Editorial: Changes to ID-4 budget process would benefit voters

One of the roles of any public governing body is to encourage maximum public participation in decisions crucial to the community. Public participation, after all, is the foundation of democracy.
That’s why several Middlebury residents attended the ID-4 school board meeting a week ago Monday to ask board members to propose amendments at this year’s annual meeting that would discuss the time and manner of the Mary Hogan Elementary School’s annual budget vote. The budget is currently decided on the second Wednesday of April via a voice vote at the annual meeting.
Several of the residents in attendance proposed moving the vote to Town Meeting Day or closer to Town Meeting, and holding the vote by Australian ballot. The primary reason is to engage more residents in that decision-making process. Current participation is dismal. In recent times, fewer than a few dozen residents typically attend the annual meeting and most meetings proceed with very little dissent or public scrutiny.
Passage of those budgets is not, in and of itself, a negative outcome. But when so few residents drive the conversation and the budget decisions, that’s hardly the gauge of public opinion board members should hope to see. Rather, it is safe to say that such low turnout denies school board members a honest gauge of whether the public supports their actions or is silently seething with despair that little could ever change under the current process.
Why is that?
Simple. First, voice votes or a show of hands in public meetings are intimidating. That’s the current process. And while a paper ballot could be requested, even that can be an intimidating request in a room full of budget supporters.
Moreover, speaking out against school budgets is uncomfortable, especially when friends and neighbors are also in the room, perhaps in support of their kids’ or their grandchildren’s education. When votes encompass such personal decisions, no voter wants to publicly offend a friend or neighbor by speaking against, or voting against, that budget. That’s one reason the vast majority of school districts in the state have switched to voting on their annual budgets by Australian ballot. ID-4 is one of the few that doesn’t.
In pondering this aspect of the issue, voters need but ask one question: What method would generate the greater participation among voters — deciding the budget by Australian ballot or asking voters to attend an annual meeting the second Wednesday night of April and deciding the issue by those in attendance? The answer is self-evident.
Similarly, the current date of the district’s annual meeting also limits public participation by moving it outside of Town Meeting Day. It is true that no residents are preventedfrom attending the annual school meeting any more on the second Wednesday of April than they are on the first Tuesday of March, but it stretches common sense to suggest that the very tradition surrounding Town Meeting doesn’t draw more attention to town and school budgets at that time of the year. That’s partly because the community discussion at that  time is intensely focused on local budgets and amendments crucial to their communities. And when everyone in the neighborhood is talking about those issues, then more people are willing to add their opinions and are more interested in participating in that discussion. That’s just human nature.
Those who deny the inevitable attrition of voter interest a month or more after Town Meeting are simply denying reality. The proof is in the very low turnout at the school’s annual meeting. It’s not that voters couldn’tturn out in high numbers, but that they haven’t.
Part of governing well is to recognize reality and adjust to it.
Because no board member moved to place the issue in front of voters at the upcoming annual meeting, a citizen petition is underway to put the proposed changes in front of voters in the hopes that enough Middlebury residents will elect to make a change. That’s an important first step in ensuring future Mary Hogan Elementary School budgets reflect the will of a majority of Middlebury residents. It’s past time that change is made.
Angelo S. Lynn

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