It's impossible to address the challenges facing Vermonters without looking at our continuing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In many ways, this provides us with a critical chance to re-examine how our systems function and help make them better. I believe that our technical education fundamentally flawed and there is very little incentive for school districts to encourage students into technical education. Money in our state follows the student when it comes to TechEd, so for many districts losing a student to another's technical program means losing the tax revenue associated with that student as well. This causes school districts to not advertise TechEd in a way that benefits our state. Technical Education has the capacity to be an incredible tool for transformation for our entire state, especially during the time of COVID-19. The depth of programs offered through them fulfill critical jobs in the healthcare sector at a time when we struggle for employees in these fields. Outdoor work programs that can continue with minimal virus risks also in large part, get offered by our existing technical centers. Students graduating from high school technical programs have a greater tendency to remain in-state and current programs even allow them to take college credits to minimize the often crushing student loan debt associated with higher education. All of these benefits though don't matter at all if the opportunity and more importantly the active encouragement to attend our tech centers is unavailable. We should make it a priority to present technical education and traditional high school as equally valid choices and also adjust the system so that districts aren't afraid of the revenue loss that comes with sending their learners to a technical program.
One of the largest, most glaring gaps in our state right now is the lack of high capacity broadband to all homes. Various initiatives presented in the past have met with varying levels of build-out but there has been a general lack of success addressing the communities with no access at all, as well as the pockets within currently served towns and cities that don't have the level of infrastructure to provide 100% coverage. During this pandemic it has been our society's inter-connectivity that has managed to give us even a semblance of normalcy in so much of our lives, proving to be the difference between working from home or simply being furloughed without a paycheck. It is the difference between having our children attend school and have face to face interaction with classmates and teachers or not. Ordering essentials to be delivered is at an all-time high. None of these things are possible without reliable broadband and yet so many in our communities lack access to it. While Vermont might not be able to regulate broadband access as a public utility, we must do better when it comes to expanding out this vital infrastructure and this is my background. I have worked for nearly 20 years in the telecommunications repair industry, specifically focused on Vermont for most of that time. I can look at proposals with a professional eye and be realistic about what Vermont needs to do to provide all of its residents with the connectivity they deserve.
The challenges we face surrounding racial justice cannot be ignored. Our country has reached a critical mass of people who have seen people of color being unjustly killed by police and recognizing that these are not isolated cases but one small part of the systemic racism present in every community. Essex has absolutely not been immune. As a member of the school board that several years ago authorized and encouraged our students to fly the Black Lives Matter flag to bring attention to racial justice issues, it was infuriating to hear that just days later it had been stolen from the flagpole. Equity groups and programs within our school system have been present but I also feel have not had nearly the impact that they've needed to combat the presence of institutional racism that takes prolonged effort and, frankly, uncomfortably on those with the power to enact change. I have had to ask myself over the last few weeks what changes I can advocate for as a Selectboard member and first amongst them would be the installation of a citizen oversight committee for the Town of Essex's police forces. We should also open up the hiring of the position of Police Chief to take community input rather than being under the sole discretion of the Town Manager. Local changes like these can be applied to the state level, and having someone that has personal experience in both will be critical in the struggle for equality ahead.
The Coronavirus and our response to it will dominate discussions for years to come. Well after a vaccine is created and distributed we may still be seeing economic fallout. With great challenges also come great opportunities to examine our systems from the ground up. From my approach to tech education to the technology available to every Vermonter to racial equity our state and country have the chance to make lasting change. From a local level I know that we will have families that will be unable to make their tax payments in September and I was proud to reduce penalties and enact a grace period to help defray some of the costs for those that have been hammered financially. There are companies that will not make it through this pandemic without the help of municipal leaders willing to go the extra mile and in Montpelier I can work to make sure recovery dollars and tax incentives are placed with the small businesses that are hurting the most. I will work additionally, not for a return to the economy we had before the virus, but one with a higher minimum wage and better safety nets for workers. An economy that represents a state that we as Vermonters want to live in.
Universal K-12 School Lunches
Free and reduced lunches are used as an indicator of economic status in our school systems but they are also an outdated concept. There shouldn't be a barrier or an identifier of any sort when it comes to the distribution of meals in our schools. I have personally proposed this at a district level in Essex-Westford and while we make specific efforts to ensure that no child goes hungry in our community there are always instances where students fall through the cracks. Some parents never fill out the needed paperwork. Others may choose not to, seeing it as a matter of pride. It would be a substantial relief for those parents that may be choosing between providing lunch for their own kids and themselves. A child that goes to school hungry simply cannot learn on the same footing as one that has full food security and in Vermont the entire concept of school lunch debt should be eliminated.