Changes to ID-4 school budget, meeting sought

MIDDLEBURY — The ID-4 school board on Feb. 9 will weigh a request by a group of citizens to shift the date of the district’s annual meeting and to have the Mary Hogan Elementary School budget voted by Australian ballot on Town Meeting Day.
A group of citizens is hoping the ID-4 board endorses the two proposed changes, a process that would ostensibly begin with public referenda at the district’s upcoming annual meeting on April 8. Some supporters of those changes promised on Tuesday that they will file citizens’ petitions to force referenda on those two issues if the Middlebury school board declines to warn them on its own accord.
The ID-4 board governs Mary Hogan Elementary in Middlebury. It is an independent school district chartered under the laws of 1797. The ID-4 annual meeting and budget vote are currently held on the second Wednesday in April, while the majority of other school budgets in the state are voted at town meeting (usually the first Monday in March) or on Town Meeting Day (the second Tuesday in March). The annual ID-4 spending plan is decided by voice vote, as opposed to the more prevalent method of Australian balloting at the polls.
“This is absolutely not anti-education. I have great respect for the students, teachers, staff and administration at Mary Hogan for the job that they do,” said Nancy Malcolm, one of the petitioners. “It’s about increasing voter participation.”
Malcolm said both petitions bear more than the requisite 5 percent of registered voter signatures (at least 250) needed to place the initiatives on the annual ID-4 warning. One of the petitions reads: “Shall the Incorporated District No. 4 hold its annual meeting within 10 days prior of Town Meeting Day?” The second petition asks, “Shall Incorporated District No. 4 adopt its annual budget by Australian ballot on Town Meeting Day?”
Petition supporters believe more people would be able to attend the ID-4 annual meeting if it were held on (or closer to) Town Meeting Day. And they also believe more taxpayers would be able to decide the budget if it were part of the Australian ballot voting on Town Meeting Day. They note there have been years when only a few dozen Middlebury residents have decided the Mary Hogan Elementary budget, which this year stands at $6,647,165.
“We would like to give more people a say,” Malcolm said.
Ann LaFiandra is one of around a dozen people that helped Malcolm gather signatures for the petition. The former Middlebury selectwoman said elderly people in particular find it challenging to attend evening meetings. She and Malcolm believe the elderly could educate themselves about the ID-4 budget through the media, Middlebury Community Television and online sources, and then vote more conveniently by Australian ballot.
“I believe we have to be more and more considerate of people being able to express their vote,” LaFiandra said.
Malcolm, who currently chairs Middlebury’s planning commission, said the evening annual meeting has also posed a challenge for single parents who might not be able to find or afford a sitter. She acknowledged that ID-4 last year offered on-site child care during the annual meeting, but said that does not solve the problem for kids who have specific bed times.
Malcolm also believes that given increasing statewide talk of school consolidations, ID-4 would be well served in synching its annual meeting and budget vote with the other six elementary schools within the Addison Central Supervisory Union. The ACSU recently commissioned a study on potential consolidation of schools and/or their governance structure. The ACSU Governance Study Committee, however, did not find a groundswell of local support for consolidation of schools or streamlining education governance. But with declining student enrollment and increasing education costs in most of the state’s school districts, some local officials are concerned the Legislature could mandate some consolidation measures.
“ID-4 would be a big player in consolidation, because they have the room,” Malcolm said.
Those who circulated the two ID-4 petitions said they did not encounter problems gathering signatures. LaFiandra said those she asked to sign usually had one of two reactions.
“Some people said, ‘I thought we did it that way already’; others said, ‘It’s about time, we should be voting at the same time as other schools,’” LaFiandra said.
Meanwhile, the ID-4 board’s Policy and Communications Committee has been studying the pros, cons, logistics and potential stumbling blocks in switching the annual meeting date and transitioning from voice vote to Australian ballots to decide the budget.
Jason Duquette-Hoffman is a member of that ID-4 committee and has done a lot of research with the Secretary of State’s Office, lawyers, education administrators and citizens. He has compiled a wealth of information that will be publicly available prior to the ID-4 board’s Feb. 9 meeting. The information includes some interesting curveballs, he noted.
“The ID-4 district is currently incorporated as an independent school district under Vermont law, and incorporated school districts are distinct from town school districts under law,” Duquette-Hoffman said. “There are some provisions of Vermont law that specifically apply to incorporated school districts that differ from the general requirements of town districts. Some of those (requirements) apply to annual meeting and budget votes.”
The committee has been considering changes to the annual meeting dates and the method of vote.
“The way that state law generally works is the charter for the district is the first layer of control on how the district operates,” Duquette-Hoffman said. “If the charter isn’t specific on an issue — such as a budget vote — then it falls down to the next layer, which in the case of Mary Hogan, is the incorporated district-specific provisions in Title 16.”
There are approximately six different provisions of Vermont law that apply to changes of annual meeting dates and budget votes, according to Duquette-Hoffman’s research.
“The short version of this is an incorporated school district can hold its annual meeting on Town Meeting Day, but not before,” Duquette-Hoffman said. “Our charter is silent on our budget vote and annual meeting. The incorporated school district provisions of Vermont law require that  an incorporated school district either hold its annual meeting on Town Meeting Day, or it can vote to hold it any other time after March 15. Incorporated school districts are specifically prohibited from holding their annual meetings prior to Town Meeting Day.”
With that in mind, Duquette-Hoffman believes the citizens’ petition requesting the ID-4 annual meeting “be held within 10 days prior to Town Meeting Day” would, if approved, place ID-4 out of compliance with state law.
“That would essentially be voting to have the annual meeting held unlawfully,” Duquette-Hoffman said.
And there’s more to consider.
The incorporated school district provisions of Vermont law also stipulate, according to Hoffman, that “an incorporated district may vote its budget, including by Australian ballot, at a specially warned meeting for that purpose other than the annual meeting.”
Further research compiled by Duquette-Hoffman indicates the incorporated school district cannot fall back on the general rules for the town school district if its own charter rules fail to resolve an issue.
“That’s the overall environment we are operating in,” Duquette-Hoffman said, adding, it is “as clear as mud.”
Still, the committee will outline some options for the ID-4 board at its Feb. 9 meeting. Those options, according to Duquette-Hoffman, will include:
•  An article to move the annual meeting to Town Meeting Day.
•  An article to change the budget vote from a voice vote to Australian ballot.
Duquette-Hoffman noted there would be implications based on the vote outcome on the two articles.
“If the meeting date change passes alone, then the annual meeting date would move to Town Meeting Day and  the budget vote would remain a voice vote at annual meeting,” he said. “If (both articles) pass, there would be an annual meeting change to Town Meeting Day and a ballot vote for the budget. If only the ballot article passes, then we would be in a situation where we have a ballot vote for the budget that is in advance of our current annual meeting date.”
Members of the ID-4’s Policy and Communications Committee — including Billy Connelly, chair of that panel — didn’t want to share their personal preferences on the options prior to the Feb. 9 meeting.
“I think there are advantages and disadvantages to a number of those scenarios,” Duquette-Hoffman said. “I certainly think that action by a very small group of folks creates the potential for problems of governance down the line.
“We need to act as a board in what we consider to be the best interests of the district.”
Connelly said both proposed changes will require study and deliberation.
“Making changes might not be an easy, fluid process,” he said. “Whatever direction the ID-4 board goes, we want to make sure to do it right.”
Malcolm argued that the ID-4 board has had ample time to study the issue, and added the her own inquiries with the Secretary of State’s office have not yielded potential statutory stumbling blocks. She said that it was more than a year ago that she and other like-minded citizens had requested that the ID-4 board discuss changing the annual meeting date and conduct the budget vote by Australian ballot. Petitions were assembled at that time but tabled when the supporters of the changes thought the ID-4 board was going to discuss the issue at last year’s annual meeting, according to Malcolm. But she said the conversation did not take place at that time.
The two citizens’ petitions need to be filed by Feb. 23 in order to place the two referenda on the warning of the ID-4 annual meeting of April 8. The referenda would be fielded by voice vote, though a paper ballot count could be requested. If the articles were warned and approved, Malcolm believes the Legislature will still be in session to endorse any ID-4 charter change that might be needed to finalize the transition.
“There’s a lot of interest out there,” Malcolm said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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