1 – Broncos president embezzles thousands

By far, this year’s top story was the Milton Independent’s investigation into the shady management of the Milton Broncos youth football program. It all started when a parent called us with the proverbial “something’s rotten in Denmark” concern. The Indy has a reputation for finding the truth: Could we help?

We did our best, launching a monthslong investigation into the program and its leadership, Matt King, the president, treasurer and one of several coaches. Parents—some of them wishing to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation against their children—told us the team put on a seemingly successful jamboree fundraiser every year, but they never saw where the profits went. It certainly wasn’t toward new equipment, they said, since their kids’ helmets and uniforms had seen better days.

A little digging turned up an interesting tidbit: The Broncos had lost their nonprofit status, a designation that earned them discounts on purchases and a general reputation that the organization was doing some good for the community. But parents indicated something had been amiss for the last three years, ever since King took over.

Confronted with parent suspicions in January, King was initially cooperative, offering to share bank statements that he claimed would show buttoned-up finances. But the pages he provided were incomplete, with thousands of dollars in transactions unaccounted for.

We gave King ample time to respond, but he eventually called our requests a distraction from the Broncos’ next move: to convince the school district to take over management of some of their teams. In discussions with the school board, King promised a $4,000 donation for start up costs to replace worn jerseys and helmets. At a parent meeting in June, King said the program had $7,800 in the bank, but the most recent statement he provided showed only $1,000 in the coffers. We asked him directly: Where did all that money come from in the off-season?

Turns out, it was from King’s own bank account. He deposited the funds in an effort to pay back the thousands he embezzled from the youth program, using the money to buy a new pellet stove and dinners downtown and even a dentist bill. After reading our coverage, Milton police opened an investigation and cited King for felony embezzlement. Just last week, he pleaded guilty to the charge, getting a year of probation as punishment.

The news was big for our little paper, and our colleagues in the Vermont press corps gave us major kudos. We were written up in Seven Days, the Burlington Free Press and VTDigger and even did an interview on Vermont Public Radio. Investigative journalism is challenging and time consuming but also rewarding when you can see the impact it makes.

If you have a tip, drop us a line.

Original Stories: https://www.miltonindependent.com/bucking-the-broncos/https://www.miltonindependent.com/king-accused-of-embezzling-over-10k/https://www.miltonindependent.com/king-gets-probation-in-broncos-case/

2 – Turner runs for lt. gov; House race gets recount

This was also an election year, and the midterms in Milton proved exciting.

In May, town manager Don Turner announced his campaign for Vermont’s lieutenant governor in an exclusive to the Milton Indy. Turner previously said he’d never seek statewide office, but realizing his Republican party could lose its ability to sustain a governor veto motivated him to join the race.

Turner campaigned on a platform of affordability, telling Indy parent paper the St. Albans Messenger in October that too many Vermonters say it’s too expensive to live here. But he knew it would be a challenge to unseat Progressive/Democrat incumbent David Zuckerman, a one-term lieutenant governor running for re-election.

On election night, Turner amassed a slew of supporters and tagged along with Gov. Phil Scott’s 14-county tour that began at 3 a.m. in Milton and ended 14 hours later at a rally back in Turner’s hometown. In the end, though Turner may have raised more funds than Zuckerman, he lost to the incumbent with only 40 percent of votes.

Turner resolutely returned to work the next morning and has spent the last few months crafting the fiscal year 2020 budget with the town selectboard.

Election Night wasn’t the end of the road for candidates in the Grand Isle Chittenden House race, however. When incumbent Democrat Ben Joseph of North Hero saw Milton Republicans Leland and Michael Morgan defeated him by such a small margin, he called for a recount.

The Dec. 5 re-tally confirmed the general election’s results, give or take a few votes, returning House Speaker Mitzi Johnson to Montpelier and sending a Milton Republican—Leland Morgan—to represent the district for the first time in more than a decade.

Original stories: https://www.miltonindependent.com/turner-concedes-lt-gov-race/https://www.miltonindependent.com/election-results-how-milton-voted/https://www.miltonindependent.com/recount-confirms-house-race/

3 – Dams devalued

Taxpayers may have gotten a little sticker shock this August when tax bills arrived in the mail. The projected halfpenny increase in the municipal tax rate climbed to 1.5 pennies, thanks to an $8.5 million loss in valuation for the town’s three hydroelectric dams.

The town had to increase its tax rate to make up for the lost revenue. So a homeowner with a $250,000-assessed home got a $35 increase on their bill when it was projected to be $13.

Selectboard members blamed Green Mountain Power for curtailing the dam’s production in favor of other renewable sources. But the Independent found that didn’t happen. Instead, the town’s own assessor, Ed Clodfelter, devalued the dams based on the 10-year average of power prices reported in New England.

GMP explained this 10-year average dropped significantly since 2008, the start of the recession. Now that 2007 isn’t included in the calculation, the decade average dropped, and so did the dams’ value.

Town manager Don Turner was frustrated with the outcome and said the town should work with GMP to create a more predictable rate. This month, Turner told the Indy he’s been communicating regularly with Clodfelter about the issue. Clodfelter will present an update to the selectboard in January.

Original Story: https://www.miltonindependent.com/town-devalued-dams-drive-higher-tax-rate/

4 – Fallout from Parkland massacre

On Valentine’s Day, a young man entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. and killed 17 people with gunfire.

Five days later, Milton parent Jason Smiley posted on Facebook about purchasing a bulletproof backpack for his 10-year-old daughter. Seeing this, we wondered how a shooting 1,500 miles away could impact students in Milton, Essex and Colchester. And parents, students and teachers told us a lot.

Four Milton Indy reporters canvassed our coverage area and learned about the fallout from the Parkland shooting. Days after, a Milton 10-year-old started having nightmares that hadn’t ceased. A sophomore at Colchester High School made an emergency evacuation plan in her free time. A school board member in Essex mulled over the notion of an anonymous tip box—all this despite the statistical probability that none of these area schools would play host to a massacre.

In Milton, students hosted a walkout assembly in the auditorium in conjunction with protests nationwide. The images of the 17 people killed in Parkland appeared on the projector. After each one, student presenter Molly Gary vowed, “We will remember,” and the audience answered in chorus. A few weeks before, at a gun control forum in Milton, students begged lawmakers to enact stricter gun laws. They asked pointed questions: Is the right to own an assault rifle more valued than their own lives?

Milton students, like hundreds of others in Vermont, have practiced lockdown drills for years and years. In the last few years, Milton School District has adopted the ALICE model, or Alert Lockdown Inform Counter and Evacuate. Immediately following Parkland, Milton police hosted a community forum where parents asked how these drills prepare students for mass shootings. One student, a sophomore at Milton High School, told us as she takes in her lessons, she also considers how to escape should a shooter come into her classroom. The drills have also changed teachers’ roles.

“They don’t get into education with the thought of having to protect students from an armed intruder,” then-Milton student resource officer Scott Philbrook said. “That’s not what they signed up to do.”

It’s been almost a year since the Parkland event, but it will take longer still to answer some of the questions we explored in this story. Should parents talk openly about the threats of school shootings, or will that only harden their innocent children to the world? Will the memory of the horrors in Parkland—and Columbine and Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook before it—fade from our consciousness, or should it?

Has it already?

Original Story: https://www.miltonindependent.com/schools-wrestle-with-safety-anxiety-after-parkland/

5 – Judge tosses Preavy suit

This year was a disappointing one for Tracy Stopford, the parent of late hazing victim Jordan Preavy. Her family sued Milton Town School District for negligence in 2015, claiming administrators knew of misbehavior on the high school football team and did nothing to prevent her son’s assault.

In 2011, Jordan was sodomized with a broomstick outside the team blockhouse after school. Police began investigating in 2013 after a student overheard someone taunting another victim on the school bus. That year, police charged five former players with various crimes, and Jordan’s assailants took plea deals in court. Jordan’s family sued the school, seeking further accountability for what they called a culture of hazing and harassment in Milton. A Superior Court judge tossed the case in 2017, saying the family didn’t provide enough evidence, and in early 2018, they appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court.

“The responsible adults fell asleep at the switch, causing tragic, catastrophic results,” the family’s attorney, Robert Appel, told the court in April. “We believe that the trial court erred in not giving benefit of the doubt to our claims.”

MTSD attorney Pietro Lynn Lynn argued there’s no proof school administrators knew of the hazing and did nothing. Rather, the victims didn’t report it, he told justices.

After months of waiting, the family received news in November that the state’s highest court sided with the trial court. The 3-2 decision in the school district’s favor effectively ended the biggest story arc in the hazing saga. Stopford, Jordan’s mother, submitted a page-long statement to the Independent the day after the ruling.

“My family will never stop loving and remembering our son every moment of every day,” she wrote. “Not only will we remember the joy of his life, we will remember the wrong brought against him and other victims of school hazing by a very jaundiced legal system.”

Meanwhile, another hazing-related lawsuit filed against MTSD is pending in trial court.

Original Stories: https://www.miltonindependent.com/preavys-take-case-vt-supreme-court/https://www.miltonindependent.com/supreme-court-sides-with-lower-court-in-preavy-case/

6 – Water fix sought in Flanders development

This year saw the Milton town government committing to fix a long running water issue in a residential neighborhood.

Dwellers in the so-called Flanders development—178 homes in the neighborhood off Hobbs Road—have dealt with low water pressure for years. They learned that the infrastructure consists of substandard pipes that can’t manage the typical 60 pounds per square inch of water pressure that other Milton homes enjoy.

“You get used to what you have,” Pinewood Ln. resident Kathy Whiting told us.

This year, public works director David Allerton formed a working group with the neighbors, and the parties have met several times to begin addressing the issue that once got so bad, one woman couldn’t even rinse shampoo out of her hair.

The town estimates it could cost $5 million to fix the water system there; bonded over 20 years with 3 percent interest, the 2,200 water users townwide would pay $336,000 a year, or about $153 extra a year. Allerton suggested that if the roads are dug up, residents should consider installing town sewer lines for another $5 million.

Both items could come to a townwide vote, but the town has taken smaller steps in the meantime. The selectboard this week authorized Allerton to submit loan applications to the state’s drinking water and clean water revolving loan funds. The board also OK’d spending $45,100 for an engineering report on the project. Allerton will meet with engineers early next month to get things going.

Original Story: https://www.miltonindependent.com/flanders-development-seeks-water-system-fix/

7 – Superintendent switch

Turnover is a common storyline in Milton, and 2018 was no exception. This year, Milton Town School District said goodbye to superintendent Ann Bradshaw, who ended her 2.5-year tenure in June by going on medical leave.

Bradshaw was brought on in 2015 after the Milton School Board put then-superintendent John Barone on administrative leave while it investigated his and other school leaders’ adherence to hazing policies during the football team scandal.

Bradshaw created her share of controversy. Residents called for her resignation more than once, particularly after the Independent discovered the school board hired Bradshaw while she was embroiled in a lawsuit for mishandling a rape investigation and after parents said she bungled the hiring of an athletic director. Following the latter, Bradshaw found herself at the center of a campaign demanding more competency surrounding race issues. That work continues today under the guidance of Bradshaw’s replacement, Amy Rex.

Rex came to Milton after making a name for herself at Harwood Union High School: Her work there earned Rex and her co-principal the title of Vermont Principal of the Year for 2017. Rex started in July and said her long-term goals include building stability in MTSD’s leadership. Since coming on board, Rex has spent time reviewing board policies and the results of a space study that call for potential additions to the school buildings.

Original Stories: https://www.miltonindependent.com/board-discusses-superintendent-search/https://www.miltonindependent.com/board-names-superintendent-finalist/https://www.miltonindependent.com/new-superintendent-shares-vision-for-district/

8 – Demand increases for transport program

This year, the Milton Indy looked at the Milton Family Community Center’s struggle to keep a much-needed transportation program afloat.

Demand has increased for the elderly and disabled program, which transports eligible riders up to twice a week to medical appointments, meal sites, senior centers and more, three days a week. These restrictions, coupled with growing ridership and a recent rate hike, make for an unsustainable program.

MFCC has made up the difference with its own funds to its own programs’ detriment. MFCC executive director Vikki Patterson sought the selectboard’s assurance that the town budget would cover any overages, but the proposal was never officially voted.

The problem becomes an issue of resources: MFCC doesn’t have enough funds to hire drivers, nor does it have adequate staffing to allocate to the program. Neither does the town.

“And the costs are not looking to go down anytime soon,” Patterson said.

Town manager Don Turner agreed: “These are essential services that our residents need and have come to expect,” he said. “We have to do a good job of making sure we can provide them in the future.”

Turner planned to discuss the matter with the selectboard during budget talks. More on this in the new year.

Original Story: https://www.miltonindependent.com/town-struggles-to-fund-bus-rides-for-elderly-disabled/

9 – State boards examine medical licensing

The Indy detailed plans among two state licensing boards to require doctors and nurses to undergo criminal background checks before they can practice medicine here in a move to strengthen a system that some say allows unfit candidates to skirt detection.

Our investigation found that the Vermont Board of Nursing and the Board of Medical Practice now rely on discipline-tracking databases and self-disclosure. Lying on these applications amounts to felony perjury, which carries a punishment of up to 15 years in prison. But discipline records show some take their chances.

A New Hampshire woman received her license from the Vt. Board of Nursing in February 2015, eight years after she was convicted of a felony for forging prescriptions and diverting more than 800 Percocet tablets – a crime she omitted on her application.

Her N.H. license was later suspended after she again allegedly falsified records and diverted pain medication meant for nursing home patients. In its emergency order, the N.H. nursing board said the woman was searching for a job in Vermont.

Doctors aren’t always honest on their applications either. Records show one man lied about being under investigation two weeks after federal agents searched his home. He later pleaded guilty to a federal drug charge.

The Senate Government Operations Committee expects to look at this issue and others around medical licensing in the upcoming biennium. 

Original Story: https://www.miltonindependent.com/first-do-no-harm/

10 – Dispatch plan OK’d

On Town Meeting Day this year, Milton was one of seven towns to approve a measure to join a regionalized emergency dispatching service, an effort decades in the making.

Milton 911 calls are currently dispatched out of Colchester, but the county-based dispatch service would be based in South Burlington. Officials said the plan would provide a career ladder in dispatching, a field which carries high turnover, and could save up to 71 seconds in response time, vital in case of an emergency.

While many chiefs from county emergency departments supported consolidation, multiple police and dispatch unions blasted out opposing press releases days before the vote. Critics said regional dispatchers won’t have the necessary small-town knowledge to direct responders.

Since the vote, the town has continued to participate in meetings to form the regional dispatch authority, town manager Don Turner said. In the meantime, the town is considering ending its long-term arrangement with Colchester to save “a significant amount of money with faster service” by switching to another town, Turner said. He expects an agreement to be finalized next month.

Original Stories: https://www.miltonindependent.com/residents-vote-dispatch-consolidation/; https://www.miltonindependent.com/milton-approves-regionalized-dispatch/