ID-4 board asked to move Middlebury school vote

MIDDLEBURY — Mary Hogan Elementary School officials are discussing a proposal that the annual ID-4 school district budget be decided on Town Meeting Day instead of on the second Wednesday of April, and that residents cast ballots on the spending plan instead of passing judgment with a voice vote.
The ID-4 school board’s decision to consider the changes comes after a pitch by some local citizens and Middlebury officials who believe that a Town Meeting Day vote by Australian ballot would allow more residents to weigh in on annual Mary Hogan Elementary spending.
On this past April 9, 85 Middlebury voters turned out at the annual ID-4 meeting to back overwhelmingly a 2014-2015 Mary Hogan budget of $6,647,165 and to approve construction of a new $225,000 playground.
But typically only a few dozen residents have turned out at the ID-4 annual gathering — a showing lamented by school and town officials alike.
“This is not an anti-school budget request,” said local resident Nancy Malcolm. “When you have a $7 million budget, it doesn’t seem right to see such a small group of people making the decision on it. The point is to allow more people to participate.”
Malcolm said with so many two-income households and the difficulty in securing child care, many residents cannot attend an annual meeting. She said she heard that complaint from fellow residents last year, and together they started to circulate petitions to change the budget vote.
Malcolm passed the petition information to ID-4 board chairwoman Ruth Hardy, who asked proponents to hold off and let the board take up the subject, according to Malcolm.
The ID-4 board has referred the issue to its policy and communications committee and is slated to revisit the matter at its next meeting, on Dec. 8.
Malcolm had hoped the ID-4 board would broach the matter at its April 9 meeting under “other business” and believes the turnout of 85 was in part due to anticipation of such a discussion. But it didn’t come up, and Malcolm added she did not feel it appropriate to bring up the topic later in the meeting after longtime former Mary Hogan Principal Bonnie Bourne had been honored.
Now Malcolm is hoping the ID-4 board will thoroughly study the request and its potential ramifications, both pro and con.
“I’m thrilled you are talking about it,” Malcolm said at the November ID-4 board meeting. “I feel strongly it should be Australian ballot, along with all the others.”
Middlebury selectboard Chairman Dean George is among those who favor a change.
“Right now, (participation) is not happening with the ID-4 budget as much as it could, and I think this is a great opportunity for you to enhance that,” George said, adding, “People in Middlebury have always been very supportive of their school districts and their town budgets, and I think the more we can do to encourage more participation the better it is for everyone.”
This isn’t the first time the ID-4 meeting date has been discussed for a potential change. And it’s a change that might be easier said than done.
“The ID-4 district is structured slightly differently than most school districts in the state,” Hardy said. “It is an independent school district chartered under the laws of 1797. The charter has been changed a number of times since then. If we do make a change to our charter, especially the date of the annual meeting and the way the annual meeting is structured … we have to change our charter. The way that is done is through the state Legislature.”
Hardy added that school budgets, “unlike the towns’, are extremely complicated and dependent on a lot of data that we get from the state, in terms of how to calculate our final tax rates … Often, we are approving budgets before we get all the data.”
And every bit of state information helps, according to Hardy.
“Because our budget goes last, we always do it with more information than other schools do,” Hardy said. “We get more recent information from the state in order to put together our budgets.”
Last year, for example, Hardy said ID-4 budget planners were able to factor in late health insurance cost data after the eight other schools in the Addison Central Supervisory Union had put their spending plans to bed.
Hardy spoke with representatives of the Vermont School Boards Association and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns in order to get some data on how towns and school districts vote on their respective budgets. That data, Hardy noted, reveals that approximately 55 percent of the state’s school districts vote their budgets by Australian ballot, with the rest voting through a meeting format.
That data also indicates a vast majority of communities decide their school budgets on or around Town Meeting Day because they are a part of town districts and not, Hardy said, like Mary Hogan Elementary, independent school districts.
About 30 percent of Vermont towns decide their municipal budgets by Australian ballot, while the remaining 70 percent do it by voice vote, Hardy noted.
Mary Hogan Elementary School board member Billy Connelly said that ID-4 is among the 18.5 percent of Vermont school districts that decide their spending plans on a day other than town meeting, a percentage he called significant.
“We’re not that much in the minority,” Connelly said.
ID-4 board member Jason Duquette-Hoffman said the date of the budget vote should be discussed.
“This is a really useful question to look at, particularly with education funding being a primary focus of the statewide political conversation,” Duquette-Hoffman said. “We really want to make sure we include as many people as possible in thinking about the funding of our school.”
Duquette-Hoffman does not believe the town will need legislative approval (through a charter change) to move its annual meeting date, but he believes such a move should be thoroughly studied before any action is taken.
“I think it deserves a lengthy and thoughtful discussion, with plenty of participation,” Duquette-Hoffman said.
Hardy agreed on the notion of proceeding carefully. She noted ID-4 voted to switch its annual meeting date (from the fourth Wednesday in May to the second Wednesday in April) in 2004. In 2007, it voted to change the manner by which it elects its district officers.
The district took both of those actions without pursuing a charter change, according to Hardy, a situation that now has some school board officials concerned about whether the right process was followed. But prior to the 2000s, any significant ID-4 actions were undertaken with a charter change, according to Hardy.
“We have an opinion from counsel that we can review,” Hardy said. “The gist of it is, we need to be careful that we do this correctly and that we make sure our charter is consistent with practice.”
Middlebury Selectman Gary Baker suggested ID-4 look at dissolving its corporation, a move he said would solve the district’s charter issues.
“(ID-4) would become the Middlebury School Board and the Middlebury School District,” Baker said.
Hardy said there could be an additional problem if, as other towns do, the Mary Hogan budget vote and discussion was added to Middlebury’s town meeting. Although that option might increase voter participation, she noted it would surely extend a Middlebury gathering that currently exceeds three-and-a-half hours, on average.
ID-4 board member R. Matthew Landis stressed the issues of whether to change the annual budget vote, and whether that vote should take place by Australian ballot, should be examined separately.
“They don’t necessarily depend on each other,” he said.
Addison Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Peter Burrows believes ID-4 benefits from the later budget vote. He said the Vermont Agency of Education generates a lot of helpful state aid numbers on Dec. 1 and 15 of each year — long after the budgeting process has started at most schools.
Burrows said most school leaders must work to approve budgets in late December or early January in order to meet town report and legal warning requirements before Town Meeting Day. Having the flexibility of being able to wait until mid-December to build the ID-4 budget — rather than trying to finalize the spending plan — is an advantage, he said.
But some residents challenged the notion that delaying the ID-4 vote for five or six weeks after town meeting makes a big difference in budget preparation, and argued that delay should not come at the expense of a better voter turnout.
“I honestly don’t believe there would be a whole lot more information from the state,” Malcolm said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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