Thursday, December 29, 2005

Getting schooled

Costs are going up. Way up.

Whether it's health insurance, electricity, fuel heating — across the board, things are not getting any cheaper. To say the same about the Stowe school budget would be the understatement of the New Year.

In an article this week, reporter Marina Knight takes a look at the upcoming year's spending proposal, and finds a budget slated to be over $8 million. That's compared with a $7.66 million budget last year that — for the first time ever — got rejected at town meeting by voters.

Most startingly, perhaps, is that the budget basically includes the same programs, services and staff as last year. Most of the increase — over $500K of it — comes in hikes for pay and benefits, special education, heat and electric and fuel. The school board is faced with the dire prospect of slashing programs and services in order to get a passable budget.

All of this points to brewing unrest in Stowe over Act 68, the state's education funding formula. Some folks in town think next year will see more advocacy for local control over property taxes and further Act 68 reform. Many in Stowe see the state policy as pitting "town against town over the school funding issue," creating a kind of class warfare between "rich and poor" communities. Whether or not that's the case, that's certainly the perception. In Stowe, residents are seeing a school population decrease even as per-pupil spending goes up, budgets go up, and services are cut back.

There's little hope that the Act 68 reform proposed for the upcoming legislative session — an education income tax — will go anywhere at all. Democrats, who are generally the defenders of Act 68 policy, have already said they're not much of a chance of the education income tax getting a fair shake this year. Certainly with health care and affordable housing topping the list, education funding reform has taken the backseat.

That's too bad for Stowe, and other communities that feel left behind by the state government. So, the stage is set for another contentious school budget, and another round of touch choices. Perhaps Montpelier will feel the heat as a result ... we'll see.

— Scott Monroe

Friday, December 23, 2005

Spam, with spam and eggs, and spam

I'm a big fan of the Monty Python skit on spam: "egg and spam; egg bacon and spam; egg bacon sausage and spam; spam bacon sausage and spam; spam egg spam spam bacon and spam; spam sausage spam spam bacon spam tomato and spam."

But the stuff we all get in our e-mail inboxes is a whole different matter. It's enough to make you wonder why you bothered with e-mail in the first place. From lucrative get-rich-quick offers to the latest holiday alert from Target — there's no escape from it all. "Cool. Cut. Funny. Audition holiday cards" is the latest offer from Target, a spam e-mail I've attempted to unsubscribe and block several times to no avail.

In Stowe, Powershift Online has experienced the full power of the darkside, I mean, of spam. The local Internet service provider recently got overloaded with so much spam its server went down in flames and thousands were left without e-mail for, gasp, a matter of days.

Sad, but true that the loss of e-mail for a short period of time is now considered something of a disaster. With so many people dependant on e-mail daily (not myself, of course) the meltdown of service cuts the invisible strings of attachment we've woven together in the last decade or so. For regular folks, it's a pain in the butt. But for businesses, the loss of e-mail can be a big blow. The Stowe Reporter, for example, felt the shockwaves of the Powershift crash: Our primary e-mail address couldn't take in news submissions, pictures, and letters to the editor, etc. For us, on the day (Wednesday) when we put together the paper and ship it to the printers, that loss of e-mail was indeed a crisis.

For the rest of us, though, I think the e-mail blackouts can be positive reminders from time to time. Maybe we could call someone the phone and hear their voice instead out shooting out an electronic message. Heck, we could write "letters" on "paper" too.

Mark that one on your list of New Year's resolutions. I will if you do, too.

- Scott Monroe

Friday, December 16, 2005

Year in Review

That's the lofty task we have here at 49 School Street. In keeping with tradition, our editorial staff next week will publish about 12 pages' worth of stories reviewing this year's news in the Stowe area. Hence, "Year in Review."

A lot can happen in a year – much more than can be summarized and analyzed in several 500-word story nuggets. And there's more "news" out there than ever be covered by our staff. What makes the news and how much attention it's given is certainly a subjective choice. As newsmakers, we try to think about our role in the community, who we serve, and frame the "news" to meet the needs of our readership. News is what people want and, indeed, demand – the birth announcement, the actions of public officials, the coverage of local sports. It's also what people need to know, even if they don't necessarily want to – the crime, the corruption, tragedies and secrets.

The news of the day is not a concrete, natural law. Our obligation is determine what stories matter to this community and then seek the truth and report it. So as we look back on this year and reflect on what made the cut as the news of this year, it's also worth mentioning the principles behind such reporting.

Journalists, unlike doctors, are not licensed. Some think we should be, others do not. Regardless, we're still working professionals, and we do need to adhere to a code of ethics. Every newsroom will vary in its policies – there's no Ten Commandments of reporting. But I think it's worth repeating a code of ethics that seem to generally capture the duties of a journalist. To that end, there are some general principles, from the Society of Professional Journalists:

• Seek the truth and report it — Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

• Minimize harm — Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.

• Act independently — Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know.

• Be accountable — Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.

Reflecting on the news is for me an appropriate time to also reflect why I'm a newsmaker. The Society of Professional Journalists preamble sums it up best: "Public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility."

- Scott Monroe

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Spaced out for Christmas

The give and take between public officials and their citizens is, I think, at its apex right now — at least over one local issue.

Stowe's town government, headquartered in the circa-1903 Akeley Memorial Building, is facing a wicked serious space crunch. More specifically, the town's vault is. There just ain't enough room in this relic of the past to house all the documents and assorted records of modern-day Stowe. What's worse, a fissure in the vault itself continues to steadily grow larger (it's expanded by four times in the last couple months, according to the town clerk) and the whole thing is essentially falling off the building.

Were anything disastrous to happen in the building, and the vault's contents wiped out in the process, there'd be trouble. A LOT of trouble. Property sales, for example, would come to a standstill. The town clerk, and others who work in the building, are freaked out at the possibility. Can you blame them?

But in order to fix this problem, the Stowe Select Board is proposing a renovation/reorganization of the building. Voters have rejected it twice. Now, the project is more expensive and the problem is getting worse.

Project opponents don't want to see this historic building – a memorial to war veterans – changed as is proposed. One such opponent stopped by our offices at 49 Schol Street a few weeks ago to deliver to my mailbox a photocopy, which quotes the notes taken from the 1903 dedication ceremony of the Akeley Building. The notes say the building "was intended for patriotic purposes, and will be used as such..." and the building is "dedicated to the soldiers that lost their lives on account of serving in the army of the United States." Why doesn't the town government just move its butt somewhere else and leave the Memorial Building as it is? project opponents ask.

Well, that idea sprung up at the select board meeting on Monday, but the road ahead is unknown. This situation is playing almost tragically. Public officials and citizens are clashing over legitimate and important interests. But the problem is no one side – if there are in fact "sides" – wants to budge.

Basically, everyone involved in the debate, as it swells into and beyond Christmas, is spaced out. Or frustrated. Or maybe not. But, what's clear is the main issue here – the vault – ain't going away. It's like a sliver dug in too deep, and if nothing is done soon you'll have to amputate the finger. If only someone would find a way to make it all work, to provide leadership when the town is seemingly divided, and find a compromise. Maybe Santa could step up to the plate, er, sleigh. Or maybe the select board could.

There's a Christmas wish for ya.

- Scott Monroe

Friday, December 09, 2005

A quizzical quiz

Pay attention class: A Mount Anthony Union High School English teacher who gave students a quiz that criticized President Bush should be (fired/ tarred and feathered/ forced to appear on "The O'Reilly Factor"/ or forgiven)?

It's actually a trick question, because the guy's still got his job but I don't think saying "I'm sorry" has cut it. The Times Argus has the latest lowdown.

This little nugget, unfortunately, further fans the flames between conservative and liberal warriors who each want a foothold in public schools. Had this sort of quiz been given at a college or university – I think the reaction, if any, would be predictable. But at the public school level it's hard for anyone to be an apologist for this sort of thing.

In a letter, the teacher says he regrets "the attention and discomfort this may have caused for my students, colleagues, and the community ... This was never my intention." What WAS his intention, do you think?

What this story really raises, though, is a more important issue: language quizzes that contain two possible answers are pretty weak. How about making sure students in our public schools understand how to write a coherent essay? My experience has been that many, many folks graduate from high school without the slightest understanding of this basic structure: "Thesis, three supporting paragraphs, conclusion."

No, instead we're preparing our kids for guessing games, which, sadly, do have value in our society. Top lawmakers and White House officials seem to be very good at it: "Substantial evidence suggests that Iraq (absolutely does/ might) possess weapons of mass destruction."

- Scott Monroe

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Emerging theme: Bush as punching bag

Take from it what you will, but there's a very clear theme emerging right now in upcoming Vermont political races: President Bush is a punching bag that should we whacked as hard and as often as possible.

It's not just Democrats. Many Republicans are indicating the GOP chief is more a liability than an asset, and are distancing themselves from policies of the White House. Last month, Republican millionaire Richard Tarrant was in our offices at 49 School Street to discuss his bid for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Independent Jim Jeffords. Tarrant, while identifying with core GOP values, made a point to criticize the administration's handling of the war in Iraq. Contrary to the stance of administration officials, Tarrant believes the U.S. should withdraw troops from the embattled country as soon as possible.

Last week, Democrat Peter Welch stopped by for a chat about his bid for the U.S. House, which Bernie Sanders is opting out of for the Senate. Welch, in a story I wrote this week, is making a point to paint Bush's policies as "radical and extreme." Democrats need to retake Congress to put the brakes on Bush, who is incompetent and dangerous, Welch believes.

Tough talk. But will it work? Burlington Democrat Peter Clavelle saw his bid for governor go down in flames last year after putting Bush - not Gov. Jim Douglas - in his punching bag. Now, governor hopeful Scudder Parker, a Dem, is following the same path.

It'll be interesting to see if this rhetoric continues next year, when the elections start to really heat up.

- Scott Monroe

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Poll: 78% fewer vote in poll

Seems we had some ebb and flow recently. Last week's online poll at Stowe Reporter Online drew a record setting 232 votes, whereas this week saw a 78 percent decline, to 50 votes.

Last week: Would you like to see mobile home parks in Stowe?

This week: Does Stowe need a town manager with more authority over local government affairs?

Fluke or telling of the kinds of questions people like to be polled on? You decide. I say, hot button topics will always draw the most interest and the biggest crowds; the more nuanced issues will not. That's probably why we're more likely in town to draw a bigger crowd for Brittney Spears than municipal budget review. Makes sense, right?

That is to say, the notion of having a mobile home park in town elicits a quick reaction from most people. Town government baseball, on the other hand, is a yawn for many.

Maybe this week we'll see something of a middle ground, as the poll deals with paying taxes. If you haven't, check it out and vote. Polls, at any rate, are more for entertainment than anything else. And, they're hardly reliable measures of public opinion (newsflash!).

I predict there's a 44 percent chance that 4 percent of you will vote twice in our poll. There's a 3 percent margin of error, keep in mind.

- Scott Monroe

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Budget redux

It didn't come as too much of a surprise - at least not to me - that the Stowe Select Board decided in the end to follow their attorney's advice and nullify the decision at last month's special town meeting. Check it out.

So, looks like it's back to the traditional town meeting format this March, perhaps just one last time. Will we see the same turnout, or better, for the revote on deciding the town budget in the ballot booth? Probably. March Town Meetings have typically drawn close to 400 people, while the special meeting Nov. 7 fell about 100 short of that.

What will be most interesting to see is whether the same majority of voters who wanted to split the budget into four different categories will also go for a whole budget, by ballot. Perhaps even more interesting will be if someone - anyone - attempts to introduce ANOTHER amendment to the warned article. Nov. 7 voters will recall that at least one person tried to get the budget voted on department-by-department. I'd hate to see what the ballot would look like then...

- Scott Monroe

Stuck in the middle

It struck me suddenly like stepping into a really cold shower.

I’m listening to the radio – Marketplace on National Public Radio, actually – and there’s analysis on one of the more startling bits of the day’s news: the U.S. military, according to the Los Angeles Times, has been funneling Iraqi newspapers bought-and-paid-for journalism.

Propaganda? You bet. These glowing news reports "supportive of the war effort" were sold for as much as $1,200 without attribution or disclosure of where they came from. Such reports were been printed, apparently, under the veneer of legitimate journalism.


A Marketplace correspondent, Tess, gets L.A. Times reporter Borzou Daragahi on the air for the lowdown. After a few minutes of boiler-plate exchange, Marketplace gets right to that classic radio question, in all its rhetorical glory.

"And the concern," Tess intones, "is that the Iraqi people, knowing that this happening, could say, essentially, ‘Is this what Democracy is all about’?"

Yup, that’s a pretty legit concern, Tess. Now, drum roll for the hyperbole.

"What could be perceived as really bad," Daragahi says, "is that this is kind of thing Saddam Hussein used to do, paying journalists for writing articles that were favorable to him, that praised him and so on. So, to an Iraqi, hearing about this story, it might conjure up some images of some bad old times."

That exact moment is when, as I’ve said, it struck me like stepping into a really cold shower. A life-changing epiphany? Nope. Imaginary talking points nestled all snug instead, while visions of CNN’s now-defunct show Crossfire danced in my head:

Tucker Carlson: Outrageous! Look, there the liberal media goes again, saying in no uncertain terms that the U.S. military – and by extension, President Bush – is using the very same despicable tactics as a brutal dictator. What’s more, the media is suggesting we’re undermining Democracy in Iraq, not fostering it. Have they no shame!

Paul Begala: Loosen your bow-tie, Tucks. Pedaling blatant propaganda as news is nothing less than what we’ve come to expect from the extremist, radical right wing fascists who have seized the reigns of power in this administration. Another lie from Bush and his cronies, another day.

Tucker: Oh, you’re one to be talking, you hate-filled hypocrite!

Paul: Neo-conniver!

And on, and on, and on.

The imaginary talking points went back and forth until the Marketplace report wrapped up without hinting at what these bought-and-paid-for news stories were actually about, except that they were "supportive of the war effort." Guess I’d have to eventually read the Times piece to figure that out.

Anyway, there’s good reason I felt so polarized. It’s probably not a coincidence that in the last week I’d read both Al Franken’s "Lies: And the lying liars who tell them" and Bernard Goldberg’s "100 people who are screwing up America (and Al Franken is #37)".

These fine reads espouse, let’s say, slightly different political ideologies. And both of the books, weirdly, captivated me with some accurate observations: Ann Coulter likes to make stuff up to prove there’s a liberal conspiracy in U.S. media and Dan Rather likes to stubbornly stand behind stupid mistakes to prove there’s a liberal conspiracy in U.S. media.

From time to time, both Franken and Goldberg actually make substantive points. Trying to prove President Clinton "gutted" the military, for example, is kind of like trying to prove Abraham Lincoln didn’t do enough for black civil rights — it’s the context, stupid! And actually, Goldberg didn’t really say anything substantive. But, he’s got a sense of humor.

In the end, I found myself feeling neither liberal nor conservative, Democrat nor Republican, sweet nor sour, after flipping each book’s last page. I did kind of feel like you do after standing for three hours next to the speakers at rock concert. My ears rang, too.

No, what I felt was a deep want to think of myself as a centrist, a moderate, a middle-of-the-aisle fella straddling both sides of raging currents. Problem with that is you get labeled a "flip-flopper" or "waffler" or, in some Southern states, a "pancake with a side of grits."

That’s the downside of smacking a label on your forehead and thinking too narrowly, which brings me back to that Marketplace report. Yeah, this is definitely a sad case of propaganda-written-as-news. But just what were these fabricated stories about? Did they contain a shred of reliable fact, and if so, is there perhaps a larger story to be told here? Doesn’t this also highlight a simmering tension between journalists and administration officials when it comes to fairness in news reporting, especially in Iraq? Wasn’t that a great rhetorical question?

I checked out the Times report.

"Though the articles are basically factual," the L.A. Times says, "they present only one side of events and omit information that might reflect poorly on the U.S. or Iraqi governments, officials said."

I can hear the talking points in the distance, again. Time for me to pick up a good comic book.

- Scott Monroe