Sanders rails against ‘inflated’ executive pay at UVM Medical Center

By: Kelsey Neubauer

This story was originally published by on July 6, 2018


Bernie Sanders with UVM nursesSen. Bernie Sanders said executive salaries at UVM Medical Center have ballooned while nurses’ pay has stagnated. Photo by Kelsey Neubauer/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — Nurses at the state’s largest hospital who have threatened to strike over a pay dispute got a boost from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders Friday.

Sanders stood with union negotiators at a press conference in a show of support for nurses with the University of Vermont Medical Center who are seeking pay parity with their counterparts in New York state.

The senator chided administrators of the nonprofit Burlington hospital for balking at pay increases for nurses — at the same time executive salaries have ballooned and the hospital has booked $75 million in profits over time.

“At the end of the day, like so many other issues, this contract negotiation is about priorities,” Sanders said.

“I find it hard to believe that the hospital has enough money to pay nearly $11 million to 15 administrators including more than $2 million to the CEO, but doesn’t have enough money to pay their nurses the same wages as nurses earn elsewhere, where the cost of living is in fact lower,” Sanders said.

“I find it even harder to believe the medical center says it has to pay these inflated administrator salaries when it has to attract the best and the brightest people to run the hospital,” he continued. “Well, how about paying competitive wages to attract the best nurses who actually care about their patients.”

Lead negotiators with the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals say they want to be paid at the same rate as their counterparts in Plattsburgh, New York, at the Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, which, like the UVM Medical Center, is part of the University of Vermont Health Network.

In an interview with VTDigger last month, Eileen Whalen, the president of UVM Medical Center, said the Plattburgh hospital is in a different market and that nurses’ pay in Burlington is consistent with national pay rates.

More than 1,800 UVM Medical Center nurses in the union have threatened to go on strike for 48 hours, starting July 12, if UVM Medical Center does not increase their pay by 24 percent over three years. The contract expires Monday, July 9.

Sanders said the only way to prevent a strike is to come to the table and consider the requests of the union.

“To avoid that strike the hospital must take seriously the nurses’ demands for fair and competitive wages,” he said.

The administration has been planning to replace striking nurses with nearly 600 replacement traveling nurses. The union says that the replacement nurses will cost the hospital $1.2 million a day, not including rooms booked at the Hilton and Hotel Vermont.

Nurses say the low pay at UVM Medical Center has made it difficult for the hospital to fill vacancies. At this point there are 150 openings for nursing positions.

Sanders said the shortage of nursing staff threatens the quality of patient care. The hospital often hires traveling nurses that stay for 13-week periods to fill gaps, he said.

“With this high level of vacancies, nurses are stretched beyond what is good for them or their patients,” Sanders said. “They simply cannot provide the quality of care their patients need and deserve. Further, with a nursing staff that is understaffed and overworked, morale suffers and the nurse turnover rate is higher than it should be.”

Over the course of negotiations, the hospital has proposed salary increases from 7 percent to 13 percent over three years. Administrators say the union’s 24 percent hike over three years is “not realistic.”

Nurses say the administration has not been willing to reach middle ground.

Meanwhile, nurses say union flyers have been removed and discussions about union matters have been thwarted by supervisors. Members of the union have filed unfair labor practice complaints with National Labor Relations Board.

Hospital officials did not immediately respond to VTDigger’s requests for comment on certain claims made by the union.

Michael Carrese, the spokesman for UVM Medical Center, issued a statement after Sanders’ press conference.

“As we’ve said all along, we believe we can reach agreement if both sides stay at the table and we involve a federal mediator, an approach which has worked in the past three negotiations,” Carrese wrote.


Supreme Court ruling will hurt Vermont unions

By: Kelsey Neubauer

This story was originally published by on July 2, 2018

Public unions in Vermont say a Supreme Court ruling made last week will have direct impact on membership and a key source of revenue.

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the practice of charging non-union members union fees. The narrow 5-4 majority in Janus v. AFSCME, overturned the 1977 landmark case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which found that unions could mandate non-members to pay union fees to cover the costs of “collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment purposes.”

The 2018 ruling determined that such an arrangment “violates the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.”

Public sector unions across the country, and in Vermont, are bracing for the economic repercussions of the decision.

The Vermont State Employees Association will lose about $700,000 as a direct result of the change, according to VSEA executive director Steve Howard.

But, Howard says recruitment is up. About 60 people have joined the VSEA over the past five days.

The union currently has 6,128 paying members and 1,500 non-members that are a part of the collective bargaining unit. Howard said the number of paying members is “historic.”

He attributes the uptick in membership to new laws and policy changes that will have an impact on collective bargaining.

“I think a bad boss is a good organizer; and I think people were very concerned about Donald Trump and have become increasingly concerned about Governor Scott and the way his chief of staff has interjected himself into politics and the operations of the administration,” Howard said

Since the Supreme Court decision, Howard said that VSEA has sent letters to members, explaining the case.

“We’ve been explaining to members what’s behind this decision; this is not a decision that fell from the sky, this is a decision that was funded by billionaire Koch brothers,” Howard said. “The reason they funded this was to try to break the backs of unions.”

According to a June 27 [New Yorker article] the Koch Brothers and other conservative billionaires have been funneling money into anti-union cases for decades through tax-exempt organizations.

“I think the impact is it’s going to create a new level of energy and activism among rank and file union members,” Howard said, “with some people saying ‘I am joining because of this decision.’”

The Vermont-NEA, the state’s largest union, has also urged members to encourage non-members to join.

“This case is the continuation of a generation of attacks on labor,” Vermont NEA spokesperson Darren Allen said in an interview with VTDigger. “We will continue to make the case that being a member makes the profession stronger and makes their voice stronger.”

Allen said the union has 13,035 paying members and 1,165 non-members and declined to comment on how much revenue the union would lose as a result of the case.

According to the NEA’s website, dues were set at $165. If non-members do not pay dues, the loss would be about $192,225.

The union plans to recruit non-members, Allen said.

“Our main message to members is the same message we would tell everybody, this union has grown because members have made to the case to nonmembers its a really good force,” Allen said.

Groups stir up interest in limiting plastic straws

By: Kelsey Neubauer

This story was originally published by on June 28, 2018

Milo Cress, 16, speaks about reducing plastic straw waste Wednesday in front of Burlington’s City Hall. Photo by Kelsey Neubauer/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — When Milo Cress was 9 years old, he sat in a restaurant wondering why he had just been given a straw with his meal. It seemed so wasteful. After all, he didn’t use straws at home, so why would it be different while eating out?

Not long after, he began a “Be Straw Free” campaign, through which he hoped to educate businesses about the impact on the environment. He urged them to reduce the number of straws they handed out as well as the amount they threw away.

“It seemed like such a waste, because I would see so many take their straw and put it on the table,” said the Burlington resident, now 16. “It seemed like so few people needed straws but so many were getting straws that there was a problem there.”

According to the group For a Strawless Ocean, nearly 500 million plastic straws are used in the United States every day, with many of those ending up in the ocean where they pollute the water and kill marine life. The group estimates that by the year 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Single-use plastic straws contribute to pollution of the oceans. Creative Commons photo

Unlike other plastics, straws cannot be recycled because they are too light to make it through the mechanical sorters, according to the organization.

Cress, who has testified before Congress and the Vermont Legislature, stood alongside business owners and other officials Wednesday, urging restaurants to take a pledge to only provide straws on request.

The issue has drawn a lot of attention across the country recently and a number of cities have adopted policies to limit the use of straws. Next month, Seattle will become the largest metropolitan area to ban single-use plastic straws.

And it’s possible that Burlington may not be far behind.

Burlington City Councilor Adam Roof, I-Ward 8, said he plans to introduce a resolution next month to limit the use of straws in the city. He said it was the images of sea turtles with straws stuck in their noses that prompted him to take action.

Roof said that during his time as a bartender in Burlington, he’d sweep up many straws that people had not used over the course of an evening shift.

While it may appear to be a meager contribution on a global scale, he said “it’s one of those cases where a lot of small steps over times” can have a much larger impact.

He said he hopes to join and start conversations with officials in cities like Burlington to “weld” the impact of reducing plastic straw use.

Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said that there are a number of alternatives to plastic straws, including those made of steel and paper.

Some Vermont businesses have begun substituting alternatives to the single-use plastic straws. Stowe Bowl — with alleys, a lounge and restaurant — is now providing reusable straws for kiddie cups.

Stowe Bowl owner Rachel Vanderberg said the practice also could save firms money in the long run.

Earlier this month, WCAX reported that Leunig’s, a popular downtown Burlington bistro, had implemented a “straw upon request” policy. However, managers soon after decided to scrap the change when they found that customers almost always would ask for straws.

City Councilor Roof said he understands the burden a zero-tolerance policy would place on businesses and plans to speak with restaurant operators while crafting his resolution.

“I want to get a lot of buy-in from restaurants and bars before I move forward on something,” he said.

Juvenile justice bill goes to governor’s desk

By: Kelsey Neubauer

This story was originally published by on May 24, 2018

Young adults convicted of non-violent crimes and between the ages of 18 and 21, could have their records expunged under a bill updating the state’s juvenile justice system, delivered to the governor’s desk on Thursday.

Other changes called for in S.234, which was passed by the General Assembly earlier in the month, are for minors to be funneled through the family court system instead of the criminal court system and for anyone incarcerated under the age of 25 to be kept away from the general prison population.

Rep. Barbara Rachelson, D-Burlington, a member of the House Judiciary Committee who presented the bill on the House floor, said the bill builds upon Act 153, which became law in 2016, and called for someone over the age of 18 and charged with a crime, under certain circumstances, to be tried as a juvenile, rather than an adult.

Rachelson said the goal of both bills is to increase the effectiveness of Vermont’s juvenile justice system and to decrease recidivism.

“If we’re sending people 18 and up to adult court we’re giving them that permanent baggage of a criminal record,” she said.

Receiving more appropriate treatment, Rachelson said, would greatly increase their chances of returning to society as functioning young adults.

“Lots of doors are going to close, in terms of ever getting college loans, certain kinds of housing,” she said, “and people under 25 are super responsive to treatment.”

The bill also calls for the Department for Children and Families to look into the cost of expanding juvenile services to those who will be 18 and 19 by 2021, and presenting plans for renovating the juvenile justice system by Nov. 18 this year.

Cara Cookson, the public policy director at the Vermont Crime Victims Services, is “cautiously optimistic” about the potential impact the bill could have on the state’s juvenile population. She said early intervention would lead to fewer victims in the future.

“We know when they have access to social services early, it reduces the risk of it happening again,” she said.

On the other hand, Cookson said, one of the tradeoffs is that if someone accused of a crime is placed in the family court system, it impedes a victim from gaining access to records and other information about the case.

Rachelson, who worked as a social worker in Washington, D.C., and Michigan before coming to Vermont, said she was surprised at how behind the times the state’s juvenile justice laws were, especially given Vermont’s progressive politics.

“The thing that was so interesting Vermont was an outlier in how behind the times we were,” Rachelson said.

For example, before the passage of earlier reforms, children aged 10 could be tried as adults in Vermont, she said.

Rachelson said the state’s punitive approach was spurred in part by a brutal murder in Essex in 1981.

Two male teenagers sexually assaulted two 12-year-old girls and murdered one of them. One of the convicted, James Savage, who had been 15 at the time of the murder, walked out of prison two years later, with no criminal record because of laws that had allowed him to be tried as a minor.

Gov. Richard Snelling called a special session of the Legislature that ended with the enactment of a new law allowing children as young as 10 to be tried as adults if charged with crimes resulting in death, assault and robbery with a dangerous weapon, kidnapping, maiming, sexual assault, murder and burglary of a bedroom at night, according to a 1982 New York Times article.

Rachelson said the new bill will take into account new research in the past 20 years on the development of juvenile brains, notably that brain development is not complete until age 25, as well as the fact that the juvenile crime rate is decreasing. From 2012 to 2014 the crime rate fell 46 percent.

Rachelson noted that a potential benefit of the bill is that, since it will enable more young people to enter the workforce, it will be good for Vermont’s economy.



Burlington superintendent gets residency waiver

By: Kelsey Neubauer

This story was originally published by VTDigger on May 15, 2018.

BURLINGTON — The City Council has agreed to grant School Superintendent Yaw Obeng an indefinite exemption to the city’s residency requirement.

In a 9-3 vote Monday night, the council adopted a resolution proposed by the School Board to allow Obeng to continue to live in South Burlington provided he remain in his current home.

Burlington requires most of its department heads and the school superintendent to reside in the city.

In 2015, the City Council gave the newly hired superintendent three years to relocate from Ottawa to Burlington. However, when he eventually established residence it was in the adjoining city South Burlington.

On May 3, School Board Chair Clare Wool requested the extension on behalf of Obeng, arguing that he had maintained a “sufficient connection” to the community, which was the intent of the residency rules when they enacted.

Wool also said Obeng was seeking to become a U.S. citizen and said having to move during that process would create a significant hardship for him and his family.

Jane Knodell
Jane Knodell, Burlington City Council member. File photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger

Councilor Jane Knodell, P-Central District, who sponsored the resolution, said Obeng was doing a good job and that residency exemptions often come down to a “judgment call.”

“As I consider where we are, where the schools are … if the council votes no, what would we really accomplish?” she asked.

However, Councilor Joan Shannon, D-South District, was skeptical. She said the only reason to request this exemption was because the terms of the last exemption were not fulfilled.

“When we granted the first waiver, Mr. Obeng was moving,” she said. “He was not commuting here from Canada where he lived. We knew he’d be moving to the community and we were assured that he would move to Burlington.

“And with that, it was very reasonable to give the waiver,” Shannon said. “But Obeng did not choose to buy a home in Burlington, he chose to buy one in South Burlington.”

Shannon also said the reasons Wool offered for granting the exemption were dubious, especially in arguing that Obeng was constantly connected to the community through text, email and social media.

Joan Shannon
Joan Shannon, Burlington city councilor. File photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger

Shannon said that was not the kind of community connection that was intended when the residency clause was implemented.

“If these are the standards to which we apply our exemption,” Shannon said, “I don’t really see why anybody would live in the city.”

Shannon questioned Obeng directly as to why he was requesting an extension and why, when he relocated, he bought a house in South Burlington instead of Burlington.

Obeng replied that he had not been informed of the residency requirement when he took the job.

Shannon then read from a letter written by former chair Mark Porter stating that Obeng intended to establish his residency in Burlington, which was a key factor in why the council voted to allow a temporary exemption for him three years ago.

“It seems like there were discussions between you and Mr. Porter, or you and the board saying that you would move here, was that not the case?” she said.

Obeng responded that he had not been made aware of the requirement nor had he spoken to Porter about it.

Shannon was joined in voting against extending the exemption by Sharon Bushor, P-Ward 1, and Max Tracy, P-Ward 2, who said they did so in part to remain consistent in opposing other residency exemptions.

During the public forum, one community member urged the council to reject the resolution.

“If he is going to be making decisions here, his kids should be a part of the school district,” said Mayumi Cornell, whose daughter attended Burlington schools.

Other members supporting the proposal said they were pleased with the work Obeng has been doing.

Correction: The vote was 9-3, not 6-3 as reported earlier.

Gender-neutral bathrooms will become law July 1

By: Kelsey Neubauer

This story was originally published on May 14, 2018 by

Vermont has become the latest state to safeguard bathroom access to people who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming, under a new law requiring all single-occupancy restrooms to be designated as gender-free by July 1.

Legislators, LGBTQ supporters and youth advocates gathered at the Statehouse Friday to watch Gov. Phil Scott sign H. 333, known as “the bathroom bill,” into law.

The bill requires all single-user restrooms to change their signs to “gender free,” meaning people who identify with any gender can use such facilities in Vermont.

Over the past two years, the House and Senate heard testimony about the difficulties faced by many young people who identify as transgender or nonbinary.

Rep. Selene Colburn, P-Burlington, who introduced the measure in the House last year, said children and their families shared stories of fear and having to “map out” safe places.

“While this doesn’t completely solve all problems (transgender people) face,” she said, “this will hopefully add more points that they can add onto their maps.”

Transgender describes people whose gender does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth and non-binary is used to describe those who identify with genders other than a woman or a man.

“Two years ago, when I was running for governor, I was asked in a debate whether I would support gender-neutral bathrooms in public places or not,” Scott said at the signing ceremony. “I responded with a one-word answer, a simple yes. Because to me it was just that simple. Why wouldn’t we do that? And now two years later I am honored to be able to sign that legislation into law today.”

The Republican governor added, “For many transgender and gender non-conforming Vermonters, having bathrooms labeled male or female creates social stress and discomfort or instances where you face hostility and mistreatment.”

Selene Colburn, Burlington
Rep. Selene Colburn, P-Burlington. File photo by Phoebe Sheehan/VTDigger

Gender neutral bathrooms have been an issue nationally over the past two years. When President Donald Trump took office, he revoked an Obama-era guideline that allowed students to enter restrooms based on their gender identity.

Lawmakers said Friday the legislation was a commonsense reform that would make bathrooms more convenient for everyone.

“This is not about a culture war, its about meeting the needs of all Vermonters,” said Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham.

While the bill passed unanimously in the Senate, there was opposition last year in the House, Colburn said. One member said there should be a religious exemption for places of worship, but this was not included in the bill.

The public signing was not without controversy. The video of the signing posted to Scott’s Facebook page drew a number of negative reactions, with some saying the law was as redundant or unnecessary, and one saying it was “sick.”

The overwhelming majority of the comments were positive, though, with many commenters saying they were “proud.”

Student Action Inspires Bill

Colburn said the bathroom bill was inspired by actions at the University of Vermont two years ago, when a four-month student protest led to a sit-in demanding gender-neutral restrooms in all UVM buildings, including the library.

Eventually, the university established a gender-neutral bathroom steering committee that included Colburn, who is also the assistant dean of libraries at UVM.

Colburn took these ideas with her to the Statehouse when she was elected and H. 333 was one of the first bills that Colburn sponsored.

Diana Gonzalez
Rep. Diana Gonzalez, P-Winooski. Courtesy photo

While lawmakers emphasized how the bill would benefit all, they also spoke of what it meant in highlighting what some called historical marginalization.

Gendered bathrooms were used to maintain segregation and limit women in the public sphere, said Rep. Diana Gonzalez, P-Winooski. “Restroom access is access to public life,” she said.

Gonzalez said it was not until the 1990s that women lawmakers in the Capitol building had a convenient bathroom. Women would miss some committee and floor proceedings because of how far they had to walk, she said.

Until now, Gonzalez said, “signs” enabled marginalization of those who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.

Senate passes bill to fight sexual harassment in the workplace

By: Kelsey Neubauer

This story was originally published by VTDigger on May 11, 2018.

The Senate has passed a bill (H.707) that would outlaw workplace policies that tend to silence those who try to come forward with sexual harassment claims.

The measure, which has already been approved by the House and has the support of Gov. Phil Scott, also would provide educational resources to help reduce instances of harassment in the workplace. It received unanimous backing in the Senate.

Among its provisions, the legislation would also prohibit two common practices that many say have the effect of silencing those who have faced harassments.

It would outlaw any requirement that employees or prospective employees, as a condition of employment, sign a waiver of any rights to disclose incidents of sexual harassment.

The measure also would prohibit employers from dismissing employees once a settlement has been reached on a complaint.

The legislation would provide the Vermont Commission on Women with $125,000 to develop public service announcements, electronic training materials, educational programs and in-person seminars and workshops.

The lead sponsor, Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, D-Bradford, began working on the bill in December with representatives of the commission and the state attorney general’s office.

Copeland-Hanzas said the bill was inspired in part by women in the #MeToo movement who she felt were invisible in the national narrative of sexual harassment and assault — everyday working people.

Many of those workers, she said, face harassment every day — from the waitress being groped by the prep cook, to the line worker being tormented in the factory, to the office worker whose colleague asks her out on a daily basis.

“It’s no protection to women if we just out a few high-profile harassers,” Copeland-Hanzas said. “I wanted us to take a look at what can we do to extend sexual assault protection to all workers.”

Lisa Senecal of Stowe. Courtesy photo

Copeland-Hanzas worked closely with one Commission on Women member, Lisa Senecal of Stowe, a business owner who experienced assault and signed a non-disclosure agreement as a part of her settlement in a previous job.

“It has been an incredibly difficult way to live,” Senecal said.

Senecal said she is now aware of things about the company that she is forbidden from speaking about because of the non-disclosure agreement. It also prohibits her from speaking out about the details of her assault.

“You feel like you are complicit in the silence and allowing it to continue,” she said.

Senecal said she put her name forward to become a commissioner in 2017 because of her experiences. She provided testimony over the course of the bill’s movement through both chambers of the Legislature.

The bill was introduced with widespread support from all parties in the House — Majority Leader Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, and Progressive leader Robin Chesnut-Tangerman of Middletown Springs all signed on to sponsor the legislation.

Copeland-Hanzas said the bill was drafted in a way to attract broad support but that she plans to seek additional remedies in the future.

“I am coming back for more next year,” she said, adding she hopes to focus on the financial and power disparities that exist between companies and their employees who report abuse.

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 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 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 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.”

White supremacist threatens Montpelier flag protest

This  story was published by 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 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 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 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.”