friends in his life, Weinberger said.

After college, Power went on to become a war correspondent in the 1990s, covering the Yugoslav war. When she returned to the United States for law school, the two would jog each day and talk about foreign policy, he said. Her book, “A Problem from Hell,” about American inaction during the genocides in Eastern Europe, won the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction in 2003.

Power became the ambassador of United Nations under Obama from 2013 to 2016 and made her diplomatic mark by emphasizing human rights, Weinberger said. He watched as their discussions on morning jogs during graduate school became the international policy of the free world, he said.

Correction: Weinberger is running for a third term, not a fourth, as stated in an earlier version of this story.


White supremacist threatens Montpelier flag protest

This  story was published by VTDigger.org on Jan. 30, 2018

A white supremacist has threatened to protest Montpelier High School’s decision to raise the Black Lives Matter flag on Thursday.

The school has received a wave of backlash since their Jan. 17 decision to fly the Black Lives Matter flag this February. Reactions have ranged from Montpelier citizens expressing their belief that the flag is anti-police to a spate of racially charged posts by white supremacy groups.

One email sent to many Montpelier school staff members by a person who calls himself Russell James said that he and others will protest at the school over what he said was a lack of “concern for the lives of White residents of Montpelier.”

James’ identity could not be independently verified.

Montpelier Public School Superintendent Brian Ricca said in an interview the backlash has subsided during the past few days but that he expects it to pick back up when the flag is raised on Thursday. He said he and Principal Mike McRaith have been the public points of contact over the past week.

The wave of reaction has not been confined to Vermont. Far-right news sites such as Breitbart News and RedState News have criticized the decision.

In addition, white supremacist groups from around the country have been flooding forums and chat rooms about the decision.

Some members of Stormfront, a forum site started by Ku Klux Klan leader Don Black, called Ricca and wrote letters to McRaith. The Stormfront site, whose logo includes the words “White Pride World Wide” and a banner that says “Every month is White history month,” is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

One of the letters sent to McRaith by someone with the forum name “Mr. K” said, “Until white people start getting the same equal rights as everyone else, including protected groups like BLM and LGBTQ, we will furiously continue to protest this blatant discrimination against our civil rights.”

Another user claimed to have sent McRaith an email with the message: “F. U.” That was followed by other messages cheering the post and thanking the user who wrote it.

Ricca said the letters and other statements have not contained personal threats and any “questionable” messages have been directed to Cpl. Matt Knisely, the school’s resource officer who is a member of the Montpelier police force.

The superintendent did say the positive emails have outnumbered the negative ones and that he has had a number of “peaceful conversations” with those who disagreed.

“I still remain fully committed to peaceful discussion,” he said.

Ricca mentioned one dissenting voice from a woman who has grandchildren in the district. She told him that the Black Lives Matter flag was “divisive” and said it was a sign of anti-police sentiment. Ricca said he pointed to the board members’ statement explaining their action and described the daily experiences of students of color at the school that led to the decision to raise the flag.

Others have called for McRaith and Ricca to be fired.

VTDigger’s Facebook page post sharing the initial story attracted more than 500 comments about the decision. A good number went beyond what some would call the polarized two-sided argument to a more nuanced interpretation of the movement.

One user, who said he believed in the statement “Black Lives Matter,” said he disagreed with the group’s views on globalization and argued the flag should not be put up for that reason.

“I’ll be over there supporting equality without supporting your globalist agenda,” commenter Robert Ross said. “Teach the principle of equality, do not enforce the teaching of globalism in our schools.”

Although some argued the action was a clear anti-police move, a greater number praised the decision and thanked Montpelier High School and its students.

Chloe White, policy director at the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said there has been some misunderstanding around the meaning of Black Lives Matter. It stands for eliminating racial profiling, excessive use of force against people of color and racial bias in the criminal justice system, she said, not for opposing law enforcement.

White said that in certain areas of society, black lives have not been as protected or valued as much as white lives and that’s what’s the behind the statement.

“You don’t go to a cancer rally and say, ‘but what about heart disease,’” she said.

Regardless of the varying perspectives, what it comes down to is students feeling protected at school, White said. “There is a real need to ensure kids are protected and that they feel secure within their school.”

In their letter to the board requesting that the flag be flown, the students said they repudiate any acts of violence that may have occurred under that banner and instead believe the message is essential to achieving equality at their school.

“We will raise the flag with love in our hearts and courage in our voices,” the letter said. “We reject any purported connections to violence or hate that may or may not have occurred under the Black Lives Matter flag. We recognize that all lives do matter, but in the same spirit not all lives are acknowledged for their equal importance until black lives have been.”

The board decided to raise the flag during a Jan. 17 meeting, after the student-led racial justice alliance asked them to.

Ricca said students within the group last year shared what he calls “very difficult things” about their experiences and what they had heard in the halls of the school. Since then, the students have been working with the board and school representatives to find ways to battle institutional racism within the school.

This is not the first time a Vermont school has come under fire for raising the Black Lives Matter flag. In October 2016, when the University of Vermont Student Government Association decided to fly the flag over the campus green, the student government president at the time received threats.


Click it: Stricter seatbelt enforcement gets preliminary House OK

This story was published by VTDigger.org on Jan. 26, 2018

After a particularly deadly year for Vermont drivers, lawmakers are looking to up the ante for seatbelt enforcement.

Rep. Pat Brennan, chair of the House Transportation Committee, says current seatbelt enforcement laws are not adequate enough to protect public safety.

Vermont law only allows police to charge drivers for not wearing a seatbelt as a secondary offense if drivers are pulled over for another violation, such as speeding.

Brennan and his committee support a new requirement for “primary” enforcement, which gives police the authority to stop a vehicle if drivers and/or passengers are not wearing a seatbelt. Scofflaws would face a $25 fine for the first offense, $50 for the second and $75 for the third.

The change would go into effect Oct. 1.

The House Transportation Committee passed H.691, by a 10-0-1 vote and the House gave the bill preliminary approval on Thursday.

Lawmakers have considered tightening up seatbelt enforcement for years, but Brennan said an uptick in highway fatalities in recent years has given the bill more urgency this session.

“With the possibility of saving a few more Vermont lives on the road, now is the time to move forward with this,” Brennan said at a press conference in the House speaker’s office Thursday.

In the past four years, fatalities have gone from 44 a year to 69 annually, according to Rep. David Potter, D-Rutland, the vice chair of the House Transportation Committee. Drivers and passengers were not wearing a seatbelt in 52 percent of those fatal accidents, Potter said.

Potter said lawmakers believe better enforcement will incentivize more drivers to wear seatbelts.

About 84.5 percent of drivers and passengers wear seatbelts, Brennan said. In the 30 states that have primary enforcement, seatbelt rates average 92.1 percent. It is expected that there would be at least a 5 percent increase in the number of Vermonters who were seatbelts as a result of the new legislation. An estimated 2,500 more drivers would wear seatbelts if the bill is enacted, Brennan said.

Potter said the legislation will save lives, and money for medical costs and life insurance. He has been a proponent of primary seatbelt enforcement for decades and is a former driver’s education instructor.

“I can put up a list of former students I have had in driver’s ed that are now deceased due to highway fatalities,” he said.

A similar bill went through the House a decade ago, but did not emerge from the Senate, Brennan said.

H.691 also establishes new minimum and maximum penalties for driving, stricter penalties for driving while intoxicated with a minor in the car and caps the cost of blood drawing.

House SpeakerMitzi Johnson, who is a former emergency medical technician, said too many Vermonters are not wearing seatbelts. Johnson said she has “seen first-hand the severity of the injuries sustained from accidents without a seatbelt and the increased risk of death.”

“This bill really hits home to me and this bipartisan legislation passed the House several times,” Johnson said. “We look forward to working with our colleagues in the Senate and with the governor to see this become a reality for Vermont.”


School choice advocates tout Vermont tuition voucher program

This story was published by VTDigger.org on Jan. 25, 2018

Hundreds of school-age Vermonters with yellow scarves bustled through the Statehouse Wednesday, staring with wide eyes at paintings and statues of historic Vermont leaders in the Statehouse lobby.

The students who hailed from more than 30 independent schools were part of an annual nationwide celebration of school choice.

“We’re celebrating every child in this room and their families, who have had the freedom to choose the school where their child fits in, where their child is comfortable, where their child is happy and where that child can learn to their maximum potential,” said Leslie Hiner, lead attorney for EdChoice, an education reform organization.

The event was part of a National School Choice Week, a nationwide celebration including events that raise awareness for school choice and options for K-12 education.

Vermont’s school choice system, which began in 1869, was one of the first in the country. In towns that do not have a public school, taxpayers fund tuition for students to attend any Vermont public, out-of-state or private institution they choose.

The system is similar to voucher programs developed in other states. Hiner, a proponent of school choice legislation in New Hampshire and Mississippi, says 29 states and Washington, D.C., have passed school choice legislation.

Students from Vermont independent schools spoke about their experiences.

Lucas Saunders, a senior at Compass School in Westminster, said he came to the school as a seventh-grader after spending years struggling in his public school, where he had difficulty sitting still and learning in the classroom.

“Me and my family were at the point where we didn’t even know if I was going to finish high school,” Saunders said. “Now, I am going on to college and have a career.”

Saunders recently was accepted into the five colleges he applied to and plans to become a mechanical engineer. Saunders said this would not have been possible without Compass School. “They didn’t just teach a class, they taught a student,” he said.

Among the schools in attendance was Kurn Hattin, a boarding school in Westminster that was created to serve children “affected by tragedy, social or economic hardship, or other disruption in family life,” according to its website. The school brought 18 students to the Statehouse.

Tom Oxholm of Kurn Hattin said students come to the school from all over the Northeast. “We’re a tuition-free option to those both in and out of state that may not have other options for schools,” Oxholm said. About 95 percent of the school’s budget comes from charitable donations, he said.

Jacob Edwards, an eighth-grader at the school, came to Kurn Hattin five years ago from Harlem. The school took care of everything for him, he said, from classes to meals. “My school is a special place, another home,” Edwards said. He is now applying to prep schools for high school.

Schools like Kurn Hattin bring to the state students who may stay after graduation, Oxholm said. “People who come up here appreciate what Vermont offers — the beauty of the environment, the freedom to think,” he said.

Rep. Brian Keefe, R-Manchester Center, who introduced the speakers, said the event was not political. But there is school choice legislation now under consideration. H.450 would expand access to publicly funded kindergarten through 12th grade education.

The bill allows public school students to attend another public school if their home school district does not offer a “particular academic course, sports program or sponsored extracurricular activity.” The home district would be required to pay tuition to the receiving school district, which would be required to accept the student barring a problem with physical capacity.

Correction: Taxpayer-funded tuition for students from school choice towns cannot be used for religious schools. Also, the requirements of H.450 have been clarified.


Black Lives Matter flag to fly over Montpelier High School

This story was published by VTDigger.org on Jan. 25, 2018

Montpelier High School will fly the flag of the Black Lives Matter movement for the month of February.

Montpelier School District Superintendent Brian Ricca said the Racial Justice Alliance, a student-run organization at the school, had made the request in a letter to the school board. February is nationally recognized as Black History Month.

The School Board voted unanimously at its Jan. 17 meeting to support the students’ request. Board members, school representatives and the alliance have been working together for the past year, Ricca said, after he and other school officials were approached by African-American students at the high school.

The students shared what Ricca described as “very difficult things” they had heard in the halls of the high school.

“There were things said that were simply … not acceptable to me as a superintendent and also as a human,” Ricca said.

Ricca said the students’ complaints prompted the school to start addressing issues of racial injustice, in the school curriculum, in assemblies, and in teacher and administrator training. The high school obtained a grant to hire a consultant, CQ Strategies, specializing in what it calls “intercultural competency.”

Ricca said the decision to fly the Black Lives Matter flag was part of a larger process of addressing issues of race and prejudice, at the school and generally.

“We want to treat this flag not as a singular event, but as a continuation of the part of of our acknowledgement that the experience of our students of color and our black students is systematically different than the experience of our white students,” he said.

In its letter to the board the alliance agreed that positive steps had been taken by the high school, “and yet need to do more to raise our predominantly white community’s collective consciousness to better recognize white privilege and implicit bias …

“Intentionally or not, many have benefited from and contributed to structural and institutional racism; part of the key to rebalancing lies in open discussion, and addressing the issues as they manifest within our school.”

Montpelier High School’s student body is identified as 87.7 percent white, 4.6 percent Hispanic, and 3.2 African-American. In its resolution, the school board echoed the students, saying, “We make this decision to fly the Black Lives Matter flag with love in our hearts and courage in our voice, and we reject any purported connections to violence or hate.”

Black Lives Matter started as a Twitter hashtag #BlackLivesMatter following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting death in a Florida suburb of an unarmed African-American teenager, Trayvon Martin. It has grown into a national movement against racial injustice.

School Board member Michele Braun said while there is some concern that the flag may draw controversy, she hopes this will be a part of the larger public dialogue that has been happening nationally.

“We want every student to feel included and have their needs met,” she said. “There is some concern with controversy, but that is part of the conversation.”


UVM College of Arts and Sciences looks to eliminate non-tenured faculty positions

This story was published by VTDigger.org on Jan. 21, 2018

The UVM College of Arts and Sciences is considering the elimination of 25 percent of all full-time non-tenured faculty and 40 percent of part-time non-tenured faculty over the next five years, according to an internal UVM communication.

William Falls, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, announced the proposed faculty cuts to department heads in an email dated Jan. 18.

The reduction in force would be in response to new budgeting mandates that require UVM departments to balance budgets based on tuition income from student enrollment in courses.

The layoffs under consideration are among the more palatable options offered by the College of Arts and Sciences, according to a letter sent by Tom Streeter, a professor of sociology and president of the faculty union, United Academics, to colleagues.

The proposed cuts to non-tenured faculty comes on the heels of the elimination of 12 courses in November. The reduced course offerings are the result of a new budget model known as incentive based budgeting, which requires each department to operate on base funding derived from student enrollment levels.

As student interest in liberal arts coursework has declined, the College of Arts and Sciences has struggled to maintain funding levels. The reduced course offerings last fall was meant to help offset a $4 million deficit. The funding gap was later lowered by the central administration to $2 million.

UVM Provost David Rosowsky has said that incentive-based budgeting, which has been in place since 2015, is meant to give deans more flexibility in managing revenues and expenses.

It is a departure from the previous model in which the central administration, the president and provost, made allocations to the colleges and deans worked within prescribed budgets.

Streeter, the union president, said the new budget model leaves colleges no option but to cut personnel. “Of course it’s pressure from the central administration to cut faculty on the college level,” Streeter said. “Where else are they going to cut from?”

Incentive based budgeting is the UVM equivalent of “responsibility-centered management,” Rosowsky says, which is used by most public schools across the country. Incentive-based budgeting relies on an algorithm to allot money to colleges based on a number of factors such as enrollment.

Funds are allocated to each college based on a weighting system derived from the average cost of teaching a class, according to the incentive-based budgeting manual. The College of Arts and Sciences is multiplied by a factor of one, while other colleges are given a heavier weight.

Streeter says the system is like “telling someone to make you lunch, giving them $5 and then being disappointed when all they can serve is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

Under incentive based budgeting, the central administration gives each college or “responsibility center” a certain amount of money based on an algorithm that is supposed to incentivize colleges to create better courses and attract more students to majors in that college. Some of the money is to be used for marketing, facilities and student services.

Incentive-based budgeting, which was created in part to promote innovation across colleges, has been the driver for the creation of five new majors and 13 new minors, according to 2017 budget information.

But cuts to liberal arts courses last fall have not been well received. The UVM Cynic, the student newspaper, dedicated two editorials on Nov. 7 and Nov. 30 to the importance of funding the humanities.

Amid accusations by students and faculty, the central administration has reiterated its commitment to the Arts and Sciences. Rosowsky wrote an op-ed in the Cynic on Dec. 3, which pushed back on the idea that the university is marketed as a STEM school and cited recent expensive restoration projects that benefit the humanities.

Last week UVM President Tom Sullivan announced in a campus-wide letter that the 2018 commencement speaker would be an UVM alumnus and art history scholar, Alexander Nemerov. Sullivan emphasized that the arts and humanities are “central” to academic studies.

Streeter said the university is shifting away from the idea of education as a “public good.” “Students come to school and while they have larger facilities, they have larger class sizes as well,” he said.

Dean Falls and UVM spokesperson Enrique Corredera did not respond to requests for comment.


Commission recommends initiatives to boost recreational economy

This story was published by VTDigger.org on Jan. 19, 2018


The state is launching new programs that promote Vermont’s recreational ethic as a way to propel the economy, according to Gov. Phil Scott.

At his weekly press conference Thursday, Scott announce pilot projects designed to draw more locals and out-of-state visitors to Vermont’s parks. All three initiatives — the Outdoor Recreation Friendly Town Program, the Outdoor Business Alliance and the Camping Gear Loan exchange — are designed to help communities expand local outdoor recreational markets and create equitable access to the outdoors.

The pilot projects were recommended in a report issued by the Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative. The governor formed the commission in June.

“These recommendations have real potential and opportunity to grow our economy and strengthen what we cherish most our natural landscapes and the chance to enjoy the outdoors in our beautiful state,” Scott said.

For the past eight months, the 15-person commission has been working on a plan to increase equity and bolster the economy through a strategic approach to the outdoor recreation sector, according to Michael Snyder, commissioner of the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.

The outdoor recreation sector supports 34,000 jobs and $2.5 billion in consumer spending.

The pilot programs will be supported by nonprofit and for-profit companies with a focus on increasing jobs, stewardship and appreciation for the outdoors, Scott said.

The camping gear loan exchange, for example, will allow families to borrow camping equipment through a cooperative effort between the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation with the Outdoor Gear Exchange. The only piece of camping equipment that will not be available for loan are sleeping bags, which will be for sale for a discounted price through the Outdoor Gear Exchange.

“Through this effort we hope to instill a lifelong appreciation for enjoying our environment,” Scott said.

Marc Sherman, co-founder and owner of Outdoor Gear Exchange, said the economic benefits of outdoor recreation go beyond the numbers.

“When the outdoor recreation economy grows, Vermont benefits well beyond the most basic measure of GDP,” Sherman said. “We build healthier communities, we engage with the natural landscape, and we retain and attract the youth by providing them with the access and opportunity they want.”

Sherman said his own staff ranges in age from 19 to 58. Their jobs enable them to get others excited about the outdoors and on their days off they are enjoying the outdoors themselves. This dynamic between work and recreation is what attracts young people to Vermont, he said.

Cindy Locke, executive director of the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers and a member of the commission, emphasized the intersection between Vermont’s history and economic future.

“We find history in the discovery of old Vermont settlements, we find friendship, peace and solace, and we discover why we are all so fortunate to live here,” Locke said. “Now we move into a time with VOREC where the outdoor recreation that we all so enjoy will be measured by the economic impact it brings to our state.”


Suspect dead after credit union robbery, standoff at Montpelier High School

A bank robbery suspect is dead after being shot by police in a standoff Tuesday behind Montpelier High School, authorities say.

Vermont State Police are investigating the shooting. The suspect was identified as Nathan Giffin, 32, of Essex.

Police said he was armed with a handgun.

No one else was injured, authorities said.

Giffin was wearing a black hoodie when he robbed the Montpelier branch of the Vermont State Employees Credit Union on Bailey Avenue about 9:30 a.m., according to Rachel Feldman, the bank’s spokesperson. Police later said the robber brandished a handgun and stole an unspecified amount of money.

Montpelier High School
Vehicles block access to Montpelier High School during a standoff Tuesday with a bank robbery suspect. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

About half a dozen customers were in the bank along with employees, Feldman said.

After the robbery, the suspect ran toward the football field between the high school and the Vermont Department of Labor building, where he was confronted by police.

Montpelier High School was locked down at about 9:45 a.m. Classes were in session.

According to WPTZ cameraman Oli Birgisson, who witnessed the standoff, said Giffin moved close to the bleachers, waving his hands.

Giffin fell a moment shortly after. Video footage from WPTZ shows that he appeared raise his arm with a gun. The sound of shots was heard seconds later.

State police said officers tried to negotiate with Giffin for about 50 minutes after surrounding him, while he made threatening and suicidal statements.

Giffin didn’t obey orders to drop the gun, and at that point eight troopers and one Montpelier officer opened fire, according to state police. Authorities haven’t released the names of those who fired at Giffin; they are on paid administrative leave.

Carlos Gonzalez, who lives on State Street across the Winooski River from the athletic fields, said he watched the standoff from his window.

He heard officers yell at the suspect to put his hands up. “They were saying, ‘You going to run away now? You going to run away?’”

Shots were fired from the field at 11:02 a.m.

Gonzalez’s housemate Eli Ranft heard seven or eight gunshots before he got to the window. He said he heard single shots at first, then several “pops.”

Gonzalez watched snow fly up from the ground where the bullets landed. He and Ranft both said they believed the suspect was shot during this round of fire.

“That’s when they all kind of came in on him, and that’s when they jumped on top of him,” Ranft said.

Ranft said officers appeared to seize his gun at this point.

Firefighters arrived with an ambulance, and officers lifted the suspect onto a stretcher and into the vehicle. The ambulance drove the suspect to the hospital about a half hour after the shots were fired. Montpelier Police Chief Anthony Facos later said the suspect died.

Vermont State Police are investigating the incident as an officer-involved shooting, said state police Col. Matt Birmingham.

“We are now in investigation mode. Our major crime unit and our crime scene investigation unit have been activated,” he said.

After the investigation, the Washington County state’s attorney and the Vermont attorney general’s office will both conduct independent reviews to determine whether the shooting was justified, said state police.

Police said Giffin’s lengthy criminal record included convictions for burglary and cocaine possession. He also was convicted on federal charges in 2012 for a bank robbery in Williamstown.

In the aftermath of the robbery, students at Montpelier High School were in lockdown for about two hours.

One mother, Milan Graves, came to the scene after her brother notified her of the multiple police cars outside the school. Her son is a senior and did not have a phone, she said.

At 10:30 a.m. she received a districtwide text from Montpelier School Superintendent Brian Ricca, notifying parents of the lockdown and attempted armed robbery. Ricca later said he sent the text while inside the locked-down school, where his office is located.

The lockdown at the school was lifted about 11:50 a.m. Students were called to a schoolwide assembly, according to Ricca.

The school made the decision to keep all faculty, staff and students inside the building because the police had contained the suspect outside, Ricca said.

The high school’s day will go on as usual, he said.

“We are going to try and have a reasonably normal day,” Ricca said. The elementary and middle school were not affected.

Four counselors are available at the school for students, he said. In addition, Ricca said he is asking Washington County Mental Health Services to lend a few extra counselors this week.

“I am really proud of everyone,” Ricca said. The school practices lockdown drills once a month as part of crisis planning.

This is the third robbery or attempted robbery in the state over the past week.

Feldman said it was the first time a branch of VSECU was robbed. The bank’s staff trains for what to do in robbery situations, she said.

“Our No. 1 priority is safety, Feldman said.

All witnesses to the robbery made statements to the police, Feldman said. None were available to speak to the media, Feldman said.

As of 10:30 a.m. those at the bank were waiting for detectives to investigate the scene, which had remained untouched since the robbery, Feldman said.

The bank is closed today and likely will reopen Wednesday.

State police are asking anyone who witnessed the incident or has information about it to contact them at 802-229-9191.

CORRECTION: A review of video footage provided by WPTZ did not show that the suspect was punched, as alleged by witnesses originally quoted in the story.


New posters at UVM draw fire as ‘racist’

On the first day of the semester Tuesday, seven anti-immigration posters that University of Vermont officials deemed “offensive and racist” were hung around the central green on the Burlington campus.

The posters pictured three different people of color with the words: “Stop importing problems, start exporting solutions.” Next to each picture, there are three words: attempted murder, rape and murder. The posters immediately prompted new conversations about racial justice on campus, a theme that has recurred frequently since September.

The pictures on the flyers are of all local suspects, according to a photo posted by the Vermont Cynic. The top photo appears to be Abukar Ibrahim, who is accused of attempted murder for attacking a woman with a machete, the second is Robert Rosario, who was recently acquitted of rape, and the third is Aita Gurung, who is accused of murdering his wife with a cleaver

The university administration, including President Tom Sullivan, Provost David Rosowsky, Vice President Wanda Heading Grant and Vice Provost Annie Stevens, sent a campus-wide letter condemning the posters, a move that drew support from student leaders.

“It’s very xenophobic, racist and white nationalist at its core,” said student leader Z McCarron, who found the posters.

Student Government President Chris Petrillo said that this incident is similar to another recent event involving posters, and that both were aimed at increasing divisiveness on campus. In November, posters that said “It’s Okay To Be White,” were put up around UVM. The posters were part of a national campaign started by white nationalist groups and promoted online.

Petrillo said the attempt at divisiveness will not work at UVM. “These posters will not change our campus climate,” he said.

Petrillo said if anything, the posters have reminded campus communities to stand together to combat racism.

Similar posters have appeared on various college campuses over the past year, including Penn State.

The new posters targeting immigration come after a semester of conversations about racism on UVM’s campus, including the emergence of the student organization NoNamesForJustice, whose leaders have been negotiating a list of demands with the administration since September.

The group was started after a sophomore who stole a Black Lives Matter flag in September 2016 was allowed back on campus for fall semester 2017. More than 200 students marched to protest that student’s return in late September, when they first gave the demands to administration officials.

A leader of NoNamesForJustice said Tuesday the group had not prepared a comment about the latest poster incident.

After finding the poster, McCarron, who is a member of the group, took one of the flyers off the door of the Waterman building and brought it to the president’s wing of that building to inform officials there.

McCarron, on behalf of the student activist group NoNamesforJustice left a note: “Found this posted on door of Waterman.” The note called it a “prime example of the failure of this community and institution to disempower white supremacy,’ adding, “Happy MLK Day.” The letter is signed NoNamesForJustice.

McCarron the group did not think it a coincidence that the posters went up on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

On Oct. 1, the university sent out an email that stated an incident of alleged threats against students of color was being investigated. The student was cited on a charge of disorderly conduct and brought to court.

In December, a judge ruled that there was not enough evidence to charge the student.

The posters followed a highly publicized incident last week, when President Donald Trump, speaking at a meeting in Washington about immigration, allegedly referred to El Salvador, Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries.” Trump since has denied using that phrase.

McCarron tied the poster incident at UVM to Trump’s alleged comments.

“Our national context emboldens racism everywhere,” McCarron said.


Student sues UVM over disciplinary action related to alleged groping incident

The University of Vermont is defending its disciplinary process in the face of a civil rights lawsuit by a student who was suspended for sexual misconduct.

The student, identified as John Doe, alleges he was not given a fair hearing and that the university’s Title IX investigator had a conflict of interest.

The university found John Doe guilty last spring of groping a woman at a party in the fall of 2016. Doe was suspended for the fall 2017 semester, according to the lawsuit.

UVM said Tuesday it had not yet been served with the complaint, which was filed Nov. 22. The student is claiming damages and requests the expungement of his record.

College officials said in a statement that UVM “acted appropriately” and reiterated a commitment to a fair and impartial process of investigating accusations of sexual misconduct.

The lawsuit cites specific incidents of alleged violations of John Doe’s civil rights, including that he was not given the opportunity to seek legal representation.

UVM spokesperson Enrique Corredera said that during a sexual misconduct investigation both parties are given the opportunity for “support,” including legal aid.

“UVM’s process, as required by federal law, allows for both parties, as well as witnesses, to be accompanied to investigatory and other meetings, including sanctioning meetings, by an adviser of their choice,” he said.

Corredera said that UVM staff accompany students in an advisory capacity. Advisers do not have an active role in an investigation.

The lawsuit was filed amid a shift in how colleges are directed to handle sexual assault investigations. In September, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rolled back a 2011 directive issued under President Barack Obama.

The guidelines issued in 2011, in a document known as the “Dear Colleague” letter established protections for people who report misconduct. Critics believe the policy violated the rights of the accused.

Under the Obama administration rule, colleges set a “preponderance of the evidence” standard of proof — meaning the evidence shows it is more likely than not that the accused committed an assault.

The Education Department issued new interim guidelines last fall that allow schools to use a higher “clear and convincing evidence” standard of proof in proceedings, which makes it more difficult for victims to prove they were assaulted.

Mariah Cronin, an outreach coordinator at the UVM Women’s Center, said 80 percent of all assaults that occur are not reported and the 20 percent of victims who do report assaults must recount the events. Many victims withdraw their complaints because they don’t want to relive assaults, she said.

“People who have been systemically benefiting (from the Obama administration rule) feel that they are now being disenfranchised,” Cronin said.


UVM, faculty negotiations go to fact-finding

The University of Vermont and the faculty union United Academics have failed to come to an agreement after two months of mediation and have entered the fact-finding stage of negotiations.

An independent fact-finder will review the evidence from both parties and offer a recommendation. The two parties can either accept the fact-finder’s report or negotiate further. If no agreement is reached, the Vermont Labor Relations Board would resolve the issue.

Wanda Heading-Grant, vice president for human resources at UVM, said she was disappointed that mediation failed.

“We put forward a fair and reasonable proposal that carefully balanced the importance of increasing compensation for our faculty with the need to keep UVM affordable for our students and their families, and to prevent any need for numerous layoffs of personnel due to increased costs over present and future budgets,” Heading-Grant said in a statement.

The main sticking point is salary increases, according to Tom Streeter, a professor of sociology and the president of United Academics. The discrepancy between salaries proposed by the union and the university is within a percentage point, but there is a dispute over how those salary increases will be paid for under a new budgeting model that ties student class enrollments to allocations for each college at the university, Streeter said.

The union wants the university to reduce administrative costs, to help defray potential cuts in certain departments and colleges, Streeter said. In a 2016 study, the American Association of University Professors found that $1 out of every $3 spent at UVM is used to pay university faculty.

“As faculty we are frustrated that our administration diverts resources away from the core academic mission of teaching, research and service to our community,” Streeter wrote.

Last week, UVM cancelled a dozen classes in the College of Arts and Sciences, under a new budgeting process that ties classes to student enrollment. Administrators say there has been a decline in interest in the liberal arts since the Great Recession. The college faces a projected budget shortfall of between $3.7 million and $4 million this fiscal year.

“They seem to think it is better to save a few pennies by haphazardly canceling classes and squeezing faculty salaries, instead of taking a hard look at overall priorities at UVM, especially administrative costs,” Streeter wrote in a statement. “Contract negotiation is just one part of our work to help the administration straighten out its priorities and start putting education first, instead of last.”

The university says that under a newly adopted budget model each individual college determines how funds are to be appropriated after funds are distributed from the central administration, including salaries.

Streeter says salaries are ultimately the responsibility of the central administration. “Some units are able to absorb the cost of modest salary increases, while others may have to reduce expenses to offset the increases,” he said.

The university says the union wants to tap a $6 million strategic investment fund for academic salaries. Streeter said this is false. “The union has never stated that and used it only as a comparison to illustrate the flexibility the central administration pulled for itself on things they deem strategic,” he said, “we are not asking for anywhere near that much.”

The UVM administration says salaries for faculty, not including medical school faculty, are above average. Professors earn $123,619 on average; associate professors make $92,838; assistant professors are paid $78,424, other faculty earn $60,031.

A percent increase in faculty salaries adds $900,000 of additional costs to the base budget, according to UVM administrators. Student tuition makes up more than 70 percent of general fund revenue.

“Mindful of our obligations to students and families to keep tuition increases low, the university has remained concerned in these negotiations that significant increases to faculty payroll may have to involve significant further tuition increases and/or significant cuts to academic units and programs, potentially impacting faculty and other employees directly,” according to a press release from UVM.

Two other employee unions that have recently settled with UVM saw salary increases of 2 percent for the current fiscal year.