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Hartford Residents Grill Candidates

  • Luke Eastman, of White River Junction, right, questions Hartford School Board candidate Michelle Boleski, left, about a conflict she had with the teachers union while working as an elementary school art teacher in the district during a candidates forum at Hartford High School Saturday, March 4, 2017. After the conclusion of the Community Day hearings, candidates for Hartford school and select boards discussed issues and took questions from residents. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hartford select board member Becca White responds to criticism from select board candidate Lannie Collins on her handling of the ongoing conversation on racism in the Town of Hartford during Community Day at Hartford High School in White River Junction, Vt., Saturday, March 4, 2017. Select board candidate Dick Grassi, second from right, and Moderator Roger Bloomfield, right, listen to the discussion. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hartford select board member Mike Morris, left, talks with school board member Kevin Christie, right, after the Community Day meeting at Hartford high School in White River Junction, Vt., Saturday, March 4, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Martha McDaniel, of Hartford, left, works on a sweater as Mary Kay Brown, of White River Junction, right, shields her eyes from the sun during Hartford Community Day at Hartford High School in White River Junction, Vt., Saturday, March 4, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, March 05, 2017

Hartford — With Town Meeting ballot voting fast approaching, residents posed tough questions on Saturday to current and would-be town and school officials about a school parking lot bond and the motivations behind candidates seeking elected office.

Hartford resident Luke Eastman directed pointed comments at Michelle Boleski, a former art teacher in Hartford schools who is running unopposed for the School Board, during Hartford’s Community Day.

Eastman cited a 2012 decision from the Vermont Labor Relations Board in which Boleski filed an unfair labor practice charge against the Hartford Education Association, claiming that she had been intimidated into resigning in 2011.

The Labor Relations Board found that Boleski, who had been the subject of concerns about “performance and conduct” during her final two years with the district, had left of her own volition.

When she left the district, she signed an agreement in which she received five months of pay, and in exchange, in part, agreed to forfeit future claims against the teachers union, according to a decision from the Labor Relations Board.

“Now you want to sit on our School Board,” said Eastman. “There is indication that you weren’t a good teacher. ... You have this incredible baggage. I might, as a citizen, assume that you have an ax to grind. ... I do think it is unfortunate that you are running unopposed.”

Eastman has raised the same issue in Facebook postings in recent weeks.

Boleski responded that she considered proactively disclosing her history with the district in a letter to the editor of the Valley News, but ultimately decided not to, in part because information about it is available through online searches.

“I’m not trying to hide my experience, Mr. Eastman. I wouldn’t be running for School Board if I was,” she said.

Boleski maintained that she had been bullied while at the district, where she said she felt an administrator targeted teaching staff based on their age. Boleski, 58, said she was disciplined for minor infractions.

“I don’t consider myself a bad teacher,” she said. “I just couldn’t do my job any more. ... I was written up for having a messy art room. Art is messy.”

Boleski said she is seeking office for reasons unrelated to her previous conflict with the district.

“My motives aren’t for revenge. I care about students and education,” she said. “I was involved with some wonderful young people last year during the presidential primary and they motivated me.”

Eastman also prompted Selectwoman Rebecca White, who is running to retain her seat against a write-in candidacy from Lannie Collins, to acknowledge she had previously considered applying for the position of town clerk.

The town clerk position, which is currently elected, would be changed to an appointed position, if a slate of proposed amendments to the Hartford Town Charter are approved by voters during Town Meeting on Tuesday.

Eastman said the prospect of a Selectboard member applying for the position would constitute a conflict of interest.

White said the revelation that she explored the possibility of applying for the job is an awkward one for her, because she is employed as a community organizer at a local solar company.

“At this point, I really love my job and I am not considering applying,” she said.

White said that, had she applied, it would not have been while maintaining her seat on the Selectboard.

Moving to an appointed town clerk is one of six proposed charter changes that were presented to the crowd by Selectman Simon Dennis, who said they make the town’s “functioning more up-to-date, more modern, and more efficient.”

School Board candidate Jeff Arnold, who in recent years has consistently used the public comments section of School Board meetings to criticize decisions of the current board and administration, was subjected to a bit of turnabout when School Board Chairwoman Lori Dickerson quizzed him about his own demeanor during a previous stint on the board.

“You stormed out of meetings when you didn’t get your own way,” she said. “What I would like to know, before the town votes, is have you done anything personally to help you? ... We tell students, if you’re angry and in a bad situation, remove yourself from that situation.”

Arnold offered a lighthearted response.

“I’m taking tai chi,” he said. “I’m meditating. I’m doing yoga as well. And I promise absolutely not to storm out of the meetings.”

He then disputed the characterization of his departure from School Board meetings during his tenure, an action he said had occurred only rarely, and which he called a form of protest.

Arnold is running against incumbent Peter Merrill for a slot on the School Board.

Boleski is seeking to replace Paula Nulty, who is not running for re-election.

The Selectboard also held a public hearing on a $1.9 million, tax-neutral bond that would be used on infrastructure projects in downtown White River Junction’s tax increment financing district.

The bulk of the bond — $1.6 million — would be used to extend Currier Street from Gates Street through South Main Street.

An estimated $300,000 would be spent on engineering and design costs to lay the groundwork for future possible infrastructure projects along South Main Street from Joe Reed Drive to Nutt Lane, and on smaller stretches of Gates Street and North Main Street.

Town officials anticipate that the bond payments will be paid with increased tax revenues from developments that are coming on line in the TIF district.

Former Selectman F.X. Flinn said an often-overlooked advantage of the project is the long-term increase in property value of all of the properties in and near the district.

“This is a very important piece of the puzzle to keep property taxes down in town,” Flinn said.

Merrill and Hartford School District Superintendent Tom DeBalsi fielded a barrage of critical questions about a proposed $1.47 million bond to renovate the crumbling parking lot of the high school and middle school campus.

At least a half-dozen residents expressed concern about the School Board’s method of arriving at the estimate, which was compiled by architect David Laurin in consultation with multiple contractors.

“I’m very concerned about the accuracy of this, and the sort of whimsical way that you’ve gone about getting the figures,” said Arnold.

Arnold and others said the School Board should instead have employed other methods, such as spending money on preliminary engineering, opening the process to competitive bids, or forming a citizen committee to develop the project.

Laurin has developed various project estimates for the district for free, but has been awarded project contracts for some of those same projects based on a competitive bidding process.

In 2013, Laurin’s cost estimate for the Wendell A. Barwood Arena renovation project turned out to be at least $405,000 short of its costs. A joint committee comprised of two Hartford School Board and two Selectboard members came up with estimates for other projects approved by voters that year as part of an $8.9 million bond, and one of the projects, a track and all-weather turf field, was cancelled because of the joint committee’s off-target estimates.

“I cannot believe we’re here, doing this again, four years later,” said Sheila Hastie, a resident who had lobbied on behalf of the high school track.

“Architects should not be handling this job. ... An engineering firm should be handling this job. I have never heard of such a thing,” said Robin Adair Logan.

Dennis said that his service on the Selectboard has taught him that there are advantages to doing engineering first, but there are also downsides, one of which is that spending tens of thousands in engineering costs represents a major financial commitment toward a project that has not yet received public approval.

“The perception in the public is that every large project is funneled to David Laurin, which is a head-scratcher, because this community is filled with people with expertise who might want to work on these projects,” said Suzanne Abetti.

Rep. Gabrielle Lucke, D-Hartford, said she’d heard the same complaints from various residents.

“It has not been the dollar amount that people are concerned about,” she said. “It has been the process and the lack of it being a competitive process, and the feeling that both our town and school district rely on the same management without opening it up to citizens with expertise.”

But school officials have argued that Laurin’s overall track record is good, and that they now provide additional oversight to ensure estimates are solid.

“David Laurin has significant experience in this area,” said Merrill, who noted that engineers would be hired later in the process. “More to the point, he has worked with the school administration over the years, so that there is a great deal of trust there.”

DeBalsi said the numbers had been verified with local contractors, and that the School Board has never paid in advance for engineering work to be done on a project.

“If that’s the way the board wants to move in the future, that’s fine with me, but that’s not the way we have done it in the past.”

The cost estimate breakdown shows about $160,000 in contingency funds, which Merrill said would help keep the project under budget.

Hartford residents will vote on the elections, the charter changes, and the bonds on Tuesday. Ballot voting will take place from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Hartford High School gym.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

Correction

Hartford architect David Laurin provided the cost estimate for the Wendell A. Barwood Arena renovation project that turned out to be at least $405,000 short of its costs, but a joint committee comprised of two Hartford School Board and two Selectboard members came up with estimates for the other projects approved by voters as part of an $8.9 million bond in 2013. One of the projects covered by the bond, a track and all-weather turf field, was cancelled because of the joint committee’s off-target estimates. An earlier version of this story inaccurately linked Laurin’s estimate to the decision to forgo the track and field.