July 21, 2019

Military Kids Come Together For Adventure, and Understanding

By Colin Ryan
Observer Correspondent

The 14 teenagers who walked into the woods behind the Pine Ridge School in Williston on Saturday could only be described as equal parts anxious and excited. Children of deployed Vermont National Guardsmen, their nervous energy mounted as they approached the school’s Adventure Center challenge course, one of the biggest in the state.

The three Pine Ridge students who led the exercise – seniors Wes Bell and R.J. Cunningham, and junior Mark Ruts—felt a similar surge of excitement. This would be their first chance to lead other students through the challenge course, putting their knowledge and skills to the test.

This event was a special day for these local military kids, one that had been arranged entirely for their benefit. Back in August, Annmarie Klein, Youth Program Coordinator for the Vermont National Guard,was approached by former Pine Ridge student and volunteer member of the Vermont Guard, Randy Zeno. Zeno remembered time spent on the ropes course as a student, and thought the military kids would value the experience. Klein took over the planning, and on Saturday, the idea became reality.

“[This challenge course exercise] is completely for the children of these families,” said Pine Ridge Athletic Director Heidi Bruening. “We really wanted it to be about the kids—a chance for them to take a break. And a ropes course offers a great opportunity to practice problem-solving skills, enjoy a feeling of community, and build self-esteem.”

The students, ranging in age from 11 to 16, mustered their courage to attempt some of the 30 course elements, from zip lines, catwalks and log ladders to a rope bridge more than 30 feet off the ground.

“There are some specific symptoms, like fear, anxiety, and loneliness that tend to affect the children of deployed soldiers. So we try to arrange morale-boosting events,” Klein said. “We have movie nights in Camp Johnson’s recreational room, and nights where the kids can just hang out. It’s especially difficult on these kids, because they don’t live at the base. They live all over, some as far away as Rutland, St. Albans, or Addison, so they don’t see each other much. This was arranged to get these kids together so they could have some fun and enjoy the bond they share.”

“This is awesome—it takes your mind off things,” said Jamie Hackley. Her father, Mike, was in Louisiana for three weeks, and has just returned to Camp Johnson. “It’s really easy to connect with the other kids, because we all know what it’s really like:sad, frustrating, just very hard at home. But here, we can give each other pointers on how to deal with things,” she said.

Ben Kelley’s dad, Mike, has finally returned after serving 13 months in Iraq. Ben, whose family lives in Orange, says, “I missed my dad a lot. He was gone so long, it was hard to get used to having him back. And if he goes now, it’ll be hard to get used to having him gone again.”

John Boyd, Jr.’s father has been in Afghanistan for three months now, and he and his family won’t see John Sr. until his two-week leave in January. “It’s a nice thing just to have fun like this,” John admits. “It lets us relax.”

Despite these difficulties, it was clear they were having a great time at the challenge course. Most of the kids sported new watch-bracelets which read, “Proud to be a military kid!” The coordinators on the Pine Ridge side were also pleased with how the day turned out.

“We used to offer our challenge course as an extensive program for lots of local schools in the area, as well as groups and companies who wanted the experience,” Bruening said. “Over time, we found that our own students were being left out of this process, and so we focused it on them. But it is a wonderful tool to offer to these kids, and our students leading the group are getting their first chance to teach others how it’s done.”

“For four years now, I’ve been playing out here every chance I get,” said senior Wes Bell, waving his arm to indicate the beautiful wooded surroundings, a peaceful vision of nature, despite the various cable, rope and wood obstacles. “This is a great character-building experience for a great group of people. And you just can’t compare the service that we are doing here with the service that these kids’ parents are doing overseas.”

The course offers a unique opportunity: a chance to climb without danger, and fall without pain.

“The premise of the program is to help people feel good about who they are,” Bruening said, “and my hope is that their experience on the course takes them to a place where they can challenge themselves, take a risk and conquer a fear, and then transfer what they learn.
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Mahan barn burned to make way for fire station

Blaze used as training ground

By Ben Moger-Williams

An old Williston dairy barn received new life Saturday as a training ground, even as it experienced a spectacular death as a predawn inferno.

The town-owned Mahan Farm barn on U.S. Route 2 was set ablaze by Williston firefighters early Saturday as part of an inter-departmental training exercise, and to make way for the future site of the Williston fire and rescue station.

But the loss of another dairy barn also signals a move farther away from the rural character of the town. Ginger Isham, president of the Williston Historical Society, moved to Williston 45 years ago. She can name at least 16 dairy farms that have been sold, destroyed or converted to another purpose since then, not including the Mahan Farm, which has not been active for many years.

Long-time resident Herb Goodrich said that is the trend in Williston.

“The land is too valuable to even farm,” Goodrich said. “With the money you can make farming you can’t afford to keep your land. That’s just about what it adds up to be. ”

Goodrich remembers Francis “Jack” Mahan Sr. as being a fireman and a good storyteller. The training fire would have given Mahan another good story to tell after a fire department meeting.

The demise of the rickety structure provided a rare, open-flame or “exposure” scenario, that local firefighters don’t often get to experience, Williston Fire Department training officer Capt. Jim Hendry said.

The department also invited three other fire departments to take part in the exercise. Firefighters from the Essex, South Burlington and Richmond fire departments came to receive training in indoor firefighting and “master stream” training, which is mostly aimed at protecting nearby structures with a large water gun.

“We are happy to share this training opportunity with other departments, prior to an actual incident, ” Hendry said.

The fire was started in the smaller part of the old barn, and Williston Fire Chief Ken Morton coordinated firefighters’ taking turns entering the structure with hoses and battling the blaze. After a short time, however, the structure was engulfed in flames, and the fire spread to the larger part of the barn that was originally used to house cattle and store hay.

After the larger barn was fully afire, efforts switched to protecting the newer, long red barn nearby, which was sold to Whitcomb Concrete Construction for $100, according to Public Works Director Neil Boyden.

Boyden said initial efforts to salvage the farmhouse on the property fell through, and the only part of the farm to be saved was the long red barn.

But Boyden said the town is attempting to salvage anything it can from the demolition of the site. He said the concrete from the floors and the silos, which were torn down last week, will be crushed and used as gravel in town roads.

“Wherever possible, we’re trying to recycle,” Boyden said.

Several people from the community came to observe the exercise, including Ginger Morton, wife of Chief Morton. She commented on the well-known fact that firefighters love live-fire exercises. “This is their idea of a good time,” she said. “There is not a firefighter here who is not happy to be here.”

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Local students anti-drug efforts pay off

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

More students in Chittenden South Supervisory Union are delaying involvement with alcohol and other drugs, due in part to the efforts of Williston students and a local organization.

CSSU Board members on Monday night reviewed recently-released data from two surveys which indicate a drop in risky behavior among Chittenden South’s younger students over the last six to ten years.

Students who delay alcohol and other drug use – even if they eventually use – are better off than those who start young.

“It’s much harder to become addicted to substances the later you start,” explained Margo Austin, a certified alcohol and drug counselor who is the new peer prevention educator at Champlain Valley Union High School. “The earlier kids start using, the more likely they are to become addicted.”

Austin’s three-day-a-week position is funded through Connecting Youth (CY), a local coalition offering programs which assist students in making healthy choices, specifically those that reduce substance abuse and violence. In addition to Austin, CY employs a full-time coordinator and four certified drug and alcohol counselors, including Karen Okun, who works full-time at CVU, and Jen Bickel, who is at Williston Central School three days a week.

Connecting Youth, in existence since 1990, involves a number of Williston students at both the middle and high school levels who educate peers about substance use. Three Williston students – Jonathan Bateman, Blair Pierson, & Kate Smith – serve on the Board of Directors, according to Connecting Youth coordinator Dayna Scott.

Students involved at all levels believe their efforts can make a difference.

“Activities and weeks like Red Ribbon Week are important,” said Mireille Kelley, a Williston Central School eighth grader who is a member of Vermont Kids Against Tobacco (VKAT). Red Ribbon Week is a nationally-designated drug education and prevention event.

“With the things they learn from VKAT and the other activities that we hold,” Mireille continued, “they give kids information and the exact statistics about why (substances) are bad and give people a real reason to not smoke or do drugs.”

Red Ribbon Week will be recognized at Williston Central School a few weeks beyond its designated dates (October 23 – 31) due to school testing. Student members of Leadership Education: the Anti-Drug (LEAD) and Vermont Kids Against Tobacco will co-facilitate a student and parent dialogue night as well as create posters to assist with the educational campaign.

Eighth grader Alexander Partelow thinks that kids need those kinds of reminders because “it seems to me that more kids are getting into drugs and smoking,” he said at last Friday’s VKAT meeting. When questioned which kids, Alex said he thinks high school students are using more, “not so much of my peers” at the middle school level.

Alex’s perception of middle school student substance use is well-supported by data released this month from the Student Attitude, Opinion and Behavior Survey. The survey, administered to sixth and seventh graders biennially and sponsored by CSSU, indicates a significant drop in substance use over the last ten years.

From 1995 to 2005, for example, the district’s seventh graders who were surveyed reported using alcohol in the preceding year dropped from 39 percent to 9 percent. Comparing the same years, seventh grade students who reported using cigarettes in the preceding year dropped from 12 percent to 2 percent. Marijuana usage dropped one percent; in the spring, 2 percent of seventh graders self-reported using marijuana in the preceding year.

Scott also noted in a memo to CSSU school administrators that progress is being made among CVU ninth graders, according to data just released from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

From 1999 to 2005, CVU ninth graders who were surveyed who reported “ever trying” alcohol dropped from 58 percent to 43percent. In this same time period, CVU ninth graders who reported ever smoking a cigarette dropped from 37 percent to 14 percent; those reporting ever trying marijuana dropped from 28 percent to 20 percent.

Both surveys, which are voluntary, were taken by students last February. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey has been administered to all CVU students since 1995. Sponsored by the state Departments of Health and Education, the survey also has been taken by eighth grade students since 1999.

In spite of the progress made toward Connecting Youth’s goal of delaying the onset of substance use among the district’s students, much work remains to be done.

Among the district’s students who were surveyed in grades 8-12, twenty-two percent reported being offered, sold, or given an illegal drug on school property in the previous twelve months – 11 percent of 8 th graders and 29 percent of seniors. Alcohol was reported as “easy to get” by 70 percent of the same student population. Eight percent reported having tried cocaine in their lifetime.

“We’re talking about kids’ lives here,” said CVU peer prevention educator Margo Austin.

High school activities coordinated by Austin and the students with whom she works are designed to give clear options for how students spend their free time.

Rachel Salvatori, a Williston resident, said that CVU LEAD is planning an overnight retreat in November that hopes to draw 30-40 students.

Being involved in prevention activities “shows that there are other people out there that don’t do drugs or make destructive decisions,” said Salvatori, a senior who got involved with LEAD because of retreats she attended in middle school. “There are other things you can do to have fun without hurting yourself or others,” she continued.

Salvatori and others note the importance of remembering there are many students who consistently make healthy choices.

“I think there’s a good number of people that don’t” use alcohol or other drugs, said Salvatori. “I have plenty of friends that don’t. There’s enough diversity at CVU that you’ll find a group of friends that agree with your point of view.”

Connecting Youth programs will be expanding in the coming years. A recent grant received by CY has “probably” increased their budget by twenty percent, according to Scott. The Drug-Free Communities Support grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration & the Office of National Drug Control Policy will provide the organization with $100,000 per year for five years. Eighty percent of CY’s budget is self-generated through grants; the remainder of the budget comes from school and community sources.

[Read more…]

Local schools outperform state in test scores

Officials caution against assumptions on school quality

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Students in Williston schools and at Champlain Valley Union High School scored nine to 19 percentage points higher than the state average in each category of the statewide learning assessment, according to results released last week.

The Vermont Developmental Reading Assessment and the Vermont New Standards Reference Exam are given to second graders in reading, and tenth graders in English and math. Chittenden South Supervisory Union officials cautioned against making generalizations about the quality of the supervisory union’s schools based solely on the tests from this year.

“We need to be very careful when we congratulate ourselves for being above average at the state level,” said Amy Cole, director of curriculum for Chittenden South Supervisory Union, of which Allen Brook School, Williston Central School and CVU are a part. The higher average socio-economic background of families in the areas encompassed by CSSU may be one factor in the discrepancy between CSSU performance and performance statewide, Cole indicated.

Furthermore, when looking at upward trends in assessment scores, “there’s a temptation to say ‘the program is getting better,’” she said of classroom teaching and programs. But, she continued, it’s important to remember that last year’s tenth-graders are an entirely different group of students than the previous year’s tenth-graders, for example, so each group may have different innate abilities.

Williston district principal Walter Nardelli said that in addition to providing some information about the effectiveness of educational programs, assessments like these “give us information about individual student performance. They help us identify students that are in need of special attention and individualized instruction.”

Schools use a wide range of strategies to assist students struggling in a specific area, according to Cole and CSSU superintendent Brian O’Regan. Math and literacy coordinators, afterschool homework clubs, and the reading recovery program are examples.

Both Cole and Nardelli noted that the state assessments are part of a larger evaluation system.

“The state assessment is one piece of information we use,” Cole said. “We have many other assessments we use in terms of program evaluation and direct results that inform teachers’ instruction on a daily basis.”

It is helpful to think of the assessment process like a triangle, said Cole, with state scores, local standardized assessment scores, and classroom teacher observations each filling one corner.

“There are times when the state assessment results match what we see in the classroom, and there are times that we don’t,” Cole said. When all three corners of the triangle match, she continued, “you have solid information on a child.”

Specific trends relating to income and gender in CSSU data largely mirror that of the state as a whole.

Family income was a significant divider of student performance in all categories at the high school level. Students eligible for free or reduced-fee school lunches (for a family of four, an annual maximum income of $25,155 or $35,798, respectively) performed dramatically lower than students who do not qualify. For example, 65 percent of students ineligible for free/reduced lunch met or exceeded the standards in reading analysis and interpretation, compared with 21 percent of students receiving free/reduced lunch. Only 17 percentage points separated the two groups at the second-grade level.

Gender trends seen statewide also held true within the supervisory union, with girls outperforming boys in English language arts categories.

Results from the New England Common Assessment Program tests, taken earlier this month by students in grades three through eight, will be released in the spring.

For more detailed information about educational assessment, see the state Department of Education Web site: www.state.vt.us/educ/new/html/pgm_assessment.html

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Local couple host visiting Tibetan monks

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Typically one would have to travel 8,000 miles east to enjoy a home-cooked meal by a group of Tibetan monks. But those lucky enough to get a dinner invitation from Jilly Warner and Marne Stothart last week had to travel only a few minutes.

Williston residents Warner and Stothart opened their home to eight monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery in southern India. The monks, along with their translator and driver, slept on the finished basement and family room floors or in a spare bedroom of the Warner-Stothart household for five nights. The group stopped in Vermont as part of a ten-month-long North American Sacred Art Tour.

“I enjoyed most the energy they brought into the house,” Stothart said Monday night after the group departed. “It was such a positive, peaceful energy that was contagious.”

This is the second time Warner and Stothart have hosted a group from the monastery that is home to more than 1,850 monks, most of them refugees from Tibet. Two years ago, Marisa Westheimer, a student with whom Warner works at the University of Vermont, mentioned her plans to bring a group of monks to Burlington, but said she wasn’t sure where she would find someone willing to house ten strangers.

“There was something about the way she described their personalities and who they were that made me think, ‘This sounds like a really interesting opportunity,’” Warner said Friday night as several of her guests made dinner. “And it was.”

“Thenthuk,” a typical Tibetan soup, was on the menu Friday night. As Tsultrim Nyingpo cooked meat, Tsultrim Sherab and Kunsang Gyatso chopped the vegetables to be added to a steaming pot of broth and homemade noodles. Two of their colleagues worked on a puzzle with Westheimer and other students, while conversations in Tibetan, English, and a little bit of Mandarin Chinese filled the room.

After dinner, Warner was most excited to have the students and a reporter observe the tea puja, or chanting ritual, that the monks engage in each evening for nearly thirty minutes. The guttural tone of any one monk, when merged with his peers, held an almost lyrical, mesmerizing quality, which perhaps provided an opportunity to reflect upon the day’s activities.

For seven hours each day, Thursday through Monday, the monks shared the monumental task of creating a mandala, or three-dimensional sand painting nearly five feet in diameter, as part of the sacred art tour. In Tibetan Buddhism, a mandala is an imaginary palace contemplated during meditation. After tracing the design, the monks laid millions of grains of colored sand onto the mandala using two metal funnels called “chakpur.” Though there are many different mandala designs, each with its own set of lessons, in Burlington the monks created one focused on healing.

Watching the monks work on the mandala was one of the highlights of the visit for Stothart, as was Monday’s closing ceremony in which the sands were swept up and poured into Lake Champlain to spread the mandala’s healing energies, and to symbolize the impermanence of all things.

It was “so moving, to watch them spend so much time working on this intricate object, and then sweeping it up and letting it all go into the water,” said Stothart. “It’s sort of a metaphor for life, I guess.”

Art was chosen as the subject for this tour, said Gyatso through translator Tenzin Dolme, because “it’s one of the most ancient parts of the culture in Tibet.”

Saving Tibetan culture from extinction is one of the purposes of the monastery. A region of central Asia, Tibet was once recognized as an independent nation. Currently there is intense debate as to the legitimacy of the ruling authority by the People’s Republic of China. The region includes Mount Everest and most of the Himalayan mountain range, the highest in the world.

The sacred art tour leader, who was selected by the Dalai Lama in 1995 to be the seventy-seventh abbot of the monastery, indicated there are several goals of the tour. Khensur Rinpoche Tsultrim Phuntsok, 66, said that in addition to informing the public about the art and culture of Tibet, the tour intends to generate a greater awareness of the exiled Tibetan monks.

Dolme explained in greater detail that monks who flee to southern India’s hot jungle from the high plateau of their native lands suffer health complications not only from a dramatically different climate, but also a different diet. Water wells, run by pumps, only work when there is electricity, “which is not often,” Dolme said. Several times a month the water supply is interrupted for as little as a half-day, and sometimes for several weeks, she said, further contributing to health concerns.

In spite of these hardships, the tour leader, Rinpoche Tsultrim, said that “the opportunity to spend one’s own life dedicated to the study of the Buddhist philosophy is precious.”

Chuchi Dhondup, 31, acknowledged that it is a personal sacrifice to be missing his studies for a ten-month tour, but said it is a “special opportunity” to spread awareness of Tibet, and to help the 1,850 monks back at the monastery. Money raised from sand mandala constructions; lectures; cultural pageants and other events the monks are holding in more than 35 cities in the U.S. and Canada go toward food and health programs at the monastery.

Like many visitors to Vermont, 26-year-old Kunsang Gyatso, who has studied at the monastery for three years, said he is happier in Vermont than in some other places the group has visited in the U.S. because of the landscape, the lake, and the trees.

[Read more…]

Library names new director

Former director admitted to hospital over weekend

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

The Williston Selectboard on Monday announced that Martine Fiske, currently head of Shelburne’s Pierson Library, has been hired as the new director of Williston’s library.

It is the second time in three months that Williston has hired an official away from the town of Shelburne. In July, former Shelburne School Principal Walter Nardelli was hired as district principal for Williston.

It was also noted at Monday’s meeting that former Dorothy Alling Memorial Library Director Rickie Emerson, who served the library for 30 years before retiring in July, was suffering from an infection and was admitted to Fletcher Allen Health Care over the weekend. The hospital listed Emerson as being in fair condition Tuesday.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said “Marti” Fiske was chosen from a field of more than 30 applicants.

Fiske, a Bolton resident, said she was excited about her new job.

“Not only is it a little bit of a step up for me, but its closer to home as well,” she said.

She said Williston’s larger community, larger library budget and the new opportunity were factors in her decision to leave the Shelburne library.

“It was a hard decision,” she said. “I have been very happy here (at Pierson), but it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.”

A committee made up of Assistant Library Director Debbie Roderer; McGuire and several members of the library board narrowed the candidates down to six, and finally decided on Fiske after a series of interviews.

“I think she will bring a good, new energy to the library, and she is ready for the challenge we’re going to present,” said Steve Mease, library board chairman. “I think it’s a good match.”

As library director, Fiske will be responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of the library, setting the budget and policies, and hiring personnel, Mease said. “She will set the tone for what happens at the library,” he said.

Fiske has served as director of Pierson Library since 1999, and will begin at Dorothy Alling on Oct. 17. She will receive an annual salary of $47,000, according to McGuire.

Before becoming director of Pierson Library, Fiske was a library media specialist at Fletcher Elementary School in Fletcher. She also held that position at St. Albans City Elementary School and Fairfield Central School. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in history and secondary education from Castleton State College, and a Master’s degree in library and information science from Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y.

Fiske will replace long-time director Emerson, who retired from the post this summer after working at the library since 1976.

Emerson and Fiske have known each other for about six years, Fiske said. She said for her first six months, she will be learning about the community and how the library works, and counting on Emerson’s ideas and suggestions.

“I have tremendous respect for Rickie and I don’t want to change things willy-nilly if they don’t need to be, “ Fiske said.


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Intergenerational reading group holds first meeting of the year

Program continues to grow in popularity

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

The Intergenerational Reading Program kicked off its third year last Wednesday at Williston Central School with a gathering of 50 middle school students and over a dozen senior citizens.

The program is like a book club that matches up groups of students with senior citizens from the Williston community. The students and the seniors read the same book and then get together monthly at the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library to discuss it. The books, chosen by teachers at the school, all have a theme that relates to intergenerational relationships.

The group gathered around tables in the school’s dining room for a potluck lunch last Wednesday to meet each other and receive their first book.

“It’s proven to be fun, the kids are great,” said Germaine Lamothe, 75, in her third year with the program. “They are very sophisticated, very traveled. It seems funny to be talking to a kid who has been to New Zealand or all over England. You get an education, really.”

Callan Suozzi-Rearic, 13, said this was her second year in the reading group. “I like talking to other kids and I love talking to senior citizens about the books because I love reading. It’s an interesting mix of thoughts.”

The program was founded in 2003 with help from a grant from the Vermont Council on the Humanities to promote interaction between students in grades 5-8 and members of the community, and to encourage people to use the library. Parents and library staff have worked hard to make the program a success. Now in its third year, the program has grown substantially since its pilot year.

Parent volunteer and program coordinator Ann Durkee said the program started out as a small group, organized by former Outreach Librarians Ann Van Guilder and Deb Runge. The first group comprised only 10 students and a few senior citizens. This year, the group includes 50 students, 14 senior volunteers and five parent volunteers, and the group will read six books over a six-month period. Durkee said she has been the coordinator for the past two years, but this year she has the help of volunteers Mary Ellen Daniels and Lisa Barland.

The program has grown very popular with Williston students. Williston Central School is divided into upper and lower Houses, or groups of classes in grades 1-4 and 5-8. Durkee said that each of the schools’ six upper Houses has eight slots to fill for the program, and a Language Arts teacher selects the participants. Sometimes there is not enough space for the number of students who volunteer to be in the group.

“It’s up to the teacher’s discretion,” Durkee said. “They know it’s a big commitment.”

Robert Coon, a former faculty member at the University of Vermont’s medical school, said he has been involved with the program from the start.

“It keeps me off the streets,” quipped Coon, 85. “I’ve enjoyed reading the books and enjoyed the interaction with these young ladies,” he said.

Coon’s remark highlighted an obvious feature of the group of students: Girls far outnumber boys.

“We do tend to get more girls to participate at this age,” Durkee said. “I don’t think we’ll ever see a flip, but the boys who have participated have been great.”

Estelle Alsruhe, 71, said she joined the program because she was a literature major in college, and also missed the book club she was involved with in her native Maryland.

Alsruhe said the books she read last year were all related to a theme. “The characters all suffer some kind of loss in their life, and there’s an adult that appears to help them get through it.”

She was also impressed with the students involved with the group. “I had no idea they were so sophisticated,” she said.

Durkee hails the program as a resounding success.

“Over the past few years I have observed the development of a genuine fondness and mutual respect between the participants which far exceeded my expectations,” she said in an e-mail.

The students’ books are purchased with money provided by the Williston school parents’ organization, Families As Partners. The library buys the books for the senior citizens. Durkee said the total cost of the program this year is about $500-$600. When the program is finished, the books will be donated to the library, she said.

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Interstate 89 repaving project expected to finish soon

Contractor misses deadlines for completing work

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Incentives and deadlines designed to speed work during a summer-long paving project on Interstate 89 helped limit traffic snarls, but state officials acknowledge the job still took longer than hoped.

Work is winding down on the 16-mile stretch of southbound I-89 between South Burlington and Bolton. The main travel lanes are paved. As of Tuesday, the work remaining included painting line markings, installing rumble strips and paving the exit 11 ramp in Richmond.

State transportation officials say a unique combination of bonuses and penalties for the first phase of the project helped meet the primary goal: getting the work done quickly so traffic tie-ups would be minimized along one of the busiest stretches of highway in Vermont.

“It was a good experience from our side,” said Mike Pologruto, paving program manager for the state Agency of Transportation. “I’m not sure about how the contractor feels.”

The contractor, Frank W. Whitcomb Construction Corp., was required to complete the segment between South Burlington and Williston within 30 days. The agreement called for a $5,000-a-day bonus or penalty for each day the project was finished before or after the deadline.

Whitcomb Construction missed the deadline by eight days and faces a $40,000 penalty, Pologruto said. He said the company will also miss this Saturday’s deadline for the remaining work.

Chip Whitcomb, owner of Whitcomb Construction, did not return telephone calls seeking comment. The company was awarded the project with a low bid of $4.5 million earlier this year.

Stephanie Barrett, who was hired by Whitcomb Construction to inform motorists of the project’s progress, said there were problems obtaining materials needed to complete the first phase of paving, which made it impossible to meet the deadline.

Vic Dwire, the project’s resident engineer for the Agency of Transportation, said congestion caused by the project was manageable. But he acknowledged that the deadline, combined with another contract provision that limited the work between South Burlington and Williston to non-commute hours, made for a trying few weeks at the project’s outset.

“It put an extreme hardship on both the contractor and state employees,” he said. “There were some days I worked 20 hours.”

Pologruto estimated the remaining work would be finished within about two weeks. All that is needed is a few days of dry weather with seasonable temperatures.

Snow or ice “would be a crimp on it for sure,” he said. “But it’s highly unlikely we’d have that kind of weather and not get a break. They should get the markings done this week or next week. Barring some freakish weather … all the stuff should be done by the end of the month.”

The project was among the largest paving jobs in the state this year and the biggest in Chittenden County. It fixed a stretch of highway riddled with potholes, cracks and loose pavement. The work included widening the Williston off-ramp from two to three lanes, which is expected to solve the problem of traffic backing up to the traveled portion of I-89.

The remainder of the work is supposed to be completed by Oct. 15, but Pologruto said the contractor would not have the job finished by then. Unlike the first part of the project, there is no set penalty for missing the deadline. The state could seek what are called “liquidated damages,” he said, but it would first take into account rain days, equipment failures and other factors that delayed the work.

Still, Pologruto said, the state wants the work finished before winter weather intervenes.

“As far as the construction completion date goes, they are not going to be allowed to just blow by that,” Pologruto said.

One Williston motorist said the major traffic disruptions that often mark major road construction projects were notably absent on I-89.

“It went pretty smoothly,” said Phyllis Etienne. “I didn’t have any problems.

“Take Route 7 if you want problems,” she added, referring to the ongoing construction project on that road that has slowed traffic for the past few years.

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Hints of horrors haunt Williston

Strange events are everywhere, but no one’s talking

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

On the moonless night of Aug. 27, 1865, two men stole through the blackness and into the Williston home of 65-year-old Sally Griswold. They had ridden into town on a train the night before to do a job.

That job was murder.

The men crept up to Griswold’s bedroom and dragged her screaming from her bed. She struggled, but they stabbed her to death, and then placed her corpse in the woodshed behind her house.

Griswold’s son-in-law, a Mr. Potter, hired the two men to kill his mother-in-law and find the stash of gold she was supposedly hiding.

The two men were later arrested and they implicated Potter as their employer. All three were convicted of murder, but the gold was never found. This Halloween, look for Griswold’s ghost wandering Williston in search of her lost gold.

Hints abound in the town – such as the Griswold murder, which can be found in several books about Williston’s history – about hauntings and strange phenomena, although actual stories are harder to come by. Even veteran ghost hunter and master of the weird Joe Citro had a hard time finding anything out. Citro recently spoke at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library, but he said that he couldn’t find much local to talk about.

“I said I didn’t know about anything weird, so I accused the people at the library of a massive cover-up,” Citro said. “There’s got to be something weird, but it’s something that I just haven’t discovered yet.”

Citro did mention the Griswold murder case, which he found out about while leafing through Willard Sterne Randall and Nancy Nahra’s book, “Thomas Chittenden’s Town: The Story of Williston.”

That book also makes mention of spiritualism, a quasi-religious movement popular in the 19 th century and whose followers claim to be able to speak with the dead. Spiritualism was founded in 1848 by sisters Margaretta and Kate Fox, who heard strange tapping noises in their home in Hydesville, N.Y. The sisters claimed the noises were made by the spirit of a murdered peddler who was buried under their house, and with whom they could communicate. In 1888, Margaret told a journalist that they had faked the whole thing, and the rapping was actually the sisters’ cracking their toe knuckles under the table. But she later recanted her confession and the movement lived on.

According to Randall and Nahra’s book, the house on the corner of Oak Hill Road and Williston Road was once the local headquarters of the spiritualists, where many séances were held. Perhaps some spirits were called forth and remain trapped in the area to this day.

Another book, “The Williston Story” by F. Kennon Moody and Floyd Putnam, says the only written record of spiritualism in Williston was found in Laura Parker’s attic in 1940. The document, now missing, recorded several conversations with departed spirits as told by medium M.L. Allen. However, one of her “conversations” was with Abraham Lincoln, who recommended someone named Baxter for local office; and one was with Williston Universalist Minister Joseph Sargent, who admitted the error of his Universalist ways and said heaven was populated mostly by spiritualists. So the legitimacy of her paranormal liaisons is somewhat questionable.

Other local sites, not in history books, are also hinted at as hives of paranormal activity.

Jim McCullough, owner of Catamount Family Center, lives in a house that was built by Gov. Thomas Chittenden in 1796, and he suggested some mysteries exist there.

“The house has a presence and a persona that go hand in hand with a 200-year-old property,” McCullough said. He said he did not want to say more, out of respect for his forebears who inhabited (or perhaps still inhabit) the house, which his family has owned since 1873.

Ex-nuclear physicist and Vermont ghost hunter Stephen Marshall has investigated paranormal activity all over the state, and says ghosts are here to stay.

“The phenomenon does exist, whether you believe in it or not,” Marshall said from his home in White River Junction.


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High cost of fun

Town has many recreational needs, but how to pay for them?

By Greg Elias and Tom Gresham
Observer staff

When the Planning Commission studied Williston’s recreational needs earlier this year, it did not debate for long. It was easy to make a list — a swimming pool, an indoor skating rink, more playing fields and parks, teen and senior centers — and no need to argue about it.

However, the Planning Commission did not wade into the deep end of municipal recreation matters — funding and location. Sometime in the undefined future, town officials will have to determine which recreational facilities to financially back and where to put them.

“That’s the hard part: figuring out how we’re going to do this,” said Town Planner Lee Nellis.

A draft of the updated Comprehensive Plan for Williston identifies a long list of recreation needs that will become critical shortfalls if they are not developed in town in five years. It includes: two multi-use fields, one full-sized baseball diamond, one Little League/softball diamond, one basketball court, one picnic shelter, one gymnasium, one ice skating arena, one indoor swimming pool, one teen center, one senior center, one preschool center, a skate park and a dog park.

It’s a daunting list, and it seems apparent the town will at best add only a fraction of the facilities by 2010. The list is based in part on national and state guidelines for recreational facilities based on population. Nellis said the town uses the state and national guidelines for information but not as a standard.

Based on the guidelines, the town is lagging behind in several areas. So the question now facing Williston is not whether the town could use the facilities — it’s how to prioritize and pay for them.

On the bright side, the town meets the standards for multi-purpose paths, tennis courts, baseball diamonds and picnic sites.

“We’re doing pretty well overall,” said Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Finnegan. “There are some places where we could improve, but we’re getting there.”

Some residents, however, think the town needs more — and sooner rather than later. Those interviewed mentioned the dearth of indoor facilities, such as gathering places for seniors and teens and play spaces for hockey, swimming and other sports

“At this point, in order to have a strong community, I really feel strongly that we need a multi-use center,” said Tianna Tomasi, a teenager who is the youngest member of the Williston Recreation Committee. “It would give people a central gathering place.” She said such a facility could serve as a gathering place for teens and seniors as well as providing a venue for indoor sports.

John Donnelly, who coaches Williston Central School’s basketball team, said existing indoor spaces like the school’s gym are stretched thin. He said one league could only get space in the gym by starting play at 6:45 a.m. He also felt the town should build an indoor facility.

“I think with a town with a population of 8,200 should have an indoor recreation facility where you can swim or play hockey,” he said.

Tim O’Brien, a member of the Recreation Committee and president of the Williston Little League, said the town is filled with residents who have active lifestyles, leading to a strong demand for facilities.

His children have taken swimming lessons at the municipal pool in Essex Junction. He said if Williston had a pool of its own, it would improve a Red Cross lifeguard program now offered at Lake Iroquois. But on the other hand, he said, “it’s no big deal” to drive the few miles to a neighboring town.

Though Williston appears to have many outdoor facilities, O’Brien said the town has no full-sized baseball field. But he thinks the town should be cautious about spending big bucks for new buildings or fields.

“You have to survey the town and see if there is an interest while you look at costs and return on your investment, he said. “You really have to take baby steps.”

The high cost of fun

Indoor pools and skating rinks cost millions of dollars, so construction of such facilities add significantly to the property tax burden.

About a penny is added to Williston’s tax rate for every $1 million in bond debt, said Susan Lamb, the town’s finance director. A $10 million dollar facility would cost the owner of a $250,000 house about $250 a year.

But Donnelly points out that even the most expensive municipal facility costs far less than a family membership in a private health club.

Selectboard Chairwoman Ginny Lyons doubts the public would support another big-ticket item on the heels of the $6.8 million public safety facility voters approved earlier this year. She notes the town has millions of dollars in other outstanding debts to pay off.

“What you have to look at is what kind of burden taxpayers can carry,” Lyons said. “I don’t think we’ll be putting another bond up to vote this year or even the year after.”

The town has to be wary of accumulating too much debt, said Lamb. State guidelines set limits on the amount of bond debt towns can carry at any one time. In addition to the public safety facility, the town is still paying off bonds for sidewalks, fire trucks and a library addition.

Lyons suggested the town could make paying for an expensive facility easier with a public-private partnership. For example, one potential location for an indoor facility with a skating rink is Catamount Family Center. Nellis said the town and Catamount might strike an agreement that gives Williston residents free or discounted access to the facility.

Jim McCullough, whose family owns Catamount, said there had been little talk between Catamount and the town about a collaboration, adding that such an arrangement is “all a lot of high speculation at this point.” But he also thinks an indoor recreational facility is a glaring need in Williston.

“This is something that could happen at Catamount, but we don’t know that it will and we’re not promoting to the public that it’s going to happen,” he said. “But (an indoor recreational facility) is certainly one of the needs Williston has.”

Beyond an indoor facility, McCullough said he believed there were some other potential areas where Catamount could help the town.

“Some of the things the town needs could be solved with a partnership with Catamount, and some might not work out,” McCullough said. “We do hope that Catamount will be an integral part of fulfilling Williston’s future recreational needs.”

New fields on horizon

Though indoor facilities seem first on residents’ wish lists, the town also falls short of the national standards for outdoor facilities.

Nellis notes that the town has a number of subdivisions like Indian Ridge and Lefebvre Lane that include open spaces that serve as community parks. He said the town hopes to ensure that future subdivisions also incorporate recreational space. For instance, plans for the massive multi-use development proposed for the former Pecor horse farm feature several neighborhood parks.

Currently, the town has no concrete plans to add to outdoor recreation facilities aside from the ongoing expansion of the multi-use paths. But it does have land.

Nellis said that could help the town move relatively quickly on developing new fields or parks.

“We’re lucky to already have the land base for some of these needs,” he said. “We don’t have to worry so much about going to find another parcel. We’re in good shape there.”

The central site for future recreational fields is the 107-acre former Mahan Farm property, which was given to the town by the original developers of Maple Tree Place. A 25-acre parcel behind the Allen Brook School has been targeted for sports fields, according to Finnegan.

Finnegan said the town capital plan projects having the fields ready by 2008. The facilities would include two baseball diamonds and “as many multi-use fields as we could squeeze in there,” Finnegan said.

The fields would likely have to obtain an Act 250 permit, as well as to receive approval from the town’s Development Review Board. There is also some remaining property at the Community Park behind Williston Central School that could potentially be used for fields.

Indoor facilities, however, present a thornier problem. Nellis said the addition of a big-ticket item like an indoor pool or skating rink will take years.

“We’re not likely to see an indoor facility in Williston anytime soon,” Nellis said. “It’s expensive and takes a long time to build one.”

Though the cost might seem high, Tomasi said an indoor facility would bring priceless benefits to the community.

“In light of all the factors, it would benefit everyone — parents and their kids,” she said. “We have a great community now. “It would make the community so much stronger if we had one.”


The Williston Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed Comprehensive Plan on Tuesday, Nov. 1 at 7:30 p.m. The meeting takes place in the meeting room at Town Hall. Those who can’t attend can submit written comments to Town Planner Lee Nellis at nellisl@willistontown.com or send them addressed to Nellis at 7900 Williston Road, Williston, Vt. 05495.

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