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A Statewide What?

Inside Track


Published October 26, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

The picket lines disappeared this week in Colchester after a divisive, hard-fought teachers' strike. Time to heal the wounds, time to tone down the rhetoric, right?

The Burlington Free Press in its Tuesday editorial declared that Colchester students can now "resume the important business of learning."

We'd suggest many students did learn during their two-week vacation. Surely the kidsters learned something about politics, power and self-interest that they don't find in their textbooks? They also learned that paying for those teachers in the front of the room can be a very hot issue in the big world.

The Colchester strike has also stirred up a sleeping political giant that we haven't heard much about in the last 10 years -- a statewide teachers' contract (STC).

It was 1994 when H.541 ignited tempers under Montpelier's golden dome. Remarkably, the battle featured an unusual set of alliances.

Democratic House Speaker Ralph Wright, the card-carrying teacher's union member who championed the proposal, lost out to the GOP-controlled state senate and its most unusual ally -- the state teachers' union, the Vermont NEA. Despite the support of Gov. Howard Dean, H.541died in conference.

Fast-forward a decade. Three Republicans, Burlington State Rep. Kurt Wright, Colchester State Rep. Katherine "Renn" Niquette (a school board member, too) and Milton State Rep. Doran Metzger (a National Guard helicopter pilot about to ship out for Iraq) have introduced H. 138. Its purpose: "to stipulate that all Vermont public schoolteachers will negotiate employment contracts with the state, and that the state will appropriate funds to pay teacher salaries."

Whether a STC has a chance of flying this time, we don't know. We do know it will stimulate a great deal of conversation in the coming months. Just about all the leader types, from Gov. Jim Douglas to the Democratic chair and Republican vice-chair of the House Education Committee, tell "Inside Track" it's worthy of examination.

"The merit of discussing a statewide teachers' contract," said Chairman George Cross of Winooski, "is in the fact that we now have a statewide education property tax. When that fact is coupled with the fact that the state provides the full support for the teachers' retirement system," he continued, "the next leg of the stool is possibly a statewide teachers' contract, a statewide school calendar, the organization of all the public schools in Vermont under one school district or all three!"

Committee Vice-Chair Kathy Lavoie of Swanton was equally open to the idea. "I think that the teachers' union has the negotiating advantage," said LaVoie. "The battle may be at the local level, but the war is being fought at the state level through the NEA. A statewide contract could bring balance to the power of negotiation."

Lavoie said she's undecided about backing an STC, but not afraid of having the discussion at the Statehouse come winter.

Oh, boy! An issue other than health-care reform! But it won't be completely different, since health-care benefits for teachers are at the heart of current contract battles.

"It's ironic that the Republicans are pushing this," former House Speaker Ralph Wright told us this week from his Florida "retirement" hacienda. "Of course, they think they're gonna kill the union if they can get a hold of the statewide contract. I always thought quite the opposite, that the union is stronger," said King Ralph. "What more effective impact could you have on an injustice at Colchester than to have 8000 teachers go out in protest?"

Indeed, assuming a prohibition on teacher strikes was not inserted in the bill.

The former Bennington High School teacher and House Speaker (1985-1995) said, "It's insane for 263 school districts to be negotiating every Tuesday night over frigging dental plans when they really should be talking about excellence in education."

In his new book, Inside the Statehouse, published recently by CQ Press, Speaker Wright reminisces on the political lessons he learned during his decade as king of one of Montpeculiar's tallest hills. And it's a great read, we must point out.

And get this: King Ralph gives credit for the statewide teachers' contract proposal of the 1993-1994 session to King Richard, i.e., the late, great Republican Gov. Richard Snelling of Shelburne, who died in 1991 from a sudden heart attack.

"Dick Snelling had a lot of guts," Ralphie told yours truly. "Dick Snelling was a visionary. He saw the future. It was Snelling who brought up a statewide teachers' contract," said Wright, as something that would fit perfectly with the bold statewide property-tax idea they also shared. What a pair!

Those who weren't paying attention to Montpeculiar back in the early 1990s may not be aware that one of the biggest political shocks of that era occurred in 1991, when newly re-elected Republican Gov. Snelling and Democratic Speaker Wright miraculously cut a deal to retire the record state deficit left over from the Kunin administration.

"Remember, we had pulled off the deficit package," Ralph reminded us, "and we had a great mutual respect that had grown between the two of us. I trusted him implicitly, unlike any other governor I worked with."

Snelling died that August and wasn't around to help Speaker Wright pass his statewide teachers' contract bill in the 1993-94 session. It died in conference committee. Gov. Howard Dean endorsed the bill, but when push came to shove, said Ralph, Ho-Ho lacked the cojones that Snelling was famous for.

"What I needed was not a Democratic governor who got nervous halfway through the battle," said Wright. "I needed a Republican governor who could jerk [GOP Sens. Bill Doyle, John Carroll and John Bloomer, the senate conferees] into his office and say, 'Look, fellas, this is gonna get done. You at least send the bill back to the senate floor!'

"Of course, I didn't have a governor who would do that," lamented Ralph. "It was politics over policy once again."

A decade later, Vermont has a statewide property tax in place to fund public education. It was established by Act 60 in 1997 and has been refined since. The statewide teachers' contract idea, however, was not part of it. It remains just an idea.

Vermont NEA Director Angelo Dorta was on the winning side in 1994. And Angelo remains confident that the current proposal will be DOA.

"I think this is an issue that has no legs whatsoever," said Dorta. "There's no clear articulation of what problem it is people want to fix."

Dorta said teachers would love to negotiate issues such as class size and curriculum with school boards, but the reality is, school boards are not interested in discussing anything but wages and benefits with them.

Already, he said, Vermont has moved to statewide education funding with a statewide property tax and statewide testing, too. The real need, Dorta said, is for more local citizen participation, rather than turning the keys over to Montpelier.

A statewide teachers' contract, said Dorta, "is a convenient shibboleth that people turn to, but when you peel it back, most people don't have a clue as to the complexity involved." H.138, he said, "isn't going to go anywhere and probably shouldn't."

Stay tuned.

Tarrant Foul? -- Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Rich Tarrant appears to be getting off to a shaky start. His goal: to turn the talents that made him an all-American ball player and head of a $1.2 billion company into candidate credentials that will impress Vermont voters.

This week, Richie's misstep involves his beloved IDX and its current president, Jim Crook (yes, that's the correct spelling). Specifically, it's about how this particular Crook broke company rules to help the Tarrant for Senate Campaign.

Several IDX employees contacted "Inside Track," irate and embarrassed by an "Internal Memorandum" that Crook emailed to the workforce last week:

To: Burlington Employees

Re: Tarrant for Senate Headquarters Grand Opening

Rich Tarrant, IDX cofounder and Chairman of the Board, has officially announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. On Wednesday, October 26, there will be an open house to celebrate the Grand Opening of the "Tarrant for Senate" headquarters. Rich asked that I extend, on his behalf, a special invitation to IDX employees and their families."

Crook informed IDX workers it would take place at 480 Hercules Drive, Colchester, from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

Hey, what's wrong with helping a pal, eh?

Well, in the Crook case, there are two concerns. One is that Crook's email may have to be reported to the FEC as an in-kind campaign contribution. How many candidates, after all, get the exclusive right to hustle the entire IDX workforce?

Secondly, Crook's email promoting Tarrant's senate campaign appears to be a blatant violation of IDX's own published internal rules, which state:

"The following uses of e-mail are strictly forbidden:

Solicitation. Do not use Company e-mail to promote personal or individual religious, nonprofit or political causes . . .

Failure to comply with the standards outlined in this Policy may result in disciplinary action including but not limited to reprimands, warnings, probation or suspension without pay, demotions or discharge."

Surely it was an innocent foul? No harm done. Surely there's a simple, excusable explanation?

Unfortunately, neither Mr. Crook nor the Tarrant Campaign responded to our requests for comment.

Progs Plowed Under? -- What does it tell you about the People's Republic of Burlington when the city council won't even take a look at a rent-control proposal?

This week, on a 9-5 vote, Burlington's finest shot down just such an initiative by Old North End Proggies Phil Fiermonte and Tim Ashe (Ward 3). Fiermonte works for Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders, the man who snatched the mayor's office a quarter-century ago in a 10-vote squeaker. No Prog has ever looked back . . . until now.

Mayor Peter Clavelle, a Progressive who turned into a Democrat for his lackluster gubernatorial bid in 2004, may well break the Sanderista chain when he steps down next spring. Indeed, even the Vermont third party that Ol' Bernardo's revolution spawned appears to be quietly fading into history.

On Friday night, Bernie joined Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts in pumping up the crowd at the Democratic fundraiser on the Waterfront. And Sanders made it clear he's supporting Democratic State Sen. Peter Welch to be his replacement in Washington, even though Prog State Rep. David Zuckerman is considering a run.

According to Democrat sources, Ponytail Dave crashed their fundraiser, i.e., attended without purchasing a ticket. Zuckerman did not respond to our email request for his side of the story.

As for Big Bad Burlap, Ashe the Prog says it was the first resolution he's lost since joining the council a year ago. He rattled off a list of his winners, including lead testing and performance standards for department heads.

"Sometimes," says Ashe, at 28 the youngest councilor, "I think the council is like 14 people on stationary bikes spinning their wheels. Looks like it's doing something, but no progress is being made. To exert leadership, sometimes you have to step off the stationary bike and stand in front of the dart board. It's not always pretty, but life is too short to live in fear of receiving a couple critical phone calls."

His resolution may have failed, adds the Ashe Man, "but in the last two weeks the council has discussed the plight of renters 1000 percent more than in my previous year on the Council."

Media Notes -- Who was that new reporter on WGOP, sorry, WCAX-TV last week? The dude doing the very snappy, polished report on the installation of Burlington Telecom's new fiber-optic cable.

His name is Alex Martin, and "Inside Track" has learned Alex is a lot more than a new face on the local evening news. You see, Mr. Martin is on a career track that one day could put him in WCAX-TV's general manager's seat!

That's because Alex is the grandson of Stuart "Red" Martin, Ch. 3's legendary cofounder and longtime conservative patriarch. Red passed away last April at 91. He only stopped going to the office three weeks before sign-off.

Red's son, Peter Martin, has been the station's general manager for many years. But Peter's odometer is getting up there, too, and, we're told, he's contemplating not having to come to work every day.

Peter's son Alex told "Inside Track" that after Grandpa Red's death, the Martin clan got together to decide if they wanted to keep Vermont's landmark CBS-TV affiliate in the family. As you may know, in this era of chain-ownership, WCAX is the last of a dying breed. A genuine pearl amidst swine.

Alex the Young, age 33, told us that out of the pack of available Martin siblings and cousins, he appeared the "best qualified" to carry on what is a family and Vermont tradition.

He's starting out by learning the news side firsthand because, he said, that's the biggest chunk. Then it'll be on to sales and the rest before reaching a point where Poppa Pete can vacation more.

Alex has an IT background and worked six years at IDX, as well as other high-tech employers. His specialty, he said, was installing electronic medical software.

Now he's into something a little different. And there's evidence the grandson just might succeed. Alex's news report on Burlington Telecom last week was crisp, clear and informative. He came across like a seasoned TV news man with years before the camera. Yours truly had no idea until speaking with him that it was the young Mr. Martin's first-ever on-air TV news report.

Must be in the genes, eh?

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