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October 16th, 2008

County school enrollment continues to fall


ADDISON COUNTY — Despite national trends of rising public school enrollments, Vermont schools are struggling to balance high costs and shrinking student populations — a problem that could prove especially trying for Addison County schools, where the total number of students has dropped slightly faster than the state average.

Between 2000 and 2008, the county’s student population fell 11.6 percent. Statewide, public school enrollment dropped 10.5 percent over that same period. Nationally, enrollment for public primary and secondary schools over that eight-year stretch rose over 4 percent.

With state education funding dependent upon the number of students attending a school, falling enrollments can be problematic for officials charged with balancing school budgets. The revenue generated by enrollment supports overhead costs like transportation and building maintenance — costs that continue to go up, despite shrinking student populations.

“We definitely are paying attention to (these trends), with enrollment numbers going down and the cost still increasing,” said Jill Remick, the communications director for the Vermont Department of Education.

And in a year when school budgets are bound to be tight — and new legislation could make the budget approval process more difficult — the state’s spending-per-pupil yardstick could be more important than ever.

Addison Northeast Supervisory Union Business Manager Greg Burdick said that he is keeping his eye on that all-important spending-per-pupil number — the number against which the state measures every school’s spending plan. 

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City building project has focus on seniors


VERGENNES — A major and long-awaited Vergennes project on a 12-acre parcel off Monkton Road that would include 25 senior housing units, a childcare center and 24 affordable single-family condominiums is beginning to wind its way through the city permit process.

The developers of the project — the first phase of which would be a 25,000-square-foot, $5.8-million elderly housing complex that would provide a community center and services as well 25 living units — are Addison County Community Trust, Housing Vermont Inc. of Burlington, Habitat for Humanity and Mary Johnson Children’s Center of Middlebury.

The site is accessed from the north side of Monkton Road by Armory Lane, and lies directly west of American Legion Post 14. Housing Vermont bought the land several years ago, and the project has been on the drawing boards since.

It has now almost completed a site plan review before the Vergennes Development Review Board, and Zoning Administrator and Interim City Manager Mel Hawley said a public hearing could be called as early as December.

Hawley said a hearing could have been called in November, but developers wanted to clarify the elderly housing “density bonus” the area’s Medium Density Residential zoning allows.

That zoning allows more units per acre than otherwise permitted if a project exclusively offers elderly housing. In Hawley’s opinion, that means the elderly housing component may need to be separated from the other parts of the larger Planned Unit Development (PUD).

“It’s my opinion to qualify for the bonus, the senior housing complex needs to sit on its own 4 acres ... so that it is not part of a PUD,” he said.

Hawley said the board could have a different interpretation, and a DRB discussion scheduled in November will focus at least in part on that issue.

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Middlebury is Spooktacular


MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury merchants on Saturday, Oct. 25, will give area adults and children a sweet preview of Halloween — and all that the downtown has to offer — in the first annual “Middlebury Spooktacular.”

The event, which kicks off at 3:30 p.m., is the brainchild of the Better Middlebury Partnership (formerly known as the Middlebury Business Association). The Spooktacular is somewhat of a throwback to Halloweens gone by, when a children’s parade used to meander its way around the downtown and Court Square and when the Middlebury Inn used to host a haunted house.

“It’s been several years since there’s been a Halloween celebration of any kind in Middlebury, and we felt it was something we should have again,” said BMP Coordinator Gail Freidin.

With that in mind, members of the BMP’s promotions committee set to work on a new event that could involve adults and kids alike. They came up with the Spooktacular, which will feature, among other things:

• Hay bales, luminaries and lit pumpkins and other Halloween décor adorning the town green on Oct 25. A rain date of Oct 26 has been set.

• Carved pumpkin and costume contests, family fun games, a “monster-mash” dance party and prizes.

• A children’s trick-or-treat sidewalk parade along Main Street that will leave the green at 4:15 p.m. Accompanied by parents and the Middlebury Police Explorers, the procession will cross to the post office, continue along Main Street to Cannon Park, cross to the Ilsley Memorial Library, and return to the green, stopping at each shop along the route.

Main Street merchants will have plenty of treats on hand and may even greet the parade participants at their doors in costume. Businesses not located on the parade route will be handing out goodies in Cannon Park.

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October 13th

Welch says more steps needed to resolve economic crisis


MIDDLEBURY — U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said the $700 billion economic rescue plan passed by Congress on Oct. 3 is just the first step federal lawmakers and the next president will have to take in shoring up what has become a global economic crisis.

Welch, running for a second term as Vermont’s lone U.S. representative, discussed the rescue plan and his legislative priorities during an interview at the Addison Independent on Thursday.

Welch on Sept. 29 voted against the first, ill-fated rescue plan fielded by the U.S. House, saying it lacked proper oversight and that he was pressing for the best possible taxpayer safeguards while always embracing the need for government action.

Welch and a majority of his colleagues shifted gears and supported a second version of the plan that passed on Oct. 3, after a few changes had been incorporated into the bill. Welch said that version earned his vote because:

• It increased federal insurance of people’s bank deposits from the current $100,000 to $250,000.

“That is something I have been advocating for a while,” Welch said.

• It requires the Securities and Exchange Commission to have banks use “mark-to-value” accounting, not just the current “mark-to-market” accounting, when it comes to assessing real estate mortgage values. Welch explained that a mark-to-value accounting system reflects a property’s cash flow to the bank at the time of assessment, whereas the mark-to-market accounting system does not.

“Mark-to-market is a one-size-fits-all approach that results in oftentimes a number that does not reflect the actual value of the asset,” Welch explained. “That means the bank’s balance sheet is lower and it means they have to build up more reserves (before they can) lend more money.”

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Meeting seeks new vision for future of Addison County


ADDISON COUNTY — Talk of a congress and “community organizers” might bring to mind national politics — but for the planners behind this year’s Addison County Conservation Congress, a daylong summit slated to take place later this month at Mount Abraham Union High School, those words ring true a little closer to home.

The Oct. 25 event, sponsored by the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACoRN) and Vermont Family Forests (VFF), aims to bring together anywhere between 150 and 300 county residents to dig into this year’s theme: “Addison County in Transition: Visioning Our Community in 2020 and Mapping the Next Steps to Get There.”

The day aims to do exactly what its title calls for: dream up a portrait of the county in 12 years, and begin work on the roadmap necessary to make that vision a reality.

That lofty goal is a departure from the country conservation congresses of the past, which started in 1992, explained David Brynn, a forester with VFF. After five annual meetings, organizers took a hiatus from the project — a break that ended up lasting 10 years.

Brynn and other planners revived the meetings last year. But according to Brynn, this year’s congress signals a paradigm shift for the event.

“The first six were about finding controversial conservation issues that we could deliberate and argue about in a supportive setting,” Brynn explained. “The idea was really to debate them and not necessarily to reach any consensus but to get things out in a respectful environment.”

This year’s congress, the seventh, focuses more on the human community, and the future Addison County’s residents can create for themselves in the face of three major challenges: peak oil, climate change, and the financial crisis.

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Parents, providers say quality childcare comes with a price tag


ADDISON COUNTY — Look for parents in Addison County and around the state this week sporting buttons that declare “This employee made possible because of daycare” and “Support Vermont’s economy, support quality childcare.”

These parents, along with other allies of early child development programs, are doing their best to draw attention to the necessity for up-to-date subsidies for families struggling to meet steep childcare costs, as well as the importance of available quality childcare in the state.

Organizers are calling the weeklong event a “virtual strike” — a sort of “what if” question. What if early childcare and education programs weren’t available? What if these programs, on which hundreds of parents in the county depend, were to close for the day?

The strike, coordinated by the Kids Are Priority One Coalition, kicks off Tuesday and runs through Saturday. According to Susan Hackett, the local coordinator for the strike and the regional director for a children’s advocacy group called Building Bright Futures, almost 1,000 buttons have been distributed to parents and allies around the county.

Organizers hope that the buttons will raise awareness about the link between childcare and economic development, as well as draw attention to subsidy eligibility guidelines that some childcare advocates say are out-dated and insufficient.

“There is childcare assistance,” said Ginny Sinclair, a referral specialist at Addison County Childcare Services. Sinclair helps families find childcare with one of the roughly 60 local home childcare providers or one of the county’s three state-licensed centers.

Subsidies are based on a family’s income, she explained, as well as a “service need” demonstrated if a parent is working, attending school full-time, or medically incapable of caring for a child at all times.

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October 8th

VSP eyes cuts to dispatching for towns


ADDISON COUNTY — Vermont State Police dispatchers at one of the state’s four E-911 communications centers may soon stop fielding “non-emergency” calls for local police, rescue and fire departments due to the heavy volume of work they are now handling.

At issue are citizen calls made to local police departments’ seven-digit phone numbers during times when the local dispatchers are not on duty. That’s usually 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and Sundays, for most local departments.

During that time, anyone who calls — for example, the Middlebury police number at 388-3191, or Bristol police at 453-2533 — currently finds their call picked up by a VSP dispatcher in Rutland, who then directs it to the appropriate local public safety official.

But due to staffing issues, the VSP may stop taking those calls.

State police officials stressed the shift in policy would not have an impact on E-911 calls, and that the switch would not occur until the affected departments have found additional technology or manpower to field their own seven-digit calls at times when their local dispatchers are off duty.

Addison County officials this week were candid in their displeasure with news the VSP may soon drop the service, a move they said could cost communities plenty by forcing them to hire additional dispatchers or acquire pagers/cell phones through which to have calls automatically routed to officers in the field.

“As a police officer, I’m not crazy about this idea; as a taxpayer, I’m offended,” said Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs.

The proposed change would affect more than 30 police, fire and rescue agencies in Addison County, according to VSP Capt. Donald Patch, commander of the state police “C Troop,” which includes the New Haven, Rutland and Shaftsbury stations.

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Winter market in Middlebury to offer local foods and more


MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater has been nourishing the soul with quality entertainment since it officially opened its doors in July. The historic venue will take on the added role of nourishing the body beginning on Nov. 1, when it hosts the first in a series of Saturday “winter markets” that are slated to stretch until next spring.

The “Middlebury Winter Markets” are being spearheaded by the Addison County Localvores. Bay Hammond, a member of the localvores group, explained that Middlebury resident Kate Gridley informally floated the idea last year.

“She said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have access to local goods and foods throughout the year?’” Hammond recalled.

Others took a shining to the concept, to the extent that the localvores — affiliated with the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACoRN) — decided to explore the feasibility of a winter market. Hammond explained that the market could logically become an extension of the Middlebury Farmers’ Market, though that organization has been very busy with its summer/fall offerings each Wednesday and Saturday in the Marble Works.

“Our main goal was to just get (a winter market) up and started,” Hammond said of the localvores’ role this year. “It seemed like the time was right. There are a lot of winter markets popping up all over the state.”

Localvores found willing partners in the THT and its executive director, Douglas Anderson.

“(Anderson) loved the idea,” Hammond said. “We have been working hard to set up dates.”

Organizers believe the THT space will accommodate around 18 vendors, who are likely to sell types of produce with a longer shelf-life (potatoes, garlic, various herbs), as well as frozen meats, baked goods, prepared foods, breads and crafts.

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