Monday, February 24, 1997

Opinion: Help the Environmental Center

Published in the Mountainview

Residents of the town of Middlebury have a unique opportunity. The Environmental Council has invited all who are interested to participate in the planning process for a new Environmental Center to be sited west of campus, in the fields south of the Harris Farm.

College faculty and staff are also invited, as are any residents of the county who are interested in the planning process and in this project.

College Environmental Coordinator Jen Hazen has said that anyone, no matter how mild their interest, should attend the brainstorming meeting on March 1 from 4 to 9 pm, in Weybridge House. Dinner will be served.
The basic concept for the new center is a multidisciplinary focus on living and learning. It will be guided by a College-wide determination to teach citizenship, as well as environmental studies. The Center as currently imagined, according to Hazen, will house residences, dining area, seminar and lecture space, and adjoin gardens and cultivated fields west of campus. A collaborative effort of students, staff, faculty, administrators, and area residents will be needed to ensure the success of the Center.

A place which will welcome all comers is badly needed on campus; local residents, faculty, staff, students, and administrators will, Hazen hopes, come together in the space all will help design, to learn about the environment and interrelationships in the world outside of Middlebury.

This is a rare opportunity for residents to have input before a decision is needed from a town governing body. It is something which all residents should both appreciate and take part in. The College rarely opens its house to the world; for it to do so now is a tacit admission of its need for assistance and guidance in this challenging time in the College's history.

Hazen welcomes letters, telephone calls, or other methods of communication and input as well. Participation in this dialogue, on the part of all residents, faculty, and staff, is voluntary but is governed by the moral imperative of involvement in one's own community. This is a chance like none before; if the opening is not productive, it is even less likely to happen again.

Now is an excellent time to act. This community speaks with many voices when it comes to the future of the College, and its relationship with the town and residents. Now is a time when the College is opening itself to positive input and constructive criticism about the process of planning this Environmental Center. It will be, more than any other part of the College (save perhaps the Arts Center), a resource for the public as well as for the College. We residents must participate in this process to ensure we get something we can use.

The College wants to give us something for free. All we need to do is offer our input at this stage, and through the planning process for this Center. What we get, at the end, is a facility which will be as much ours as the effort we put into it, as much ours as it is the College's. If, however, we neglect to participate, not only will we lose a golden (and once-in-a-lifetime) opportunity, we will be left on the outside of this new Environmental Center, wondering what could have been.

Monday, February 17, 1997

Concert Review: Connie Kaldor

Published in the Mountainview

The Knights of Columbus Hall on Merchants' Row in Middlebury filled on Saturday evening, February 8. People came from all over Addison County to hear Canadian folk-singer Connie Kaldor play as part of the After Dark Music Series. Kaldor, from Regina, Saskatchewan, is an accomplished musician who has won, among other awards, the Juno Award, which is Canada's equivalent of the U.S. Grammy Award.

Kaldor and her bassist, Bill Gossage of Montreal, were a bit stiff during the opening few numbers, but loosened up before too long. A fast stress-filled narrative about all sorts of things needing doing in this life led into a song called "Relax," advice Kaldor could have taken at the outset. Her ad-libs and song introductions seemed rehearsed and at times forced, until just before intermission.

She played keyboard, guitar, and sang a capella at different times, and Gossage provided backup vocals. As the two became more comfortable on the small stage in the silent room, Kaldor's "dry crop-failure" sense of humor opened up. Explaining that the broad, open Canadian prairie is very different from Vermont's rolling hills and forests, she contradicted herself and suggested that Vermonters might appreciate the advice prairie-dwellers give each other: "The three main routes out of Saskatchewan are marriage, crop failure, and the arts."

Despite Kaldor's escape, she returns often and draws her inspiration from the people and the places of the Saskatchewan landscape. She sang an old Canadian favorite, "Saskatoon Moon," but had to teach it to the Vermonter audience first, leading to come confusion on the part of the audience. The audience did well, though, and Kaldor seemed pleased.

Her lyrics were indicative of the difficult landscape in which she was raised: "Mother's Prayer" was a touching song about how mothers view the world and their hopes for their children's future and safety. "For the First Time, I Don't Care" was a paradoxically-named love song drawn from a musical Kaldor wrote last summer.

Her musical range was impressive; not just the notes which she could reach - very high and very low - but moving from ballads to hymns, from blues and soul to country style songs. Gossage kept up ably, and played fiddle as well as appropriate. Kaldor's musical experience is broad: she taught songwriting at an arts school in northern Saskatchewan, as well as writing musicals, operas, songs, and performing on multiple instruments.

Her songs come from the heart and from the desperation of the lonely and the hardworking poor. "Coyote's Call" expressed a feeling many Vermonters have: "at least there's a roof overhead and the kids got a yard" to play in. She mixed a "cheap, trashy, and tasteless" song together with a wrenching song about a recently-deceased lifelong friend. The eclectic mix worked for her as it would for few others; she showcased her talent and held the mood and attention of the audience throughout the evening. Her long stories leading into songs gave a sense of perspective and an insight into Kaldor as an artist and a songwriter; the audience was able to understand some of what life is like on the prairie.

The universality of her songs is no doubt what has won her such acclaim in Canada; it guaranteed her success in Middlebury as well. The prairie and its inhabitants have as strong a sense of place, community and tradition as Vermonters do; the trials of human existence come through in her songs with a clarity and simplicity rare in even folk music today.

The After Dark Music Series brings prominent folk-influenced musicians to Middlebury each month during the winter. It is sponsored by many local businesses, including Otter Creek Brewing, the Middlebury Inn, and Main Street Stationery. The next performance will be by Lucy Kaplansky and Greg Greenway on Saturday, March 8, at 8 pm at the Knights of Columbus Hall. Doors open at 7 pm. Tickets ($13 in advance, $15 at the door) are expected to sell out, but are currently available at the Middlebury Inn or Main Street Stationery. Kaplansky and Greenway are sharing the show; they are not a duo, but will perform separately throughout the evening. Both are excellent musicians with national reputations; it, too, should be an excellent show!

Opinion: Supreme Court rocks the schools

Published in the Mountainview

Last week the Vermont Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision striking down the property-tax-based method of funding public education in Vermont. Deemed unfair to poor towns, the Court said that the current system is based too much on the financial base in the community, rather than on the actual cost of giving each Vermont child a solid education.

The case, brought by the ACLU on behalf of a Whiting third-grader, has already had strong effects in Montpelier. The Statehouse was abuzz with discussion as the Vermont Assembly begins its second month of legislative session. Already on the slate for this session was property tax reform. The Court's decision has forced the issue, and has forced the reform to be even more sweeping than anyone was previously talking about.

The basic structure of a new school financing structure for the state is likely to be a single pool for statewide funding, with a dollar amount earmarked for each student. This will improve the funding levels for schools in poor communities; what remains to be seen is the impact on funding for schools in middle and upper-class towns. There has been some talk of prohibiting wealthier towns from spending more money on their schools, but that initiative is likely to fail. Local control of schools has become a national concern; preventing parents from materially influencing their children's education is a dangerous and potentially litigation-causing issue.

The major questions now are how this statewide pool will be funded and administered. Property tax is a deeply controversial issue in Vermont, where farms and condominiums are closely juxtaposed on similar plots of land. Some suggestions for an increased income tax to fund schools have also surfaced.

That suggestion is based on the idea that a family's tax burden should be proportional to their ability to pay it, rather than taxing a poor farmer on large tracts of land which yield little income. Income taxes would also place more directly the burden of school support on renters, who now currently cover their landlords' tax payments with their rent bills. This is a concern; should property taxes drop, will rents decrease statewide? It is not likely, though renters' other tax bills will increase.

Another potential method of funding schools is additional sales tax. This would leverage tourist dollars to directly benefit Vermont's children and future, in additional to being based on the ability of the taxpayer to pay; most essential items are not subject to sales tax,

We are likely to see this reform process move forward this legislative session, but there is no guarantee of a solution anytime soon. Other states have had similar court decisions come down in recent years; notably, New Jersey's Supreme Court ruled very similarly to the Vermont decision. That was eight years ago, and nothing substantial has changed about the way New Jersey funds education; solutions are bogged down in legislative subcommittees.

Vermont's Supreme Court justices have the option, should a solution be too long in coming or be constitutionally flawed in other ways, to take over the educational-funding system themselves and design a new, constitutionally-acceptable solution. This is not likely to happen soon, or at all, but it is a thinly veiled threat to Governor Dean and the state legislature. Vermont's leaders need to design a plan which is constitutionally acceptable, which funds education equally across Vermont, which does not severely curtail the influence parents or their financial resources can have on their children's education, and which is affordable for all Vermonters.

The Supreme Court has not said much to guide them, except that the current system is unacceptable. Vermont's constitution states that all Vermonters have a right to equal access to public education. The Court has said this translates easily into dollar figures per student. Schools doing more with less are likely to see increased funding, while schools doing less with more will be forced to be more efficient. We can only hope that schools which are spending large amounts of money per student, and which are seeing material results, will be permitted to pursue their excellence without fear of financial cuts.

Alumni profile: Matthews hits the big time with big pies

Published in the Mountainview

Welcoming customers to Neil & Otto's Pizza Cellar on Merchants’ Row in Middlebury, Neil Matthews and Otto Hektor offer a hearty greeting and an invitation to sit at a table with a Parcheesi board under the plastic table covering.

The two are a dynamic pair, as inseparable in an interview as in friendship and business. Co-owners of the Pizza Cellar since June 1996, they have kept their business alive past the forbidding six-month mark which nearly two-thirds or restaurants never attain. Matthews and Hektor, friends since eighth grade, have worked in restaurants — primarily pizza joints — since that time, Heirs to the legendary Chicago tradition of pizza making, they are in business for themselves, making pizza in Middlebury.

Matthews, who worked at the Pizza Cellar throughout his undergraduate career at Middlebury, called Hektor in Wisconsin in October 1995 to say that the restaurant was for sale. After many meetings with loan officers, the Small Business Administration, and insurance agents, they were ready to sign.

Then they went straight to work. In mid-June 1996, they opened the former "Pizza Cellar" as "Neil & Otto's Pizza Cellar," in the basement of Grace Baptist Church on Merchants' Row.

In the seven months since, they have done "a lot of growing up." Acknowledging the cliché, Matthews points out that they are in the real world, in Middlebury. "Nobody gives us encouragement. We mostly hear complaints. It's a crazy game, but it's fun." Having proven Murphy's Law numerous times, and not yet having taken advantage of the excellent skiing conditions this winter, both clearly enjoy their work and their home in Salisbury.

That house, shared with a third housemate, provides refuge, if not sustenance. "The fridge probably has some butter in it," Rektor offers as illustration that they often eat at work, "We eat a kit of pizza, but I'm not sick of it yet,” claims Matthews. Spending so much time at their business is demanding, but both insist it is fun. They also agree that they wouldn't do it alone; having a friend and business partner along for the ride has been advantageous. "We do a lot together, and it's nearly always fun. Two minds are better than one," Matthews argues.

The future, as ever, is unpredictable. They are developing new pie styles, one of which has never before been seen in the Middlebury area. They havc just adapted their standard crust in response to customer feedback, and are not sure what they will bring back from the Pizza Expo in Las Vegas in March. That event, an industry convention, is sure to provide them with ideas and projects for the near term. In the long term, Matthews says, he will be in food service, but where exactly is unsure. He definitely enjoys living and working in Addison County.

It’s a neat way to meet people. According to Hektor, "you have to figure out what people are searching for.” In addition to their clientele, the two must supervise employees their own ages. Matthews admits this can be a challenge, but is willing to make sacrifices for his employees, even at his own expense. While most of his employees are from town, the restaurateurs are grateful for the support their College customers have given them.

It is hard, Matthews says, to be a College alumnus in this town, but he finds nearly everyone generous enough to give him a chance to prove himself. "Once you give something back to the community, people accept you," he says. He does depend on both the College and the town for business; "it's a hard balance to strike, but we're looking to create a space where people from the College can come and mix with people from the town, and get to know each other and get along."

Open long hours (11 am to midnight Monday through Thursday, 11 am to 2 am Friday, 4 pm to 2 am Saturday, and 4 pm to midnight Sunday), the restaurant is clearly doing well. "We do a lot of deliveries, and we're just beginning to really try to get people to come down to the restaurant to eat here." Matthews predicts it will be a challenge, but one the business can meet. They have worked very hard so far, even sleeping on sacks in the kitchen in the wee hours of the morning, but Matthews and Hektor say that the rewards are definitely worth the price.

"We are here to offer our knowledge of food, and our experience making good food. We care about what we do, we work hard, and we enjoy it. We like making pizza for people, and we like to hear what we could do better. Of course," Matthews notes, "if you like things, tell us that too!" 

Monday, February 3, 1997

Opinion: Administrative malaise

Published in the Mountainview

Two recent, seemingly separate actions by Middlebury College, one internal, and one public, have drawn attention to the changes planned for the future of the College. There is significant concern among students, alumni, staff, faculty, and local residents about these changes; these concerns are well-founded and deserve clear, direct responses from College administration officials.

The first, an internal event, is the termination of the Sig Ep social house. The circumstances surrounding this event are serious, and demonstrate tremendous culpability on the part of all involved, including potential negligence by College officials. Over the years, single-sex fraternities have been driven off-campus and underground; now it appears that co-ed social houses will face the same fate. Current students complain that the specter of the Commons system as the only source of social events is bleak. The major criticism of the Commons system, and indeed of recent changes in the social house system, is that small, specialized groups are forced into all-inclusiveness. This ruins a sense of common identity which first fraternities, and then social houses, felt within themselves and used to distinguish themselves from the other houses on campus.

I am not suggesting that we return to the days of discrimination, sexual harassment, and worse. I am, however, suggesting that the opposite of discrimination, all-inclusiveness, has clearly not solved the deeper social problems of sexual politics and intoxicated misconduct. The College's attempt at a "quick fix" has failed. Social houses, Commons, and academic interest houses will always have deeper societal problems until the College takes them on directly.

This in no way absolves students of responsibility or accountability; it does, however, place the College in its proper role: a model of behavior and community participation and improvement. At this time, the College has abdicated that role.

The second event, the College's master plan, recently conditionally approved by the town Planning Commission, further indicates College abandonment of responsibility. The first major blemish on the plan is the priority given to renovation of Starr Library: in the third tier, to begin within five years. For a College with almost an entire top administration made up of faculty members, this is a tragic flaw. The library is in drastic need of renovation immediately; the mold on the first floor in 1994-1995 was only the beginning of the end for a building which still lacks a proper ventilation/climate control system.

The administration has forgotten what, above all else, makes Middlebury attractive to students: academics. President McCardell has declared that this will be the "college of choice" in the twenty-first century. By deciding that the library will not be renovated until two years into that century, he has doomed that goal to ignominious failure. He has taken a decisive action to decrease the value of every Middlebury degree ever granted, including those to be conferred this weekend, and in May.

President McCardell and his administration are the employees of every student and every graduate. We employ them to keep the value of a Middlebury degree at its peak. He asks, "What does it mean to have gone to Middlebury?" The answer, all too soon, will be, "A very large tuition bill and a meaningless piece of parchment from an institution whose reputation is at its nadir."

Executive Vice President and College Treasurer David Ginevan has written of the College's fiduciary duty towards its land. He and his colleagues have neglected to consider its fiduciary duty towards its alumni and to its students.

Administrative neglect is rampant at Middlebury. It is a time when it is difficult for the trustees to make significant changes in the administration: we are halfway through a major $100 million capital campaign for the College's bicentennial. Yet the trustees must see that the damage being done to the College at present will be almost impossible to reverse. Action must be taken now, before our degree values plummet at the same time as tuition and enrollment skyrocket. Students must refuse to acknowledge an administration which is doing them nothing but disservice. Students must demand that change occur immediately. Alumni must support the students in their efforts, and contact their friends and colleagues to ensure the success of this initiative.