July 19, 2019

Library get grant to improve services and offerings

Dorothy Alling Library has been awarded a grant it will use to fund outreach programs, boost music and video offerings and even reupholster furniture.

The grant was announced last week by State Librarian Sybil Brigham McShane on behalf of the Freeman Foundation and the Vermont Public Library Foundation. It represents the second and third years of a three-year grant totaling $236,000. Dorothy Alling Library received its first year of grant funding in 2002.

This year, Williston’s public library will use the funding to purchase DVDs and music CDs, as well as shelving on which to store them. The library will also use the funding to pay the salary of the outreach librarian, reupholster furniture in the adult reading room and purchase pamphlet racks for the lobby.

This grant is awarded as part of the $12 million program funded by the Freeman Foundation to improve library effectiveness and community outreach throughout the state. The grants supplement local, state and federal funding for Vermont's public libraries.

About 175 libraries, defined as "public libraries" under Vermont law, are eligible for the grants.

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Interfaith group trying to ease shortage of affordable housing

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

A newly formed Williston interfaith group plans to pursue the development of not-for-profit affordable housing projects in town.

The Williston Interfaith/Civic Task Force on Affordable Housing remains in its formative stages, according to Ken Stone, a member of the group. He said the group hopes to ultimately chip away at the growing shortage of affordable housing in Williston.

The group will be modeled after the Shelburne Interfaith Affordable Housing Committee, a nonprofit partnership of three churches that helped produce 20 new affordable rental units in Shelburne last year. The Shelburne coalition worked with the Lake Champlain Housing Development Corp. on the $3.6 million project, which was funded with a variety of grants and loans.

“We’d like to do something similar to what they did in Shelburne,” Stone said. “We want to get as many churches as possible involved, include some civic groups, maybe some local builders and developers, and see if we can find some land and build some units.”

The Williston interfaith group will hold an open meeting this Monday at 7 a.m. at Town Hall for members of the public interested in the issue. Stone said the group so far includes parishioners from Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church and Williston Federated Church. He said the group hopes that the coalition will eventually include representatives from every church in town.

“In other communities, churches have gotten behind this sort of effort and been very successful,” Stone said. “Churches can be a very powerful force to get something done. Hopefully, they can be here, too.”

Town Planner Lee Nellis released a report last month that painted a grim picture of the affordable housing market in Williston. The Selectboard and Planning Commission are weighing possible changes to the town’s subdivision and sewer regulations that could encourage development of more affordable housing.

As a way of raising public awareness, the Williston Interfaith/Civic Task Force hosted a forum last week on the issues surrounding housing in Vermont. The panel included Rosalyn Graham of the Shelburne Interfaith Affordable Housing Committee, John Powell of the Lake Champlain Housing Development Corporation, Dave Mullin of Green Mountain Habitat for Humanity, Woodstock Police Chief Byron Kelly and John Fairbanks of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency.

(Graham is a freelance writer who covers the Champlain Valley Union High School Board for the Williston Observer and other newspapers.)

Panel members agreed the current supply of affordable housing in Chittenden County had produced a poor climate for most homebuyers. Stone said the forum, which drew a crowd of about 40 people, helped potential members of the interfaith group understand the challenges associated with the subject.

“We figured the best place to start was to get educated,” Stone said.

During the forum, Graham detailed the formation of the Shelburne interfaith group in 1999 and its subsequent efforts. Graham said the group started as a committee at the Shelburne United Methodist Church that contributed to various projects around the county, before deciding to expand to include the Catholic and Episcopal churches and to focus on improving affordable housing in Shelburne.

The group initially developed an 18-unit project proposal to be located on town-owned land in 2000, but the project required voter approval and was turned down. According to Graham, the defeat could partly be traced to biases among residents about the people who would live in the units.

However, the group soon received a very inexpensive lease on a four-acre parcel of land that was ideal for modest residential construction. The 18 units — nine semi-detached buildings surrounding a central green — opened last year. Two more units were added in the central part of Shelburne as part of the renovation of an old town building that was tentatively slated for demolition.

Graham said there were more than 200 applications for the 20 new units.

Graham said the Shelburne group benefited from support from the town manager and Selectboard, particularly when it, along with the Lake Champlain Housing Development Corp., sought grants to fund the construction.

The Shelburne landowner who provided the inexpensive lease for the property also made a critical contribution, Graham said, given the current land values.

Stone said the Williston interfaith group has already begun to research potential parcels for a project in town. He said the group does not plan to seek any municipal funding.

“We have looked at a number of different land parcels that seem possible,” Stone said. “We can’t say who or where. There’s nothing concrete, but there are some possibilities.”

Some at the forum last week said that a Williston interfaith group would only be able to make a modest dent in the large affordable housing shortage. However, Stone said, that is not an argument for sitting still.

“Because it is such a wide-ranging problem, we have no illusions that we’re going to solve everything, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything,” Stone said.

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Former lawmaker appointed to Board of Education

By Mal Boright

When he appointed Ruth Stokes to the state Board of Education last week, Gov. Jim Douglas found an individual who has held a number of posts in Vermont’s educational systems.

A Williston representative in the Vermont House from l984 to 1992, Stokes, a Republican, served six years as a University of Vermont trustee and has also been a member of the executive board of the Vermont School Boards Association.

The one-time science teacher started her career in elective and appointed posts as a member of the Williston School Board from 1975 to 1987.

Thus it is no surprise that Stokes will have some priorities in mind when she attends her first state board meeting March 15.

“I am very interested in school choice,” Stokes said. “The board has been working on this issue for the last year or so.”

Stokes thinks school choice is especially important for parents who may have little say in the way schools educate their youngsters.

“Parents who are not happy with the schools have very little they can do,” she said. “Schools don’t address individual problems, so this gives parents a way to vote with their feet.”

Stokes predicted that should the Legislature pass a comprehensive school choice bill, “there would not be a mass exodus from certain schools. The schools, however, would have to pay more attention and be more responsive.”

Another priority for Stokes is bringing down the costs per pupil in the state’s schools.

“We have to take a look at pupil-teacher ratios which are among the highest in the nation,” she said.

The former lawmaker noted that the number of students statewide is going down while the per-student cost is rising.

“No one seems to be able to get a handle on the cost issue,” she said. “There are a lot of factors involved.”

On two other issues that have been on and off the educational radar screen, Stokes was more circumspect.

She believes a statewide teachers’ contract would “have the potential” to save money, but does have other pros and cons.

“This has not proven to be a great thing for a quality of an education system,” she said adding that it raises questions as to where some decisions about local education would be made.

Stokes is also skeptical about moves to cut down the number of school districts in the state to some 12 or 13, based on county lines.

“It is insane that given this small state, the numbers of school districts we have,” she said. “Would doing this save money and be more efficient? Yes.”

“However,” she added, “People feel a kinship and involvement with their local schools. There would be questions as to where decisions about curriculum and other local matters would be made.”

She generally supports the No Child Left Behind initiative from the Bush administration, but does believe funding to be an issue and wonders, “how much funding will follow the mandate?”

As for the role of the state board in Vermont’s education mix, Stokes sees it first of all as a “bully pulpit” and with authority for rule making, “in many areas.”

She observed that the commissioner serves at the pleasure of the board and in fact is an appointee of the board, a matter that several governors have tried to change.

When she takes her seat in March, Stokes will be one of eight members on the board, two of them students.

Most recently Stokes has been and will continue to serve as executive director of the Vermont Student Opportunity Scholarship Fund.

The organization offers partial scholarships to low-income students in grades K-8 who want to attend a private school or a public school outside their home district.

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Failure to close schools during snowstorm irks everyone

Superintendent says decision was a mistake

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

Brian O’Regan readily owns up to it: He made a mistake.

The superintendent of the Chittenden South Supervisory Union said he should have cancelled classes Feb. 10 when a snowstorm made roads treacherous and closed most Chittenden County schools. O’Regan said he makes the final decision on snow cancellations and simply made the wrong one.

“It was not a good call on my end,” O’Regan said. “I usually err on the side of being overly conservative, but I did not this time. I made a bad decision given the situation.”

The Burlington and South Burlington school districts remained open, but elsewhere classrooms were empty. Schools in Colchester, as well as those in the Chittenden East and Chittenden Central supervisory unions were closed for the day.

O’Regan said CSSU received many complaints from people representing “every possible constituency” — from staff to students to parents. Some of the callers were animated and frustrated that school had not been cancelled, O’Regan said.

Danielle O’Brien, chairwoman of Families as Partners, Williston’s parent-teacher organization, declined to comment on whether any concerns or complaints were forwarded through FAP.

O’Regan said the feedback the supervisory union received about the decision was helpful. The comments will be used by CSSU officials as they consider refining the process used to make decisions about holding classes in inclement weather.

“We are looking at the protocol a little bit to see if we can get a better idea of the conditions in these situations,” O’Regan said. “We’re going to work through our decision-making process to try to avoid this happening again.”

O’Regan said there were a number of questions from the public about the process school officials use to determine whether to hold classes. O’Regan said the decision to keep school open on Feb. 10 was made at approximately 5:30 a.m. It was finalized after a series of discussions with various school and municipal road officials. The process and criteria used were the same on any other school day when weather conditions raise safety concerns.

O’Regan said the day started with Ken Martin, the supervisory union’s transportation supervisor, and Bob Mason, the chief of operations, talking at about 4:30 a.m. about road conditions and the weather forecast.

Martin and Mason spoke to road crews from Williston, Shelburne, Hinesburg and Charlotte, the towns in the supervisory union, to get their impression of the roads. Martin and Mason were not only interested in the current road conditions, O’Regan said, but in the projected conditions for 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m., the period when students are being transported to school.

The school officials then consulted with O’Regan. He said that CSSU officials thought the road crews would be able to keep the roads clear and safe, despite the snow.

“Obviously, that turned out not to be the case,” O’Regan said. “The roads were not in great shape.”

O’Regan said he tries to make the decision on whether or not to cancel classes between 5 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. because some staff begin to leave for school in the period. When school bus drivers arrive at approximately 5:45 a.m., O’Regan said, he might revisit the decision one final time before buses head out on the roads.

O’Regan said he took the weather forecast into account last week when he decided to hold classes. Although the forecast called for snowfall all day, O’Regan said he believed municipal road crews would be able to keep the roads clear.

O’Regan said he typically checks to see what other districts are doing, particularly Chittenden East, which includes Essex Junction and has geography similar to CSSU. But O’Regan did not check with Chittenden East during last week’s snowstorm.

O’Regan said he began to regret his decision when he drove to the CSSU office in Shelburne that morning. He said he drove through Williston, Hinesburg and Shelburne to test the roads and found both Williston and Shelburne especially slick.

O’Regan said he heard reports of some vehicles traveling to and from the schools skidding off the road, “but fortunately no one got hurt.” Williston Police Officer Jon Marcoux said there were a only a few accidents in Williston and most came in the evening.

O’Regan noted the supervisory union’s bus drivers transported students without incident.

“I think the bus drivers really deserve kudos for the driving they did with some very challenging road conditions,” O’Regan said. “They kept their focus on safety and getting from point A to point B. They did a great job.”

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Cops can

Town officials say public safety not compromised

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

During an affordable housing forum earlier this month in Williston, Woodstock Police Chief Byron Kelly told the crowd that an expensive market hurts communities by locking out even the town’s own employees.

“A police officer who lives in the community where he works is a better police officer for it,” Kelly said.

Currently, the Williston Police Department includes few residents. Only two of the department’s 13 officers have Williston addresses, and both are renting. A few months ago, there were no Williston cops who lived here.

However, Williston Police Chief Ozzie Glidden downplays the impact of having so few officers residing in town.

“I don’t think it’s an issue at all,” Glidden said. “They’re going to enforce the law and try to do a good job regardless of whether they live in Williston.”

Glidden said the department rarely has had more than an officer or two living in Williston in recent years.

Some prefer to live elsewhere. For instance, Officer Scott Graham, a Monkton resident, said he likes “living out in the country.”

There are others, however, who would welcome a chance to buy a home in Williston. “It seems like a great place to live,” said Officer Brian Claffy. “I’d love for my child to go to Williston Central School, and it’s one of the safest towns around.”

The chief obstacle is simple: cost. Officer Jon Marcoux said most officers are not be able to afford a home in Williston. The current starting salary, excluding overtime wages, for a Williston police officer is $32,552. According to a report compiled by Town Planner Lee Nellis and a local housing consultant, a household needs to generate an annual income of approximately $77,000 to afford Williston’s median-priced home of $237,000.

Town Manager Rick McGuire notes the police officers are far from alone. He said many municipal employees live outside of town — some by preference, some by necessity.

In particular, he said, several of the town’s public works personnel do not live in Williston — an issue that arises when they need to travel to town and drive snowplows when winter weather strikes.

But McGuire smarts at the suggestion that having a residence outside of Williston might limit an employee’s commitment to the town.

“I don’t understand that idea,” said McGuire, who is a Williston resident. “These are professionals and they are very committed to their job and this community. I don’t see how where they lives matters one way or the other.”

Specifically, in the case of the police department, McGuire said the proximity of officers’ residences to town was more important in 1998, when a new police contract included the stipulation that officers reside within 25 miles of town.

McGuire said the requirement was included largely because Williston did not have 24-hour local police coverage at the time. So, if there were a major incident in Williston, an officer on call would rush to duty. The quicker he or she could arrive the better, McGuire said.

Today, Glidden said, the officers already on duty — typically, one or two officers on each shift — can handle the bulk of the calls.

“Officers are not called in an awful lot,” Glidden said. “They might be called in if the workload got really heavy on a shift or if there was a serious crime that required a significant investigation. Most of the time, though, it’s not necessary.”

If there were a large emergency that required a number of officers, Glidden said, Williston’s officers live close enough to town to report for duty quickly.

Glidden acknowledges having most officers living outside of town does hurt public perception of the police department.

“For instance, the firefighters are mostly Williston residents,” Glidden said. “When a fire department issue comes up, they’ve got a base of support. When an issue comes up with the police department, we don’t have that same support. We may very well have it if more officers lived here.”

Glidden said officers are sensitive to being viewed as outsiders without a stake in Williston. He said department attempts to cultivate relationships with residents to combat that notion.

“That’s one of the things we try to counter the most,” Glidden said. “The big thing we try to do is a lot of community policing. We try to have a close contact with the public to let them know who we are and that we do care about the community.”

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Cop draws gun on Wal-Mart suspect

Man brandishing knife asked clerk for loaded gun

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

Williston police arrested a transient man at gunpoint last week after he threatened a Wal-Mart clerk with a knife and attempted to steal a gun from the store.

Shawn Wood, 29, told police he wanted the gun so he could shoot someone. Williston Police Officer Scott Graham said Wood apparently had no particular target in mind.

Wood was arraigned in Chittenden District Court on Feb. 3 on charges of attempted assault and robbery. He pleaded not guilty to the charges and was being held without bail pending a mental competency evaluation.

Graham said Wood had been in Vermont for only three days, having arrived recently on a bus from California. He said Wood had been staying at a shelter on North Street in Burlington. Wood told Graham he could not find a job, was depressed and wanted to shoot someone. According to Graham, Wood said he did not know whether he was going to shoot someone inside Wal-Mart or outside the store.

Graham said he asked Wood what he would do if he released him. Wood said he would go somewhere else that sells guns, get a gun and shoot someone, according to Graham.

Williston Police Chief Ozzie Glidden said Wood initially approached the clerk at the Wal-Mart gun counter shortly after 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 2 and asked to see a shotgun. The clerk complied.

Wood eventually handed the shotgun back to the clerk and requested a different gun. Again, the clerk complied. However, when Wood asked to be shown how to load the gun, Glidden said, the clerk grew nervous and told Wood he could not load the gun.

Glidden said Wood then pulled out a hunting knife he had moments earlier swiped from the sporting goods department and demanded the clerk load the gun. The clerk told Wood the gun, like other guns for sale at Wal-Mart, has a trigger lock that prevents it from being loaded. He told Wood he would have to get a store manager to unlock it.

Wood allowed the clerk to go find the manager, Glidden said. However, the clerk instead walked to a phone and dialed 911.

Graham responded to the scene alone. Shortly after he entered Wal-Mart, an off-duty Chittenden County sheriff’s deputy approached him and offered to help.

Graham said he discovered Wood leaning on the counter in the gun department with his back to Graham and the sheriff’s deputy. He was still holding the knife.

Graham said he pointed his gun at Wood and yelled at him to drop the knife and lie down on the floor. He said Wood immediately complied, placing the knife on the counter and lying down. Wood was quickly handcuffed and detained, Graham said. He said the sheriff’s deputy did not draw his gun.

Graham said he was approximately 10 feet away from Wood when he pulled his gun on him. At such a close distance, Graham said, he would have been forced to shoot Wood if the man had made even a slight movement toward approaching him.

“He listened and I’m glad he did,” Graham said. “I was ready to shoot him if I had to.”

R.J. Elrick, executive director of the Vermont Police Academy, said based on a description of the incident Graham handled the delicate situation appropriately.

“This officer, if perceiving an imminent threat, and given the distance of 10 feet, would have been justified under most agency policies to use deadly force to protect himself,” Elrick said.

The potentially deadly incident did include a light moment. Graham said he later learned from a Wal-Mart worker that a man shopping for fillet knives two aisles away had dropped the knife he was examining when he heard Graham’s abrupt command, “Drop the knife!”

Soon after Wood was detained, a host of officers from various departments arrived. Glidden said they included personnel from the Vermont State Police and the South Burlington Police Department, as well as other Williston officers.

Graham credited the Wal-Mart clerk for the way he responded to Wood’s threats. He said the clerk’s level head helped steer the situation toward a peaceful resolution.

“He really couldn’t have handled it any better,” Graham said.

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Boy, 9, helps dad after cooking accident

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Ron was heating a pot of oil at his Williston home on Saturday afternoon, ready to cook some chicken wings for Super Bowl munchies.

Stankevich noticed the pot was beginning to smoke. He decided to carry it out to the deck and place it in the snow to cool. He grabbed the pot and slid open the glass door.

But Stankevich forgot the screen door. He bumped the pot into the screen, splashing hot oil over his hands. He held the pot for a moment, and then dropped it on the rug.

“What I remember thinking to myself is that ‘man, I’m in trouble’ because it started to hurt very quickly,” Stankevich said. He felt dizzy and realized he might be going into shock. And the pot full of hot oil on the rug could be a fire hazard.

He needn’t of worried. His son, Connor, 9, knew just what to do.

“I said ‘Connor, I need some help,’” said. “The next thing I knew, he was gone.”

Connor, who was in the living room playing a video game, quickly put on his boots — but not his hat and coat — and ran to get the next-door neighbor, Kirk Lang, who in turn called 911.

“I’m so proud of him,” said Stankevich. “A lot of kids would have panicked or cried or froze up. As soon has he saw that I needed help, he was out the door in seconds.”

Connor said that he was scared when his father called for help. But he immediately understood that he “just needed to go right away” to get help.

Williston Fire Chief Ken Morton said that children can be taught to call 911 as soon as they can talk. By the time they are in school, children can be given further instruction on how to explain an emergency to a 911 dispatcher.

In any case, a child that dials 911 — or finds someone to do it — ensures that help is on its way, Morton said. That’s because Williston has an enhanced 911 system that identifies the address where the call originates.

“It’s a trigger mechanism,” Morton said, adding that even if a 911 caller hangs up after dialing, Williston police will respond and determine if there is a problem.

Stankevich said he taught his son to get neighbors to call 911 for him if there was an emergency.

Stankevich was rushed to the hospital. He was treated for second-degree burns and released.

Connor stayed overnight with neighbors. “I was in no condition that night to take care of him,” said Stankevich. He credited two other in his Coyote Run neighborhood, Theresa Davidson and Bill Vien, for helping clean up the mess and checking on his welfare.

Now that he’s been through an emergency, what would Connor tell his friends about handling an emergency involving a parent?

“I’d say don’t worry, he’s going to be OK,” Connor said. “Whatever happens, it’s going to be OK. Don’t get sad.”

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