Jim Kenyon: Lebanon, Windsor and Dartmouth officials are scared like Punxsutawney Phil

Valley News Columnist
Published: 2/2/2022 8:30:35 AM
Modified: 2/2/2022 8:30:05 AM

This being Groundhog Day, what better time to shine light on some public officials and others in the Upper Valley who seem afraid of their own shadow.

I’ll start with the Lebanon School Board.

Last May, the nine-member board voted to continue a nearly 20-year practice of posting an armed police officer inside city schools.

Minority students had made strong plea to end the practice. The Lebanon High School Students of Color Collective, which began meeting in 2016, opposed the “concept of police playing an active daily role in our schools. Police officers are not trained to deal with students in trauma.”

But a majority of board members weren’t inclined to challenge the sky-could-fall claims trotted out whenever law enforcement’s role in modern society faces scrutiny.

Racial justice activists and supporters of police reform, however, didn’t go away. In recent months, they’ve argued Lebanon students would be better served if the $60,000 spent annually on a so-called school resource officer was used to hire a much-needed social worker.

The school district and Lebanon police each kick in $60,000 for the SRO, as the cop is known. But any way you cut it, city taxpayers are still footing a $120,000 annual bill.

Superintendent Joanne Roberts says there’s enough taxpayer money to go around in the district’s $46 million proposed budget for both a social worker and SRO.

But Roberts is missing the point. Schools and cops aren’t a healthy mix. As long as police have offices and a daily presence in city schools, it’s hard to view Lebanon as a progressive community where young people of color can feel comfortable.

Last March, Lebanon residents narrowly passed a nonbinding warrant article, 1,011-1,006, to eliminate the position.

Advocates for change wanted voters to have the opportunity this March to decide for real whether the school cop should stay or go.

But board members and Roberts are hiding behind their $285-an-hour lawyer. At a board meeting last week, Steven Whitley, of Manchester, said state law requires any vote on the SRO position to be nonbinding.

Only the board has the authority to “take appropriate measures to protect the health and safety of the people that are in school buildings,” Whitley said.

The notion that installing a cop with arrest powers inside a school protects the health and safety of students is worth questioning.

I wouldn’t mind seeing Whitely’s claim challenged in state court. Lebanon school officials would then have something to actually be afraid of.

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First Newbury, now Windsor.

Both Vermont towns are petrified at the thought of the state opening a small residential treatment center for troubled juveniles within their borders.

In November, the Newbury Development Review Board unanimously denied a conditional use permit to turn a former bed and breakfast on a 280-acre property into a secure treatment center for up to six youths, ages 11 to 17.

Before the vote, Town Moderator Brad Vietje successfully ramped up the fear mongering in a Valley News op-ed column. “The residents would be teens who have already committed violent crimes, or who have been deemed too dangerous — to themselves or others — to be housed anywhere else in Vermont,” he wrote. “The chances of a staff assault or other dangerous incident are virtually certain.”

Another Newbury resident wanted me to take up the town’s anywhere-but-here fight. (He suggested Windsor would be a better fit.) Our phone conversation quickly ended when I suggested the kids who would live at the proposed treatment center in Newbury should be supported, not scorned.

With nimbyism alive and well in Newbury, the state is now looking at creating a 10-bed juvenile center at the former prison farm on the outskirts of Windsor.

Town Manager Tom Marsh made it clear last week where the town stands. In community surveys taken since the state shuttered the prison in 2017, “residents said no social services and no prison,” Marsh told Valley News correspondent Patrick O’Grady.

If Marsh and others are worried that having a youth treatment center in a rural part of town will tarnish Windsor’s image, they probably wouldn’t have appreciated Charlie Spencer. When I was a Windsor High student in the 1970s, the venerable Rutland Herald sportswriter often referred to the school’s athletic teams as the “Prison Towners.”

Somehow we weren’t stigmatized.

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Dartmouth students who work in the college’s dining halls and snack stands want to form a union to help secure future wage increases and address concerns.

They hoped the college wouldn’t stand in their way.

Wishful thinking.

Last week, Dartmouth pushed the panic button. In a move that signals how much Dartmouth administrators are afraid of union fever spreading on campus, student workers were informed the college wouldn’t voluntarily recognize the union.

The 125 to 150 students who work for Dartmouth Dining Services must now vote up or down on he proposal.

For many students, the $15-an-hour jobs, which often fall under work-study, are needed to help meet living expenses.

An election under the guidelines of the National Labor Relations Board takes time. College officials say they’ll work with students to set up the election.

But I suspect the college secretly hopes the process drags on. The longer it takes, the better the chances that student rabble-rousers will lose interest. Heck, they might even graduate.

Anything to avoid dipping into the college’s $8.5 billion endowment to pay decent wages to needy students.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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