ID-4 board balks at endorsing changes to meeting date, voting method

MIDDLEBURY — The ID-4 school board on Monday evening decided not to endorse two proposals that would change the date of the district’s annual meeting and switch the method of voting on the Mary Hogan School budget to Australian ballot.
But proponents of the changes vowed afterward to make the questions articles to be considered at the annual ID-4 meeting in April via citizens’ petitions.
The present date of the ID-4 annual meeting is the second Wednesday in April, in contrast to all other Addison Central Supervisory Union annual meetings (and most in Vermont), which are held in conjunction with town meetings in March. One of the petitioned proposals would move the date of the ID-4 annual meeting to within 10 days of Town Meeting Day.
Changing the date of the annual meeting is not without precedent. In 2005, voters decided to move the meeting from May, when it had been held since the 19th century, to April.
A second proposal would change the method by which the ID-4 budget is voted on, from a voice vote at the annual meeting, to an Australian ballot. The majority of school budgets in Addison County and most in Vermont are decided using an Australian ballot. Vergennes, Panton and Waltham voters supported that change for the Vergennes Union Elementary School budget in 2001, for example, while Addison made the change for Addison Central School spending in 1991.
A number of residents spoke at Monday’s ID-4 board meeting, both for and against the proposals.
Middlebury resident Chris Zeoli expressed support for moving to Australian balloting, which affords voters anonymity.
“I don’t think someone should be required to explain themselves, in their vote, yes or no,” he said.
Laura Asermily, who also serves on the Middlebury selectboard, said she supported keeping the budget vote as a part of the annual meeting.
“I think it is important for people to show up and understand the budget,” she said.
She endorsed moving the annual meeting to a date closer to Town Meeting Day as a way to entice more voters to attend.
“We need more people participating,” Asermily said. “I think I could support an earlier meeting.”
An independent “Incorporated District,” such as ID-4, is governed by different rules than most town school districts. Because an incorporated district has a state charter, changing the annual meeting and votes is more complicated.
Nancy Malcolm said at Monday’s meeting that she had researched the other four incorporated districts in Vermont and found that each of those districts vote on their budgets by Australian ballot. Malcolm said ID-4 should follow suit as a way to include more residents in the budget approval process.
“Turnout has been notoriously low at the annual meeting for years,” Malcolm said.
Carol Eckels said if voters wish for anonymity in the voting process, they can request at the annual meeting that the budget vote be conducted via a secret ballot. She said she did not think moving to an Australian ballot on a separate day would increase understanding.
“I find it really hard to believe that by putting it on Australian ballot, more people are going to understand what’s going on,” she said.
Eckels also said the later the annual meeting is, the better the ID-4 board will be able to project expenses for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
“I would urge you to keep (the meeting) the same, from both a financial and information point of view,” she said.
Judy Olinick said she does not believe the fact that the budget vote is held during the annual meeting prevents residents from participating that wish to.
“There’s no hard evidence of any kind that a significant number of people are prevented from attending these meetings because they’re at night,” she said.
Ann LaFiandra said she supported moving the date of the annual meeting closer to Town Meeting Day, because many voters believe that’s when the ID-4 budget is approved.
“When people go to vote on Town Meeting Day for other school budgets … they think they’re seeing the cost of education in their community,” LaFiandra said, who added that she opposed moving to an Australian ballot.
John Tenney, the former longtime chairman of the Middlebury selectboard, said he learned over the years that elections held to the two days traditionally reserved for voting — Election Day and Town Meeting Day — have the highest turnout. For that reason, he said he supported moving the annual meeting closer to Town Meeting Day.
“I think we would be getting better attention, better participation, and we’d have a better-informed public,” Tenney said.
After residents spoke for about half an hour at Monday’s meeting, the ID-4 board, with the aid of a slideshow presentation, evaluated the pros and cons of each of the voting outcomes: if both articles pass, if both fail, or if one passes and one fails.
Board member Victoria Jette said that many of her constituents said they voted on the town budget, but did not participate in the ID-4 budget vote. She said the ID-4 board should find ways to encourage more participation.
“It’s really a question of how to get people involved, and less about when we vote on things,” Jette said.
When discussion died down, board chair Ruth Hardy asked if any member wished to make a motion to warn either of the proposals. No one did, and the board moved onto other business.
Hardy on Tuesday said that the members of the ID-4 board worked diligently to evaluate the proposals, but ultimately were unconvinced that warning them was in the best interests of ID-4 voters.
“We felt that there was not a compelling reason to take action at this time on the issue,” Hardy said. She encouraged voters to attend the annual meeting and participate in the budget discussion.
Nancy Malcolm told the Independent on Tuesday that she wasn’t surprised that the board decided not to warn the proposals, but said she appreciated that the board vetted them.
“I was glad that there was finally an opportunity to have a good discussion,” she said.
Malcolm said she and other supporters of the proposals would seek to make them articles at the annual ID-4 meeting, on April 8, via citizens’ petitions, which require the signatures of 5 percent of ID-4 voters. Malcolm said the group already has enough signatures and will submit the petitions to the town clerk next week.
Zach Despart may be reached at [email protected].

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