Behind The Scenes
11Aug/140

The future of (local) news [an editorial]

[Here's a sneak peek at an upcoming editorial for the Brattleboro Reformer.]

In the summer of 2005, Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi, in a piece for American Journalism Review, wrote about the failing newspaper industry, and how, despite many challenges, there was a place for newspapers in our collective futures.

"The media have been covering the bad news about newspapers for years," Farhi wrote. "To see and read these accounts is to encounter an industry that seems on the verge of crisis, and possibly on the edge of the abyss."

Consider this comment Farhi referenced, from Slate media critic Jack Shafer: "In many U.S. markets, the dominant paper is a fading enterprise. ... In the long run, no newspaper is safe from electronic technologies."

Or this one, from Barron's Online columnist Howard R. Gold: "A crisis of confidence has combined with a technological revolution and structural economic change to create what can only be described as a perfect storm ... [P]rint's business model is imploding as younger readers turn toward free tabloids and electronic media to get news."

To be sure, a lot has changed since the first U.S. newspaper was printed on Sept. 25, 1690. [That would be Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick, for you history buffs out there.]

Credit those changes to advances in technology, changes in society and the way people want or expect their news, or development of new delivery methods. Still, one thing remains clear: People want the news. They want to know what's going on in their communities, in their state, around the country, around the world.

Consider the Reformer's past hundred years: Throughout the past 10 decades, each change has brought with it changes that could be viewed positive and negative. In the beginning there was expansion to allow room for growth -- more people, more news, more product. Over time, technology allowed newspapers to do more with less. These days, it's all about diversifying how we present our product. But one thing has never changed in that timeframe: At the end of the day, the newspaper, however you choose to view it, is a collection of the days' news written and presented by a trained staff of newspeople (reporters, editors, etc.).

Reporting this week for the New York Times on the recent spin-off of newspapers from larger media companies, David Carr highlights just how dire today's reality is for newspapers: "Newspapers will be working without a net as undiversified pure-play print companies. Most are being cut loose after all the low-hanging fruit, like valuable digital properties, have been plucked. Many newspapers have sold their real estate, where much of their remaining value was stored.

"More ominous, most of the print and magazine assets have already been cut to the bone in terms of staffing. Reducing costs has been the only reliable source of profits as overall revenue has declined. Not much is left to trim."

Let's return to Farhi's piece for a moment. In it, he juxtaposes the newspaper industry against other modern forms of information dissemination -- local and cable TV news, magazines and the Internet -- and makes a case (albeit a little dated at this point) for why newspapers, more than any other news outlet, are best positioned to weather this storm of new-age news consumption. While he breaks this down to several major points, let's consider just these three:

First, localism. "Readers will always want to know about the schools, government, businesses, taxes, entertainment and teams closest to home. No news organization is better equipped or staffed to supply this information than a newspaper."

Attention from readership. "Newspapers no longer play the central role in people's daily lives they once did, but they are far from irrelevant. Some 42 percent of adults surveyed by the Pew researchers in 2004 reported that they had read a newspaper 'yesterday' (a figure that rose slightly over 2002). With the exception of local TV news, no other news source reaches so many people on a given day."

And lastly, brand-name recognition. "Newspapers big and small have spent millions of dollars over the years reminding people what they do. This has created a vast but hard-to-measure reservoir of goodwill for newspapers...."

To be sure, the editorial board knows that local news -- big and small -- is why people continue to read this newspaper, both in print and online. But, in a changing media landscape, covering our local communities in a thorough and timely fashion -- especially in this age of instant gratification and immediacy -- continues to be a challenge.

"A free-market economy is moving to reallocate capital to its more productive uses, which happens all the time," Carr writes. "Ask Kodak. Or Blockbuster. Or the makers of personal computers. Just because the product being manufactured is news in print does not make it sacrosanct or immune to the natural order.

"It's a measure of the basic problem that many people haven't cared or noticed as their hometown newspapers have reduced staffing, days of circulation, delivery and coverage.

"Will they notice or care when those newspapers go away altogether?"

Well, we sure hope so!

To that end, Strolling of the Heifers is hosting a panel discussion, this Thursday, on the future of local journalism. The session, at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden, includes: Ed Woods, publisher of the Brattleboro Reformer and its regional sister publications; Jeff Potter, interim editorial and operations director of The Commons; Tom D'Errico, editor of the Reformer; and Martin Langeveld, a media observer and former newspaper executive. Questions and comments from the audience will be welcomed.

The group will tackle two key questions: As print media decline in popularity and digital access to news continues to increase, how is the nature of local journalism changing? And, given the trends toward digital delivery and consumption of local news, what business models can sustain journalism going forward?

Local journalism continues to be a valuable watchdog for the public good. Growing pains may hurt, but ultimately change can be good. One thing that will never change, however, is the value of local news.

5Jun/140

Destroying the spirit of the Internet [an editorial]

[Here's a sneak peek at an upcoming editorial for the Reformer.]

“The Internet, in its current form, is not broken. And the FCC is currently taking steps to fix it.”

That’s how John Oliver, host of HBO’s spoof news program “Last Week Tonight,” sums up the recent furor surrounding Net Neutrality.

“Net Neutrality is actually hugely important,” Oliver said during last Sunday’s episode. “Essentially it means that all data has to be treated equally, no matter who creates it. It’s why the Internet is a weirdly level playing field, and start-ups can supplant established brands.”

The Federal Communications Commission has a proven track record of failure when it comes to protecting the pub­lic’s interests and strengthening our country’s broadband infrastruc­ture.

Recent efforts from Internet providers like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, are asking the FCC to end the current version of Net Neutral­ity. As a recent CBS This Morning report points out, these new rules “would open the door, for the first time, for Internet providers like Comcast and Verizon to charge tech companies to send content to consumers more quickly. (Streaming movie provider) Netflix, for example, might pay a premium to ensure that its customers can stream movies more reliably, at a cost a start-up competitor might not be able to afford.”

Or, as Oliver succinctly puts it: “Ending net neutrality would allow big companies to buy their way into the fast-lane leaving everyone else in the slow lane.”

Well, we all know how that would turn out.

These new Net Neutrality rules, combined with recent proposed megadeal mergers (AT&T’s proposal to take over DirecTV; along with Comcast’s $45 billion bid to merge with Time Warner Cable) will take away American’s freedom of choice when it comes to choosing an Internet provider.

We echo the sentiment of a recent Contra Costa Times editorial: “Eliminating net neutrality or allowing further consolidation of the communications industry are not in consumers’ interests. Consumer dissatisfaction even now is rampant.”

What’s more troubling, is that the FCC is closer than ever to allow­ing this monopoly on Internet service to pass. Some sobering facts to consider: -- A recent federal study published by Broadband.gov found that 96 percent had access to two or fewer cable broadband providers.

-- Consumers’ average bills for pay TV had outpaced the 1.6 percent rise of inflation in 2012, according to a recent FCC report. The jump in basic cable was 6.5 percent to $22.63 a month; the increase in expanded basic was 5.1 percent to $64.41.

“We pay more for our Internet service than almost anybody else on Earth,” Oliver said, highlighting the United States’ 31st place rank­ing (out of 192) from a May 2014 Ookla Speedtest, lagging behind countries like the Czech Republic, Israel and Estonia. (For what it’s worth, Hong Kong was ranked at the top of the list, followed by Singpore, Romania, South Korea and Switzerland.) -- According to a recent report from Bloomberg, Comcast spent $18.8M in lobbying last year, more than any other company except for defense contractor Northrop Grumman.

-- And perhaps most troubling, President Barack Obama recently picked Tom Wheeler, a former top lobbyist for cable and wireless companies, to be the next chair of the Federal Communications Com­mission.

So, why should you care?

Look no further than A Guide to the Open Internet (found online at http://www.theopeninter.net/). Among the many accolades of a free and open Internet: preventing unfair pricing practices; promoting innovation; driving entrepreneurship; stimulating competition; and (most importantly, we believe) protecting freedom of speech.

And while these megacompanies may preach fairness in the mar­ketplace, one need look no further than Comcast’s recent negotia­tions with Netflix. As the talks continued last fall, download speeds provided by Comcast to Netflix customers mysteriously decreased at a drastic rate until a compromise was reached this past February.

The spirit of the Internet only exists if all content is provided to users equally, and those users have the ability to pick and choose a carrier that best suits their needs.

These proposed mergers do little to foster that spirit; the FCC’s new ideas on Net Neutrality all but kill it.

The Reformer editorial board is scared of these changes, and you should be too.

[ The FCC is currently taking public comments on Net Neutrality. Visit FCC.gov/comments (where more than 45,000 comments have already been logged on this issue in the past 30 days).]

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27May/140

There’s a pill for that [an editorial]

[Here's a sneak peek at an upcoming editorial for the Reformer.]

While the news may not be too terribly surprising to anyone bom­barded by pharmaceutical commercials while watching evening tele­vision, a new report shows that nearly half of all Americans take one or more medications.

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report — titled “Health, United States, 2013” — issued earlier this month, included a special section on Americans’ ever-growing use of prescription drugs. The most common prescription drugs? Well, among adults, that would be for cardiovascular dis­ease and high cholesterol.

However, as a report from medical news outlet HealthDay points out, “The relationship between Americans and their prescriptions is complex, according to the report produced by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

While “more people than ever are receiving effective treatment for chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated cho­lesterol levels and depression ... doctors and pharmacists also find themselves struggling with unintended consequences of drug use, such as prescription narcotics abuse and the advent of antibiotic­resistant germs.”

A double-edged sword, to be sure.

“Isn’t that the case with all forms of medical technology?” Julia Holmes, chief of the analytic studies branch at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, told HealthDay. “It results in great ben­efit to people who are ill and disabled, but there’s always the poten­tial for inappropriate use.”

A Time Magazine report on the CDC’s findings highlights some interesting numbers to consider: — As we already mentioned, heart medications and cholesterol-low­ering drugs are the most prescribed (at 17.7 and 10.7 percent of Americans, respectively, taking them.

— The top five are rounded out by antidepressants (10.6 percent), painkillers (10.5 percent) and acid-reflux medications (9 percent).

There are, however, two extremely troubling revelations. First, 5 percent of insured Americans — and 22 percent of the uninsured — went without a prescribed medication because they were unable to afford it.

And worse: There has been a 300 percent increase in the use of pre­scription painkillers over the past decade “Too many American are getting hooked on these drugs when they are legitimately prescribed, and too many are turning to heroin as a cheaper substitute for prescribed painkillers when they can no longer access or afford them,” the Sentinel and Enterprise wrote in a recent editorial.

“Is the medical community doing enough to make sure that these drugs are being prescribed responsibly? Should people who might be vulnerable to opioid addiction — young people, recovering alcoholics and drug abusers — be prescribed these drugs at all? Are doctors armed with enough information about the patient every time they write a script for an opioid painkiller?”

Consider ProPublica’s recent report — “Dollars for Doctors: How Industry Money Reaches Physicians” — which found 15 pharmaceu­tical companies disclosed making $2.5 billion in payments to doctors, other medical providers and health-care institutions since 2009 for promotional talks, consulting and research. Keep in mind, those are just the companies that disclose their payments.

But, as the Sentinel and Enterprise points out, this dark cloud does have a silver lining. Many prescribed drugs are helping to battle chronic diseases, extending peoples’ lives. And life expectancy is on the rise for both men (76.2 years) and women (81 years).

Still, as Uncle Ben once astutely pointed out to a young Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Sure, there may be a pill, these days, for whatever ails you. But we expect doctors, pharmaceutical companies and other within the med­ical care industry to better monitor and regulate who gets these pills, how they are provided, and the continuing care needed for anyone with a medical condition. Many of these pills can and do help many people. But they can also ruin lives, a fact we are reminded of all too often.

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22May/140

Protecting your right to know [an editorial]

[Here's a sneak peek at an upcoming editorial for the Brattleboro Reformer.]

“For decades, Vermont has been at the bottom of the list of states for the public’s right to know the truth about government operations, records and meetings.”

So begins a recent opinion piece by Joe Choquette, sent by the Vermont Press Association to various media outlets around the state.

(As a point of full disclosure, Choquette is a longtime lobbyist with Downs Rachlin Martin PLLC, whose clients include the Vermont Press Association, which represents the interests of the 11 daily and more than four dozen non-daily newspapers in Vermont.)

However, for the past few years, Vermont has seemed to make great efforts to improve that ranking. For instance, the Green Mountain State earned a D+ letter grade in a 2012 State Integrity Investigation by The Center for Public Integrity. One year later, however, Sunlight Foundation Transparency Report Card gave Vermont a B for its efforts.
This is in large part due to a new public records law, passed by the Legislature two years ago, which (at the time) had “strong support” from Gov. Peter Shumlin and Secretary of State Jim Condos.

During this past session, new legislation worked its way through the statehouse (passed by the House on Feb. 28 and the Senate on May 7) and now sits on the governor’s desk, awaiting (presumably) his signature.

However, unlike recent efforts to improve government transparency, as it were, this new law — H.497 — contains several areas of concern.

The penalty for violating the open records law — $500 — has stood strong since the 1970s. It’s a simple matter of cause and effect: Surely a more substantial penalty will lead to more boards taking the
rules more seriously.

Often — sometimes a little too often — our local school and selectboards hold portions of their meetings in executive session. Typically, this happens when boards need to hold “sensitive” discussions (for example: legal or fiscal negotiations; real estates transactions; employee or personnel matters; student or employee disciplinary records; or, as the National Freedom of Information Coalition puts it, discussions that would “result in a clear and imminent peril to public safety”).

H.497 does not address whether minutes need to be kept during these executive sessions. While on the surface this may seem incidental, if the executive session is later challenged, and the board is found to have been behind closed doors illegally, there’s no record of any discussions that took place.

The new bill, as pointed out recently by our colleagues at the Bennington Banner, also “gives boards a ‘get out of jail free’ card for a first infraction. So even if a board was violating the open records law for several months prior to getting ‘caught,’ it could get no penalty at all for that first transgression, no matter how egregious it is.”

So today we’d like to echo the Banner’s editorial board: The role of open government and freedom of information is crucial in a democracy.

This freedom is worth defending.

We join other media outlets around the state in urging Gov. Shumlin not to sign this bill, which will do little to improve on the steps taken to make Vermont’s governing bodies more transparent.

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7May/140

Education at all levels [an editorial]

[ Here's a sneak peek at an upcoming editorial.]

A trio of reports concerning all levels of education recently grabbed our attention ....

Dateline Montpelier:

The Vermont Senate on Monday passed H.270, the universal prekindergarten bill, which will reinforce the state’s pre-school edu­cation efforts and better prepare children to enter school. According to a recent study from the Agency of Education, more than half of Vermont children are not ready for school when they enter kindergarten. And, as a recent report from VTDigger points out, educators, business and children’s advocacy groups for years have pressed the Legislature to enhance support for preschool programs.

“While most of the state’s 270-plus districts already have programs for pre-K students,” VTDigger reports, “37 do not. The universal pre­K bill will bring about 1,800 additional 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds into pre­school programs. The total number of children who would take advantage of the program is expected to be about 6,000, or 60 percent of the state’s 11,284 preschool-aged children.”

Specifically, the new law will require school districts to offer at least 10 hours of instruction for 35 weeks to any preschool-aged child. The state will reimburse districts of qualified pre-kinder­garten programs offered by private or public providers.

Last week, Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, said that Vermont stu­dents entering school were not ready to learn, and extra time was being spent bringing them up to speed. Reaching children early, he said, could possibly reduce special education costs and, looking fur­ther ahead, reduce incarceration rates among teenagers.

“Investing in our youngest Vermonters is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said, following Mon­day’s vote. “When children and families thrive, Vermont thrives. ... Now access to strong programs for young children will no longer depend on where you live. I am proud to live in a state that will provide every child an opportunity to arrive at kindergarten ready to learn.”

We concur with the governor. A good education starts with a good foundation. A more robust and available preschool system, combined with renewed efforts from parents and guardians, will help Vermont’s young boys and girls start their schooling on the right foot. Thirteen years is a long time (to be in school); If it’s a struggle from the first day, no wonder many children give up before completing 12th grade.

Dateline Washington:

In a major national assessment known as the nation’s report card, only about one-quarter of U.S. high school seniors performed solidly in math. In reading, almost 4 in 10 students reached the “proficient” level or higher.

These findings, as pointed out by a report from the Associated Press, reinforce concerns that large numbers of students are unpre­pared for either college or the workplace.

“In both subjects on the 2013 exam there was little change from 2009, when the National Assessment of Educational Progress was last given to 12th-graders,” according to the AP report. The results, which were released Wednesday, come from a representative sample of 92,000 public and private school students.

“Achievement at this very critical point in a student’s life must be improved to ensure success after high school,” said David Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the exam.

In a statement, Education Secretary Arne Duncan pointed out that even though there has been some good news related to graduation rates and scores in younger grades, high school achievement has been flat in recent years.

The “report card” shows racial disparities and offers some context for fluctuations in the results (discussions on readings made reading more enjoyable for some; the higher the level of math being tested, the better the results). However, the bigger takeaway, in our opinion, is that teachers and teaching institutions need to do a better job of engaging students and tailoring their education around their abilities (within reason). We hear time and again that undue focus on test scores and results, in lieu of actual, interactive education leads to poor results in the classroom.

Dateline Vermont:

According to the results of a 2012 survey of Vermont high school seniors by the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, females in the state are much more likely to plan to enroll in postsecondary edu­cation than males.

The study, taken by eight out of 10 seniors in Vermont, found that while 74.8 percent of all seniors planned to enroll in either postsec­ondary education or a training program, a strong gap existed between males and females -- 82 percent of females aspiring to receive education after high school, compared to only 67 percent of males. Furthermore, Among first-generation students (defined by the study as students whose parents do not have a four-year degree), 76 percent of females plan to continue their education, compared to only 55 percent of males.

“Today’s economy demands a skilled workforce,” Scott Giles, VSAC’s president and CEO, told the Bennington Banner. “Education and training after high school is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. The pur­pose of this study is to draw attention to one of the most important social justice and economic inequality issues facing our state. Only by acknowledging these issues will we come together to solve them.”

According to the report, parents’ recommendations to students played a large role in their decision whether to seek education after high school. The report also provided recommendations aimed at improving postsecondary opportunities for Vermont students, including to “develop strategies to encourage parents to begin con­versations about education and training after high school as early as possible,” to “explore alternatives for how, who, and when to provide career and postsecondary education information and adapt the deliv­ery of this ‘aspiration curriculum’ to meet the individual needs of the school and its students,” to “target students with the specific supple­mental services needed to complete a rigorous high school curricu­lum,” to “expand the availability and use of Introduction to College Studies, dual-enrollment, and early college programs by first gener­ation and low income students,” and to “ensure that every high school senior has the means to develop and begin executing a career, education, and training plan prior to graduation.”

There’s a running theme in these three news items: From a very early age, children need family members and/or guardians to encourage and foster the importance of a solid education. This sup­port starts at a very young age, continues into preschool and throughout a 13-year school career. It starts with parents, continues with educators, and is supported at the state and national level.

Today’s support will pay off exponentially with strong-minded, intelligent men and women who will one day lead our communities. Don’t they deserve our help and support?

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7Apr/140

Continued funding of LIHEAP a must [an editorial]

[ Here's a sneak peek at an upcoming editorial.]

When it comes to keeping the most vulnerable among us warm, more money is needed.

That’s the message Washington lawmakers are sending to the House Appropriations Committee, regarding the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. In a letter this week, Reps. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and Peter King, R-N.Y., the leading House advocates for funding LIHEAP, used this past winter to illustrate how important any and all assistance is to those in need, and called for the program to be funded at $4.7 billion for fiscal year 2015.

“LIHEAP helps to ensure that people do not have to choose between paying their energy bills and paying for food and medicine,” the let­ter reads. “The record breaking and life threatening cold that has swept much of the nation this winter is a reminder of the importance of this program. A strong LIHEAP program is necessary to effec­tively meet the critical needs of our constituents, especially as ener­gy costs remain high, the economy is still rebounding, and record numbers of families turn to the program for assistance.”

A bipartisan group of 137 lawmakers signed on in support.

Over the past several years, LIHEAP has lost about 30 percent of its funding. For some context, here’s a couple of things to consider: — This past winter, Vermont received $18.3 million in federal LIHEAP funding.

— Almost 28,000 households received some form of heating assis­tance this past year.

— In addition, the state appropriated an additional $9.7 million for the program.

It’s clear, the need is there.

The omnibus Farm Bill passed by Congress this past February included $8.6 billion in cuts over the next 10 years in the Supplemen­tal Nutrition Assistance Program. But it could have been worse, as U.S. House Republicans had initially sought $40 billion in reductions.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told VTDigger he was disappointed by the cuts, characterizing the reductions as “both morally and econom­ically wrong to cut assistance to families in a very difficult econo­my.”

For all practical purposes, according to a VTDigger report, “the new bill eliminates what is known as the ‘heat and eat’ program in northern states. It requires 17 states to come up with additional monies to fund food stamps for people who are eligible for the Low Income Heating Assistance Program.”

Late last month, the 2015 Vermont budget was approved by the House. In it, the Appropriations Committee allocated $6 million in state funds toward LIHEAP, which aims to cover 2,100 homes that would have lost some food aid benefits under the “Heat and Eat” pro­vision in the bipartisan Agricultural Act of 2014.

“The Republican-controlled House’s intent was to cut back the num­ber of families that need assistance,” Vermont Secretary of Adminis­tration Jeb Spaulding told the Bennington Banner. Spaulding said Vermont would have looked for any way to ensure the continued food aid of those citizens that the Farm Bill intended to cut from SNAP benefits, “(but) we are always looking for ways to improve the lives of our citizens.”

We applaud Welch, King and the other lawmakers looking to address these egregious cuts. It’s clear many tough choices need to be made as states and the country continue to address economic challenges. But surely there are better ways to enact such cuts, rather than slashing aid to people who could very well find them­selves in a life or death situation next winter.

“Continuing lower levels of funding for LIHEAP will have a devas­tating impact on millions of American families already suffering during the economic downturn,” the Welch/King letter states.

What can it say for us, as a society, when we are unable or unwilling to continue helping those among us in greatest need?

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24Feb/140

Hole-y road problems! [an editorial]

[ Here's a sneak peek at an upcoming editorial.]

“It’s an evolving situation.”

Well, that’s one way to put it.

Potholes in BrattleboroIt’s also how Vt. Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, described recent discussions between herself, Brattleboro officials and offi­cials at VTrans, regarding the severe state of Western Avenue — AKA Route 9 — which is riddled with potholes. It’s nothing new and it certainly isn’t unique to Windham County. Just take a look at Boston, Hart­ford, New York, Indianapolis ... well, you get the point. Blame Old Man Winter. Or Mother Nature. “This winter’s lower-than-average temperatures, coupled with higher-than-average snowfall,” according to a Boston Globe report, “have created the perfect climate to spawn a barrage of teeth-clattering, bone-jarring, axle-cracking potholes across the region. And public works agencies are struggling to keep up.”

Indeed.

“It’s been really difficult, if not impossible, to stay out in front of it,” Brattleboro’s Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland told the Reformer on Monday afternoon, as DPW crews were out on Western Ave. filling as many of the potholes as they could.

And much like the water pooling in these troublesome black holes, the problem runs much deeper than manpower, time and weather. There’s a steep cost involved in any fix that’s more than a simple Band-Aid.

Being at the Statehouse, Burke is well-aware of Vermont’s trans­portation- funding constraints. But after asking VTrans to take a clos­er look at this major east-west thoroughfare, the official response was a recommendation for Brattleboro to invest in a paving project. The only problem is that such a project would carry at least a $200,000 price tag, a steep cost when you consider that, for the fiscal year 2015, officials approved a $250,000 budget for paving ... for the entire town!

“The potholes are emblematic of a deeper chasm,” according to a recent report from Bloomberg. “The gap between the cost of improvements to U.S. transportation infrastructure and available revenue from both state and federal sources was as much as $147 bil­lion, according to a 2009 National Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission report.”

And, according to Washington nonprofit research group TRIP, “sub­standard conditions” on rural U.S. roads (of which we’re sure West­ern Ave. would be considered), cost the average driver using them $377 a year (which works out to be about $80 billion nationwide).

“That money comes out of a finite budget, and so when you have a harsher climate for your infrastructure and even less money to spend on repairs, that’s asking for trouble,” Rocky Moretti, director of policy and research at TRIP, told Bloomberg.

So what are states to do? Well, according to the Bloomberg report: — The Michigan Legislature is considering allocating an additional $100 million to the transportation department (to cover plowing, salt­ing and pothole repair).

— New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is adding $7.3 million to the city’s $74 billion budget (specifically for street repairs).

— And Indianapolis has already exceeded it’s winter maintenance budget by $5 million.

Which brings us back to Brattleboro’s $200,000 problem.

“In light of the terrible condition of the road, I anticipate the Select­board will need to consider trying to locate the money, including out of the surplus,” Selectboard Chairman David Gartenstein told the Reformer on Monday.

But don’t forget, in addition to the usual day-to-day and general cost of living increases any town faces, Brattleboro residents and offi­cials must also consider other large costs associated with the recent wastewater treatment plant project and the forthcoming police/fire department project.

Here’s just a handful of comments the newsroom has received from the community on the state of Western Avenue: — “It’s like an obstacle course out there.”

— “Thought we were going to have to get the ‘horse and buggy’ out to maneuver around the potholes.”

— “Some of these ‘potholes’ have reached the level of craters. They need to be fixed, ASAP, before someone gets really hurt.”

— “Not only dangerous for drivers but also for pedestrians ....”

— “It’s getting to a point where now I’m worried I may lose a tire ....”

— “Maybe you can get the town to post a sign with the scoring sys­tem for their little slalom course.”

You get the idea.

Band-Aids are one thing, and much-needed in this case. But you don’t keep putting Band-Aids on a gaping wound — you see an expert and get the problem fixed.

The problem on Western Avenue is two-fold.

First, a way must be found to get a fresh pave done as soon as pos­sible. Then, perhaps it’s time to start re-examining why this two-lane road turned into a main connector between the eastern and western corners of the state. With hundreds of trucks traveling this little two­-lane blacktop through the heart of West Brattleboro, is it any sur­prise it’s so quickly torn apart?

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19Feb/140

A good foundation for a bright future [an editorial]

[Here's a sneak peek at an upcoming editorial.]

“There is perhaps no issue more important than how we educate our youth.”

On Wednesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a member of the Senate Education Committee (quoted above), was at the Statehouse, offering some Vermont lawmakers an overview on federal education policy.

“I am very concerned that, on many levels, we are failing our youth,” Sanders told members of Vermont’s House and Senate education committees. “We must do away with the archaic notion that education begins at 4 or 5 years old. For far too long, our society has undervalued the need for high-quality and widely accessible early childhood education.”

Children are our future. The youngsters of today will grow and become tomorrow’s leaders. And the foundation we can lay in those early, highly developmental years will yield returns throughout a child’s journey to adulthood.

But, with budgets constricting and states constantly forced to eval­uate and re-evaluate every aspect of every budget ... well, we don’t need to tell you that sometimes the most vulnerable — children and seniors — are effected the most.

That’s what makes last year’s $36.9 million federal grant — dubbed Early Learning Race to the Top — so important.

When announcing the grant this past December, Gov. Peter Shumlin said it would set the foundation for low-income and high-needs chil­dren to succeed in school.

“As you know, early childhood education is extraordinarily impor­tant to ensuring that every child in this great state has a strong start and a bright future,” Shumlin said. “Where we fail is moving more low-income kids beyond high school,” Shumlin said. “We do that pri­marily because they do not get a strong start. They don’t have the opportunity to get a strong start.”

On Wednesday, Sen. Sanders called that grant “a good start,” but urged, “we must do more to ensure that quality programs are creat­ed for families to help educate their children.”

The Reformer Editorial Board echoes Sanders’ assertion that this is only one part of the solution. As we said, early education lays the foundation for all that is to come. A more concerted effort must be made to improve every step along the way.

That means improvements and upkeep of school buildings. (One need look no further than the recent struggles Leland & Gray is hav­ing balancing a “responsible” budget with infrastructural improve­ments.) That means better support for teachers (both in terms of pay and respect).

That means expansion of after-school and summer programs. (In today’s society, where children are living in either single-parent homes, or homes in which both parents are working just to makes ends meet, this added support system is a must.) “(T)he truth of the matter is that, as a nation, we are not doing well in this state and throughout this country,” Sanders told VTDigger in December. “There are millions of working families that are desper­ately in search of high quality, affordable, early childhood educa­tion.”

No one is naive enough not to understand the state of our economy, both on a state, regional and national level. Sanders, himself, on Wednesday called the effort to ensure “every kid in this country, regardless of income has high quality early childhood education” an “expensive proposition.”

That’s true. But turning a blind eye to the problem, today, will cre­ate bigger problems in the future.

“I worry that today you probably have millions of kids who are right now sitting in somebody’s living room watching dumb televi­sion programs rather than getting the quality early childhood educa­tion both on an intellectual and emotional basis that they need,” Sanders told lawmakers.

That’s our fear, too.

And what does that say for our future?

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27Jan/140

Deadly distractions [an editorial]

[Here's a sneak peek at an upcoming editorial ....]

The latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey, released last week, revealed some troubling — if not too terribly surprising — facts.

Despite the warnings, the evidence and educational efforts, 60 per­cent of Vermont’s high school seniors still admit to texting or e-mail­ing while behind the wheel.

According to the Department of Health’s survey, more than 33 per­cent of high school students and more than 56 percent of high school seniors said that they engaged in the behavior.

According to the U.S. Government’s Distracted Driving website, 11 percent of all drivers under the age of 20, involved in fatal crashes, were reported as distracted at the time of the crash. “This age group has the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted,” accord­ing to the site. Furthermore, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, when considering drivers in the 15-19 years old age group, 21 percent of the distracted drivers were dis­tracted by the use of cell phones.

“Vermont state law prohibits texting while driving,” Ted Minall, chief of the Governor’s Highway Safety Program, told the Associat­ed Press. “(A)nd educators and parents have a responsibility to pro­mote a no-texting message.”

He added that driving safely requires a vehicle operator’s full focus. But really, that’s just common sense.

And the reality is, we’re not just talking about teens, here — every­one is doing it.

Some more sobering facts to consider: — According to government statistics, in 2012, 421,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver, a 9 percent increase from the previous year.

— According to the 2013 National Occupant Protection Use Survey, at any given daylight moment in the U.S., approximately 660,000 drivers are either using cell phones or manipulating an electronic device while driving. (This number has held steady since 2010.) — Research from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute shows that “engaging in visual-manual subtasks” (like reaching for a phone, dialing and texting) increased the risk of getting into a crash by three times.

It’s research also shows that sending or receiving a text takes a dri­ver’s eyes from the road for an average of 5 seconds. If one was trav­eling 55 mph, that would be the equivalent of driving the length of a football field, blind.

— A recent University of Michigan Transportation Research Insti­tute study found that a quarter of teen drivers respond to a text mes­sage once or more every time they get behind the wheel. Further­more, 20 percent of teens and 10 percent of parents admit to extend­ed, multi-message text conversations while driving.

Like we said, this isn’t just a “teen” issue.

In this day and age, there’s just too much technology at our finger­tips — be it car audio equipment, a cell phone, a GPS, a portable video device. Even without all of that, there’s plenty to consider a distraction (a talking passenger, crying child in the backseat, food or drink, etc.).

What it really boils down to is that driving is not a right, it's a privilege. And part of earning that right means that anyone choosing to get behind the wheel should practice common sense and self-control.

While that text may seem important now, how important will it seem if the distraction leads to a fatal crash?

There are always exceptions to the rules, and emergencies can and will happen. But if the text can’t wait, pull over. If you really need to consult the map or GPS, pull over. If you absolutely have to make that call, stop first.

It may sound corny, but the life you save may just be your own.

Filed under: editorials No Comments
7Jan/140

Once again, you came through [an editorial]

[Of all the "hats" I wear at the Brattleboro Reformer, being a member of the Christmas Stocking board is my most humbling and favorite one. Today we met and exceeded the annual goal ($90,000). From the bottom of my heart, a huge thanks to everyone who contributed.
Here's a sneak peek at tomorrow's editorial ...]

 

There's no better feeling than knowing something you do is able to alleviate the difficulties faced by someone in need. Which is why, every year, the Reformer Christmas Stocking is humbled and awed as the community steps up to donate to our annual campaign.

For 77 years, the Christmas Stocking has been helping families in Windham County and southwestern New Hampshire -- from homes with low incomes, or high medical bills, or families affected by fire or some other unforeseen disaster, or even loss of income due to layoffs -- receive warm winter clothing for their children to stay warm through the cold months ahead.

As it is every year, the need is great and always increasing.

And as it has been for the past several years, our goal was set at $90,000 last summer. As we have often said, given the state of the economy -- locally and nationally -- along with the various other well-deserving fundraising efforts in and around the area ... it's often with a mixture of relief and surprise when a new set of daily donations show up at the Reformer offices and we finally reach that goal. Let's just say, we would have been disappointed, but not surprised, if we weren't able to reach it.

Christmas Stocking 2013But today, we don't have to worry about that -- this morning our fundraising effort's total stands at $90,730.91. As you do every year, so many of our readers -- from friends who have always helped us over the years to new donors who stepped up when we needed them most -- kept the spirit of the Reformer Christmas Stocking alive for another season, and we surpassed our 2013 goal Tuesday afternoon, one week into the new year.

We needed every bit of help we could get this year; the need is always there, for folks who need a little extra, extremely important assistance for the winter months. This year, 1,330 children from more than 600 families qualified for coats, snow pants, boots, hats and mittens. The state of the local and national economy continues to put a strain on many of our friends and neighbors, which makes the Stocking more important than ever to local families in need.

It goes without saying, but we could not have reached our goal without the help of the Reformer's readers and friends. From the schoolchildren who turn in their pennies and nickels to the local businesses who give so generously each year, people of all ages and circumstances from around the region have demonstrated -- yet again -- that people here are always ready to help out those in need.

Since 1937, the Christmas Stocking has always been about neighbors helping neighbors. It is something we take great pride in here at the Reformer. The volunteers that run the Stocking put in a heroic effort each year, and their effort ensures that every dollar donated goes toward buying the winter clothing that is needed from year to year.

"For some people it's automatic this time of year. We have been getting checks from some families for a lot of years," said Pat Smith, the Reformer's news clerk, who has been counting the checks for the Reformer Christmas Stocking for more than 20 years. "It seems like it takes a little longer every year, but we always get there."

If you haven't done so yet, it's not too late to give to this year's campaign. Contributions, which are tax deductible, may be sent to: Reformer Christmas Stocking, P.O. Box 703, Brattleboro, VT 05302-0703. Donors may use their credit cards on PayPal for contributions by visiting www.reformer.com/christmasstocking. Type how you would like your donation to be listed in the Reformer in the "Purpose" line. Contributions may also be brought to the Reformer office at 62 Black Mountain Road on Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m.

From everyone here at the Reformer, the members of the Christmas Stocking board, and from all the families you have helped with your generosity: A most sincere thank you.