Warned Articles, Guildhall, Vermont: School Boards, Road Commissioners, and Recreational Subsidies.

The Guild Hall, where our Town and School District meetings take place.

In Guildhall, just as in towns all over Vermont, the warning for Annual Town and School District Meeting  is now–pursuant to Vermont law–published. Many of the Articles on Vermont town and school district warnings are the standard ones that appear year after year, and they are frankly hard for anyone to get excited about. (For example: shall the voters authorize the Town to collect its municipal taxes up until the tax due date of October 15th? Who can argue with that?)

Text of School District Warning 2012

But quite often, there is at least one or more Articles that represents a substantive question worthy of debate or an actual controversy. Increasingly in most Vermont towns, warned articles appear as ballot questions only, so there is no live debate. But here in Guildhall, we still have a live evening Town meeting, in which all the Articles on the warning, including the Town and School budgets, are discussed and immediately voted upon. The majority of Articles pass without so much as a comment or even a pause. But others generate strong, and sometimes passionate debate.

Here are four examples of specific Articles that appear on our warning this year, ones that I anticipate will provoke at least some serious discussion and perhaps disagreement. I’ve provided my own assessment and opinion of the merits or demerits of each article, just for the sake of blog debate!

School District Article #5: Should the Guildhall School Board expand from 3 members to 5? Or, phrased another way:  does size matter?

This article, proposed by School Board clerk Helen Martin, asks if the voters want to see an expanded school board membership.

Entrance to Guild Hall, for Town Meeting 2012

In considering whether to expand  the School Board, it’s key to bear in mind the following facts: We have one K-6 school here in Guildhall. It consists of two rooms and a total of 21 kids. Yes, 21 kids. There are two full time teachers, two full time para-educators, one full time cook, a part-time janitor, and separate part time teachers for music, art, and phys ed.

Given the size and scope of our excellent school, why is it necessary to add two administrators to this mix? (Bear in mind that each School Board member gets paid $500 per year. That’s a pittance and less than they deserve for the work involved, but should we really add more staff to the budget for a single two room school with 21 kids?)

Lynn Berry, a Guildhall citizen, made an excellent point in her recent letter to the Caledonian Record. The issue with our School Board is not, she commented,  the number of Board members, but rather how the ones we already have conduct themselves in office. In short, School Board members can behave lawfully or unlawfully, no matter how many of them exist. Let’s focus on electing School Board members we can trust to carry out the business of our school district fairly and honestly, before we think about adding more. I say VOTE NO on School District Article 5.

School District Article #6: Should the voters elect School Board members by Australian ballot, rather than the current “from the floor” system? This article appears on the warning via citizens’ petition. Decades ago, on the Town side, we went from electing officers “from the floor,” to electing them by secret paper “Australian” ballot. Under that system, more voters can participate, since the hours for voting are 10am-7pm, and more important, candidates must declare their intention, in writing, 5-6 weeks before Town Meeting, via nominating petitions.  That way, voters can know well in advance who is running, have enough time to reflect and consider, and have the opportunity to ask the candidates questions. However, for some reason, our School Board has remained a “from the floor” system to this day.

It makes for confusion and general chaos during the School District portion of the meeting.   Most people in attendance at the evening meeting have no idea who is running for the office until the moment someone nominates them. Depending on whether or not the vote is conducted by hand count or paper ballot in the hall,  there’s usually about 15 minutes at the most  to think about it before casting your vote.  Not exactly enough time to mull your decision over carefully!

If we want to make thoughtful, informed choices as to who will oversee our kids’ education, we should take the election process as seriously as we do for Selectboard members on the Town side, and go to an Australian ballot system.     In my opinion, vote YES for School District Article #6.

Town, Article #16: Should the Town Road Commissioner be appointed by the Selectboard, rather than elected by the voters, as it currently is?

For me, this one’s a closer call. There are some compelling arguments in favor of appointment as well as election. The first thing to bear in mind is that under Vermont law as I understand it,  most elected  town officers are autonomous and accountable directly and exclusively to the voters. The Selectboard has virtually no power to tell the Town Clerk, the Treasurer, the Auditors, the Listers, or the Delinquent Tax Collector how to do his or her job. However, not so with the Road Commissioner.  My understanding is that the Selectboard is directly responsible for the maintenance of Town roads, and that they have the express responsibility of supervising and directing the activities of the Road Commissioner, whether she is elected or appointed.

One advantage of an appointed Road Commissioner is that it provides wider options for qualified candidates. The Selectboard can, I understand,  consider anyone, even from out of town, to be the Road Commissioner. On the other hand, when the RC is elected, the Town is generally limited to electing  Guildhall residents who are registered voters and who have chosen to run and place their names on the ballot. I’m all for local control, but the reality is that road maintenance is arguably the most important function of municipal government and I’m not entirely sure that role  should be restricted to such a small field of candidates.

Appointing the RC could expand the field of qualified applicants considerably and therefore go a long way toward making our road maintenance more professional and better-equipped.

The appointment route strengthens the hand of the Selectboard in selecting and supervising the Road Commissioner. Since the Selectboard has that responsibility anyway, it might very well make sense to formalize it. However, it means vigilance and careful thought on the part of the voters. If we go to an appointed RC, it means that when citizens cast votes for Selectboard members, they are also, in essence, electing them for their ability to choose a competent and qualified Road Commissioner. Under an appointment system, if you don’t think a particular SB member is capable of choosing a competent Road Commissioner, you should vote for another SB candidate who you think can and will.

page two, text of Town Warning, 2012

Of course, the flip side of the equation is this: If the voters aren’t ultimately happy with the performance of the Road Commissioner that the Selectboard appointed, the voters have no recourse except to elect new Selectboard members who will make a different choice. (But of course, that’s in large part what representative democracy is all about anyway). So there may be an advantage to keeping the Road Commissioner directly elected by voters. Still, it’s worth remembering that under a direct election system, your options are limited to whomever lives in town, is registered to vote, and is willing to declare themselves as a candidate. In short, there are trade-offs either way.

As I said, it’s a close call. Right now, I lean toward appointment of the Road Commissioner–voting YES on Town Article#16— as the better alternative, because it will strengthen the Selectboard’s hand and provide better options and more flexibility in bringing professionalism to the maintenance of our roads.

Town, Article #12:  This Article asks the voters to authorize a sum of money to subsidize Guildhall residents’ access to the pool at the recreational center in neighboring Lancaster, NH.

Ah, the matter of government subsidies!  Admittedly, the sum of money involved in Article #12 is miniscule–a paltry $300.  But believe it or not, there is  a principle involved here.  I’m a Democrat and a liberal, and therefore I support government safety net programs in most forms.  (Most, but not all–for a recent example of a local entitlement that I believe goes too far and is fundamentally unfair, see some of my blog posts from August-October 2011 about a school tuition entitlement that caused a groundswell of outrage here in our town.)

I support the federal subsidies and government price supports for my dairy farm neighbors in Essex County.  I support the federal commodity subsidies that the local potato farm receives year after year.  I’m likewise a big supporter of the generous tax breaks given to agricultural land via Vermont’s current use program.

I support the state and federal aid that flows to our little elementary school year after year.  (According to this year’s Town and School District report, federal and state grants make up a whopping 32% of the Guildhall School District’s revenue).  I’m grateful and supportive of the over $50,000 in disaster relief that FEMA gave to Guildhall last year so we could repair our roads and stay within our budget after the devastating May 2011 floods.

I also support Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, AFDC, heating oil assistance, unemployment benefits, and the federal Women, Infants & Children (WIC) program.

Similarly, I support local appropriations for public libraries, law enforcement, fire and ambulance services, road maintenance, and even the local Meals on Wheels program for the elderly.  All of these programs listed above–all of them–are necessary components of our social compact.  Frankly, here in Essex County,  a rural, poor and underserved county, if all such programs were to end, it would be a disaster to rival a 19th century Dickens’ novel.  We’re all in this together, and government spending is one way we take care of each other.

But I confess I draw the line when people seek personal entitlements that aren’t for the good of the many, but only for the few and for personal preferences rather than needs.  Article #12 represents a subsidy for personal recreational interests.  Is it fair?  What about the children or adults who would like to swim somewhere other than the facility in Lancaster?  Should that be subsidized as well?  What about the kids who would rather take karate lessons?  Should we subsidize that, too?  What about the Tai Chi lessons that I’m thinking of signing up for next month?  Should I ask my fellow taxpayers to foot the bill for that?  I think most of my neighbors would say no, and frankly, I would never dream of asking.   That’s why I will—again–vote NO on Town Article #12.

Here’s an electronic copy of the full 2011 Guildhall Town Rpt Final. See you at Town Meeting!

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Warned Articles, Guildhall, Vermont: School Boards, Road Commissioners, and Recreational Subsidies.

  1. Melissa Barney

    Hi Laura,
    This is something I have always said I would NEVER do, BUT… I feel I have to at this time. As I have told you before, I do follow your blog and at times find some of it interesting. While looking at it today I noticed your “twitter” post off to the side. Hence the reason I am breaking my promise and replying. I was at the school meeting this past Monday evening, I listened very closely and carefully to every word being spoken, including motions being made. At NO time did any of the board members mention shutting down the school on March 2, NEVER did and board members mention ever closing the school etc. What board members did say was “freeze” the checkbook…UNTIL the central office sent over invoices that SHOULD already be attached to the warrants..which are the bills that have already been paid. Members have asked several times for these and for whatever reason, they are not being granted. I spoke very bluntly I feel to the board members when the motion was 1st made, I spoke against anything being frozen with the exception of payables, that will not harm the school..groceries are bought and paid for on a card, so the school would operate as usual. The other issue was they want ALL board members to be informed as information comes in, or as things change..that is not much to ask for by any means. The issue surrounding freezing the ckbook was due to more than one issue, yes one of them was a tuition that was not paid, but that was not the sole reason for it. That being said, please make sure all information is accurate if it really needs to be posted.

    Thanks,
    Melissa

    • Laura L. Wilson

      Hi Melissa,
      First, I really appreciate your comments. (Unfortunately, I haven’t yet blogged about the School Board meeting, so what you’ve said ended up on an “unrelated” post.) As you know, one of the purposes of my blog is to generate debate and discussion, not just sound off on my own opinions. So I’m grateful that you have responded so thoughtfully.

      In answer: The obvious and clear implication of “freezing all Guildhall checking” is some sort of closure of the school. In my view, there is no way to do so without essentially shutting down the school, even if it is temporary. Teachers must be paid and so must bills if the School is to function.

      I don’t know if you’ve seen the draft minutes from the meeting yet. But I have a copy here. (Apparently, there may have also been an earlier version of the minutes–I don’t have access to whatever those might be.) The motion that the majority ended up passing appears in the draft minutes exactly as follows:

      “that if some arrangement to guarantee payment to SAU 36 were not made by the end of February vacation (March 2, 2012) that all checking for Guildhall School District be frozen” with a second by Matt Smith. Helen Martin and Matt Smith voted “yes” with Sharyl Plumley voting “no.”

      This is the exact language of the posted draft minutes. It’s how we judge the intentions of those who moved, seconded and passed it.

      It may well be that the Martin/Smith majority are genuinely concerned about not having copies of the actual invoices at board meetings. (Frankly, I was surprised to hear this. I review them carefully when I go over to ECSU. I thought for sure that Steve Sanborn typically brought them over to meetings.) I remember very well when you were Board clerk, together we made sure that the invoices were all attached to the warrants when sent over for the Board meetings.)

      However, whatever Martin and Smith’s general concerns about invoices were or were not, the concrete language of the motion itself tells you what their conditions are for continuing to pay School bills and payroll. It states that they want a “guarantee of tuition.” It’s black and white. The motion says nothing about general concerns over invoices.

      Also, note that the motion passed says “all Guildhall checking” and this means payroll, too.

      We can only go by the language of the motion that appears in the record of the meeting, and this language tells us clearly what they want, otherwise the financial disbursements will be frozen. In turn, that will ultimately, in my view, necessarily lead to shutting down the school.

      Helen Martin got a lot of votes last year when she was elected. That surely says something positive about her. As I’ve told you before, I was also pleased when she took the trouble to call me after the election and talk about certain general School District issues. But now–well, I’m not sure what’s going on. Bad advice accepted can turn friends into enemies.

      I appreciate the role that you played in the meeting. And I appreciate all our discussions. I respect you in general and have enjoyed working with you. I hope we continue to talk.

      Laura

  2. Melissa Barney

    Hi again,

    Guess I missed that part of the motion, sorry. I still don’t feel the intention is to close the school, my thinking is that its more to get control of invoices etc…and yes also to get the bill paid, the freezing of the checkbook, I also thought the motion changed to just payables..haven’t seen any minutes..some where along the way, the warrants and invoices had changed and the board needs to get that back on track which I am sure will be taken care of..hopefully central office will send over whats been asked for.

    I’ve always said everyone is entitled to their opinions, if they agree or disagree should not matter..I do not judge a person on their opinion, so as far as still speaking, thats not an issue at all, I’m not taking any of this mess as personal, which at times has been very very difficult when I see postings referring to my mother as untrustworthy..dishonest..if theres one thing I can tell people of my mother, she is very trustworthy and she is the most honest person I know. Like she stated the other night, she came on the board in good faith and voted that same way.

    I will leave it at that as I don’t like debating and thats not what I’m looking to do, just wanted to state what I thought had been said at meeting is all.

    Melissa 🙂

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