An unfortunate consequence
It’s our annual Town Meeting issue, one of our favorite issues of the year. Consolidation of state power has been creeping, sometimes leaping, into Vermont. But on Town Meeting Day Vermonters still have a say in some things, at least.
We can vote on how much money to spend on maintaining roads, how much to donate to the animal shelter, the local food shelf, and home health agency. We can talk about how taxpayer money is best spent in the town. We elect select board and school board members to guide towns and schools on our behalf.
Oh, wait. In the former Orleans Central Supervisory Union (OCSU), there won’t be school meetings on Town Meeting Day this year. Voters won’t be electing school board members to represent their town.
Instead, on March 10, there will be a separate district-wide school meeting where voters in all seven towns will elect board members for the entire district. Meaning that everyone gets to vote on who will represent, say, Albany. So, if Albany overwhelmingly voted against Jane Doe, because they know her and don’t like her positions, she could still be elected if voters in the other six towns, who probably don’t know her, vote for her.
Even many of those who supported merging the district’s governance don’t think that’s a good idea.
The district is trying to change it. Let’s hope they succeed.
First because of the obvious: In general, people in a municipality prefer that they have the predominant say on who will represent them.
But also because this structure is likely to radically decrease voter participation. It’s increasingly tough to get people to attend Town Meeting. Towns have employed all kinds of strategies — changing the day, changing the time, in the case of Irasburg having a Tuesday evening potluck meal.
Still, Town Meetings remain considerably better attended than school meetings. The recent Lake Region Union High School annual meeting drew no more than a handful of people. That could, of course, be because Lake Region is such a very good school that few people have much to bitch about.
But, it’s been historically true, as well. We can’t remember when more than a couple of dozen people attended the high school’s annual meeting.
Maybe it’s the promise of chicken and biscuits, or homemade pie, but significantly more people attend Town Meeting than Lake Region’s annual meeting. (The North Country Union High School and junior high budgets are voted on by Australian ballot. But voters in the northern communities will be able hold elementary school meetings as usual Town Meeting Day because the North Country Supervisory Union remains unmerged.)
Town Meeting is, historically, where people have talked about what’s going on at their schools, as well as their town.
Perhaps moving school board elections away from Town Meeting Day, and from the town is an unintended consequence of merging, but it is a consequence, and an unfortunate one. – T.S.