Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Interim President Seeks Community Support for Burlington College

Posted By on Wed, Sep 10, 2014 at 10:10 PM

Michael Smith addresses students, staff and reporters at a press conference at Burlington College last week. - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Michael Smith addresses students, staff and reporters at a press conference at Burlington College last week.
It didn't take long for the interim president of Burlington College to hatch a plan to save the school. For now, it hinges on one thing: cash.

Sitting in his new corner office at the college's North Avenue campus on Wednesday afternoon, Michael Smith summarized his challenge: "What I need to do is figure out a way to give this organization some breathing room because when you're going crisis to crisis, you’re only planning for that crisis ... How do I do that?"

Smith, who took over the position less than two weeks ago after Christine Plunkett resigned unexpectedly amidst a student protest, proceeded to answer his own question. "I ask for money. It’s as simple as that."

It does sound pretty obvious, but it's also a reversal of the college's stance up until this point. After the regional accreditation group put Burlington College on probation in late June, the college administration said it was putting fundraising on hold because, as board chairman Yves Bradley put it then, "The time to come to them is not when you are down and need a Band-Aid."

Asked to explain the turnaround, Smith responded, "I think we’re past that."

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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Burlington Considering Changes to the City Taxi System

Posted By on Tue, Sep 9, 2014 at 5:59 PM

  • Matthew Thorsen
It's been nearly a year since Jeff Munger, chair of the airport commission, penned an urgent letter to Burlington's mayor and city council asking them to fix glaring problems with the way taxis are regulated. 

On Monday, the city answered Munger's plea — at least it started to. After months of study, the city attorney's office has come up with a list of recommendations for fixing the city taxi system. Now, Mayor Miro Weinberger is reviewing its report, with the goal of presenting a plan for action to the city council before its October 20 meeting. The city council can also weigh in with suggestions before September 24. 

For the last decade, airport staff have been in charge of giving out taxi licenses, making sure taxis are playing by the rules and fielding complaints from drivers and passengers. The arrangement — in addition to creating more work for those employees — has made downtown Burlington a "Wild West" when it comes to enforcement. 

To ease the burden on the airport, the city attorney's report suggests hiring an employee in the clerk and treasurer's office to take over those duties. Revenue from license applications would fund the position. (Taxis need a special permit to pick up passengers at the airport, and airport staff would continue to oversee those vehicles.)

Figuring out how to actually enforce taxi rules has been high on the priority list. As Munger put it in his letter: "Anyone can put a magnetic sign on a vehicle as a taxi, operate in the city and never get caught."  To address this, the city attorney recommends analyzing taxi-related complaints, and based on that review, possibly hiring a part-time enforcement officer to supervise downtown taxis. 

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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Amidst Turmoil, Burlington College's Temporary Leaders Try to Rally Support

Posted By on Tue, Sep 2, 2014 at 5:28 PM

From left, Michael Smith, Yves Bradley and Jane Knodell. - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • From left, Michael Smith, Yves Bradley and Jane Knodell.
On Tuesday afternoon, in a basement room at Burlington College, class carried on as usual — students sat listening to their professor, who stood next a life-size skeletal model. 

Upstairs, the chair of the college's board of trustees was assuring a room full of reporters, students and faculty members that the school's new leadership team would do everything possible to keep the school afloat, despite dire fiscal challenges and the sudden departure of its president. 

The question for the community, Yves Bradley said, is whether Burlington is better off with or without Burlington college. "We feel extraordinarily strongly that Burlington is better off with Burlington College."

Bradley was not being melodramatic. The school is under extreme financial pressure, which led NEASC, the regional accreditation group, to put it on probation earlier this summer. Four days earlier, a group of students precipitated the resignation of the school's president, Christine Plunkett, by protesting outside her car as she attempted to leave a board meeting.

On Monday, the board confirmed that Plunkett had left the college. It also announced that former FairPoint Communications state president Michael Smith would serve as interim president alongside Jane Knodell, who will temporarily serve as an academic adviser to Smith, and David Coates, who will act as an interim financial adviser. Smith will be paid $8,000 a month and will work full time through December. Knodell, who will work up to 12 hours a week, and Coates, whose hours haven't been determined, are volunteering their time.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

Burlington College Students Confront President, Demand Her Resignation

Posted By on Fri, Aug 29, 2014 at 2:28 PM

Students protest outside the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce. - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Students protest outside the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce.
After briefly trying to quell the crowd of chanting Burlington College students who surrounded her car Friday morning, the school's president, Christine Plunkett — clearly flustered — told them what they wanted to hear: "OK, I resign! Happy?"

The students cheered, hugged one another and dispersed, allowing Plunkett to drive out of the parking lot.  

"I do not believe Christine is resigning," said the board chair, Yves Bradley, reached by phone after the meeting. Emphasizing that the board remains "in full support" of her, Bradley said he had not spoken to Plunkett since the students confronted her but had been apprised of the situation. "I think she was ambushed," he said. 

The college's spokesperson, Coralee Holm, told reporters "I'm not confirming anything," and she did not return phone calls later.

Approximately two dozen students had marched roughly one mile from the college to the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce, where Plunkett and the Burlington College Board of Trustees were meeting. Before starting off, they’d walked the hallways of the school, trying to recruit professors to come with them. At least two did. “When 20 of them show up at your office door, it’s kind of hard to say no,” explained Piers Kaniuka, who chairs the college’s integral psychology program.

Stationing themselves at each of the chamber building's four exits and chanting "Hey hey, ho ho, Christine Plunkett's got to go," they waited for an hour until Plunkett and Holm came out the front doors a little after 11 a.m.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Burlington College Neglected Retirement Contributions

Posted By on Tue, Aug 26, 2014 at 10:28 AM

Christine Plunkett - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Christine Plunkett
Burlington College neglected to make contributions to the retirement funds of staff members this summer.

In an email sent to employees Monday, President Christine Plunkett called it an “inadvertent oversight as our staff balanced many responsibilities over the summer” that was "neither a planned nor intentional step," and she assured her staff that their accounts were being swiftly replenished.

The college failed to deposit both the employee contributions — which come directly from their paychecks — and the employer match.

"This is, of course, a grave concern," Plunkett's email continues, "as the contributions include your own employee funds as well as College contributions. I am well aware of the legal obligations to remit those funds in a timely manner."

Joellen Leavelle, outreach manager for the Pension Rights Center in Washington, D.C., said employers are legally obligated to deposit employee contributions within seven days, but failing to meet that requirement is a common problem. “We’re glad the college realized the mistake and worked as fast as it could to correct the problem, and we hoped it learned from its mistake and will not do it in the future,” Leavelle said.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Conservative Support in School Board Race Stirs Debate

Posted By on Thu, Aug 21, 2014 at 12:55 PM

Kevin Garrison - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Kevin Garrison
Does it matter that a self-described Democrat running for the Burlington School Board is getting bankrolled by conservative supporters? That question is fueling lively debate among residents in the New North End's Ward 7, where there’s a competitive, three-way race for a seat that opened up when Greg Jenkins resigned several months ago. 

Former school board member Linda Deliduka, who lost her seat last March to newcomer David Kirk, is facing off against Kevin Garrison and Ed McMahon. The election is Tuesday.

The candidates all live within a few blocks of one another in the Village Green neighborhood. The school board is considered a nonpartisan body, but Garrison's political affiliations are causing a stir. 

Lenore Broughton, who funneled more than $1 million into the conservative super PAC Vermonters First, gave Garrison $500, according to the August 18 campaign finance disclosures. Scot Shumski, a conservative and outspoken member of the school board who is also running for state representative, is acting as Garrison's campaign manager. He introduced Garrison to Broughton and also encouraged the Burlington Republicans to help out. The party chipped in $150. 

A self-described "Blue Dog Democrat," Garrison points out that he's got Democrats backing him, too, including City Councilors Tom Ayres, Dave Hartnett and Bianka Legrand. He sees his bipartisan backing as a good thing. "I come from humble roots, and I’ve been able to build a coalition of people that support me — Republicans, Democrats and independents. At the end of the day, I think that’s what we need to move forward with our schools." 

Garrison said Shumski's a good friend — they went to high school together — and they are both focused on reining in school spending while promoting "better outcomes for students." On other topics? "We agree to disagree, and we only talk about the things we agree on," he said. As for his meeting with Broughton, "She’s a sweet lady. I sat down and I talked to her and I look forward to talking to her again if I have the need to… and she was concerned about the outcomes for our students just as much as I was, and basically that’s what our conversation was based on."

Regardless of who gives him money and helps on his campaigns, Garrison insisted, "I’m a man of my own convictions, my own values, my own ideas."

Not everyone is convinced. "We are who we keep company with," said Jenkins, who's supporting Deliduka. "If Kevin really thinks that the company he keeps is going to have no bearing on the way he is going to govern on the school board, then he is very naïve."

Ayres said he's had to defend his endorsement of a candidate  who's also getting support from the far-right side of the aisle. "Quite frankly, people kind of freaked out when they saw the 'Kevin Garrison for School Board' on my lawn," he said.

The Democratic councilor continues to support Garrison but he actually shares some of his neighbors' concerns. In a post on Front Porch Forum, he wrote, "Those of us who have been elected to local and state office know that the financial, political, and logistical support of Scot Shumski, ultra-conservative funder Lenore Broughton, and others from the far-right fringe comes with expectations and a price tag."

Ayres said he and others are concerned that the national organization, American Majority — which trains conservatives to run for down-ballot offices — could make inroads on the Burlington School Board. Shumski participated in a training earlier this year before winning his election. "Much of this discussion has focused on Kevin’s association, to put it bluntly, with a skillful, well-organized, and well-funded group of far-right, ultra-conservative Tea Party activists seeking to gain a foothold in Burlington and communities in our region," Ayres wrote in a Front Porch Forum post.

In a Front Porch Forum post titled "The Real Scot Shumski," Shumski defended his intentions. "Whether it's my role on the Burlington School Board or my candidacy for the statehouse its about improving the community I live in ... Let me close by focusing NOT on the poisonous, negative attack launched by Tom Ayres (that really serves no purpose but to distract and divide our community) but rather on what is truly important, electing Kevin Garrison to the Burlington School Board from Ward 7. Knowing that my children will have another tireless advocate for them on the school board is what drives me in my support for Kevin Garrison."

According to Shumski, people like Ayres are the ones politicizing the school board race. "There a small minority of extreme radicals in the New North End who are making an issue of it," he said in an interview. "Do you think people as principled as Kevin and I are going to be swayed by someone who contributed to us?" During his door-knocking rounds, Garrison also said he's seen "no evidence" that people are concerned by his Republican supporters. 

Garrison added that he had to look up what American Majority was to figure out what people were alarmed about. "I'm going to accept the support from all parties and I think that's what we need to move forward," he said.

For Deliduka, there's a déjà vu quality to the situation. Last March, Kirk clobbered her on the fundraising front, and he too was helped along by a $1,000 donation from Broughton. (Kirk raised roughly $2,500 total while Deliduka brought in less than $500.) So far, Garrison has raised $1,500. Deliduka said she just recently crossed the $500 mark. 

Deliduka declined to weigh in on her opponent and his Republican supporters. " I don't want to put out anything that says I’m concerned about that. Where we should be putting our time and thoughts is on the schools."

McMahon couldn't be reached for comment. 

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Sanders Tells Disruptive Members of Town Hall Meeting Crowd to "Shut Up!"

After anti-Israel protesters shout him down, the senator tells them to shut up. Sanders' staff call the cops.

Posted By on Wed, Aug 20, 2014 at 7:11 PM

Interrupted repeatedly at a town hall meeting last weekend, an irate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) yelled at disruptive audience members: "Shut up!"

The meeting, at Cabot's Willey Building Auditorium on Saturday, grew so heated that Sanders' outreach director, Phil Fiermonte, called the cops, according to Vermont State Police spokeswoman Stephanie Dasaro. Four troopers arrived partway through the event, but took no action.

"They basically were just there as a presence," Dasaro said. "Other than that, we didn't get involved. There was no disorderly conduct. No one was arrested."

A seven-minute video of the meeting was posted to YouTube Sunday by Marie Countryman, a Montpelier activist:

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Jim Jeffords, Vermont Icon With an Independent Streak, Dies at 80

Posted By and on Mon, Aug 18, 2014 at 11:55 AM

Updated at 4:53 p.m.

Former U.S. senator Jim Jeffords, an iconic independent and veteran Vermont politician, died Monday at age 80.

Near the end of his 40-year career in public office, the Rutland Republican stunned the nation in May 2001 when he left his party to become an independent. The move handed control of a closely divided Senate to the Democratic Party for the next 18 months and earned Jeffords a place in political history.

But according to his longtime chief of staff, Susan Boardman Russ, Jeffords’ most important contribution was not his defection from the GOP, but his decades of work fighting for education, the environment, dairy farmers and the disabled.

“That’s his legacy. That’s what mattered to him,” Boardman Russ said. “The publicity he got for switching parties I sometimes wish hadn’t happened because all those incredible things he did over those years got lost.”

Jeffords died Monday morning at the Knollwood Military Retirement Residence in Washington, D.C., where he had lived since the death of his wife, Liz, in 2007, according to former spokeswoman Diane Derby. 

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Monday, August 4, 2014

State to End Contract With Health Exchange Vendor

Posted By on Mon, Aug 4, 2014 at 2:42 PM

Lawrence Miller, left, and Mark Larson at Vermont Health Connect's Winooski office - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Lawrence Miller, left, and Mark Larson at Vermont Health Connect's Winooski office

The Shumlin administration is parting ways with CGI, the vendor that built Vermont's still-incomplete health insurance exchange, Vermont Health Connect.

The decision to end the contract is "mutual," according to Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access. He announced the news at a press conference this morning, alongside Lawrence Miller, whom Gov. Peter Shumlin recently appointed as chief of health care reform.

CGI has already received $57 million of Vermont's $83 million contract and, under the agreement, the Canadian company will leave the Green Mountain State with another $9.7 million, according to Miller. He noted that 97 percent of the exchange cost is federally funded.

Since the federal government ditched CGI in January, many Vermonters have been clamoring for state officials to do the same. Miller acknowledged that people will view the step as long overdue. 

"There's no doubt in my mind that the biggest question is going to be, 'Why the hell didn't you do this months ago?'" he said.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Sanders to Return to Iowa in September

Posted By on Mon, Jul 21, 2014 at 8:54 AM

Updated at 12:38 p.m.

As he continues to explore a 2016 run for president, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will return to the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa this September.

Sanders plans to hold town meetings in Dubuque, Waterloo and Des Moines the weekend of September 13, according to spokesman Michael Briggs. Sanders will combine the trip with a previously scheduled appearance in Wisconsin at the Fighting Bob Fest, an annual gathering to celebrate the life of progressive icon — and senator-turned-presidential candidate — Robert La Follette.

September's trip will mark Sanders' second to the Hawkeye State this year. He traveled to Iowa City in May to headline the Clinton County Democratic Party's Hall of Fame Dinner and, according to the Daily Beast, met with activists there and in Des Moines. Sanders has also held political events twice in New Hampshire this year, in April and June.

Last week, Sanders reported raising an unusually large sum of money for a year in which he does not face reelection. The Vermont independent collected nearly $716,000 in the past three months, boosting his campaign treasury to $4.4 million. Sanders, who was reelected to a second six-year term in 2012, will not have to defend his Senate seat again until 2018.

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