Middlebury to vote on ID-4 school budgets by ballot

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury voters on April 8 resoundingly endorsed their graded school budget, then elected to change the date and method of voting for future Mary Hogan Elementary School spending plans.
Around 150 people poured into the Mary Hogan Elementary gym to field an ID-4 school district annual meeting warning that featured some added intrigue this year. Along with the school’s proposed 2015-2016 spending plan of $6,775,965, the agenda included citizen-initiated articles seeking to change the date of the annual ID-4 meeting from the second Wednesday in April to the first Tuesday in March (Town Meeting Day); and to have future Mary Hogan Elementary budgets decided by Australian ballot, instead of by a vote of people on the floor at the annual meeting.
This past Wednesday night’s meeting clearly drew many of those who signed citizens’ petitions seeking the Australian ballot vote and the date change for the annual meeting. Supporters of those petitions argued that the changes would allow more people to weigh in on the Mary Hogan budget, which in recent years has been fielded by an average of a few dozen people in a town with approximately 4,600 registered voters. They also noted the opportunity to vote absentee through the balloting process.
Opponents of the proposed changes argued that deciding the budget from the floor allows a better opportunity for the electorate to get educated about the spending plan. They also said that a meeting style vote allows for a budget to be amended on the spot. The later date of the ID-4 meeting has allowed the district to get more up-to-date state aid information prior to a budget vote, proponents of maintaining the status quo noted.
ID-4 directors received legal advice that the citizens’ petitions as submitted were improperly worded and therefore could be rejected. But the panel agreed to correct the wording and place the articles on the warning anyway.
Arguments for and against the changes were on full display at last week’s ID-4 annual meeting, a two-hour affair that included some impassioned speeches, procedural questions, a few tense moments and a failed attempt to table the proposal to change the annual meeting date.
Resident Nancy Malcolm was among those who spearheaded the citizen petitions.
“This has been an issue that a lot of people have been asking to bring forward for quite a few years, so we appreciate that it is on the ballot as an article,” Malcolm said. “Today, there are only five incorporated (school) districts in the state. Of those five, Middlebury is the only one that does not hold its meeting on Town Meeting (Day), or right before. What we are asking is we could join what the others do, and do it when everybody knows that that’s when the meeting is.”
Others took the microphone to echo Malcolm’s position.
Resident Mark Mooney glanced around the Mary Hogan gym and asked how it might accommodate even half of the town’s total registered voters, if they chose to vote. He acknowledged the same problem for Middlebury’s annual town meeting, which attracts an average of 200 people in the municipal gym.
“If you are trying to increase the (voting) opportunity, Australian ballot is the answer,” Mooney said. “I don’t think there is a strong connect in people’s concept of civic duty. They have a civic duty and responsibility to vote, but I don’t think they feel the same emotion and feeling for coming to a hearing about the budget.”
Former Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny spoke in favor of changing the date of the ID-4 budget vote. He said his experience as a town official led him to realize that there are certain times of the year — March and November, in particular — when people are more in tune with municipal and school matters.
“By passing this article, we would have the best opportunity for the best participation,” Tenny said.
Resident Karen Eaton said it has become increasingly difficult for people to make the ID-4 annual meeting. She believes people have become accustomed to clearing their schedules for civic engagement in early March.
“I would love a chance to vote for the budget,” Eaton said. “When you travel a lot for your business and your job, (the annual meeting) is really not a service to the voter.”
Former UD-3 school board member James Malcolm recalled being dismayed during the mid-1980s when the decision was made to decide the UD-3 budget by Australian ballot. But he added he has since changed his mind — largely because the Australian ballot process allows people to vote absentee, unlike the meeting format.
“Times have changed,” Malcolm said. “Even though all of us would like to have an absolutely informed electorate to vote on things in an absolutely perfect way … That’s not the way it is, unfortunately.”
Others stood up to argue for the status quo and question why advocates for the ID-4 changes had not pushed for the same for the Middlebury municipal budget. A crowd of around 200 people back in March OK’d, by voice vote, a 2015-2016 municipal budget of $9,949,155.
“I know that a lot of people are speaking to equity right now,” Middlebury Selectwoman Laura Asermily said. “We vote by voice vote on our town budget,  which is larger than any of the other budgets. So if we’re looking for equity, that’s a question I ask myself.”
Resident Jason Mittell agreed.
“I just want to say that a lot of arguments have been made just now for the Australian ballot, and I haven’t heard one single thing said that doesn’t also apply for town meeting and the selectboard budget,” Mittell said. “It’s a larger budget than any of the school budgets that we vote on … Why is it we’re moving this, but there wasn’t a simultaneous move to change the town meeting and change the way that we vote on that budget?”
The switch to scheduling the annual ID-4 meeting for the first Tuesday of March, school board member Jason Duquette-Hoffman said, would allow for the meeting to convene up to three days prior to that March date to discuss the budget and decide any non-ballot items. The budget could then be decided by ballot on Town Meeting Day, he explained.
Resident David Andrews voiced concern that adopting the date change for the annual meeting might result in the ID-4 gathering being held during the same evening as Middlebury town meeting (the first Monday in March). This would make for a time consuming Monday evening, he said.
“It just seems to me that by doing this, we are going to make what is already a long evening longer, by having two back-to-back meetings run by two separate moderators,” Andrews said. “It has been pretty late when we have left the town meeting in many recent years. It seems to me it would be pretty compressed and rushed to try to do the school business as well, on the same night.”
Resident Natalie Peters agreed.
“Trying to do two meetings in one night would be ridiculous,” Peters said. “The one meeting that we do now in town goes until 11 p.m. sometimes. Trying to do two together would be doing an injustice to both meetings.”
Kerri Duquette-Hoffman said the Australian ballot process would not help residents to become informed about the ID-4 budget prior to voting.
“With how complicated the budget is, I’m wondering what mechanism we would have to have an educated votership,” Duquette-Hoffman said. “Are there other options to educate the populace so that we have a knowledgeable vote?”
ID-4 board members responded there are plans to upgrade the district’s website to make it a better tool for imparting information about the Mary Hogan School. They also noted people can become informed through local media and Middlebury Community Television, which broadcasts the ID-4 meetings and streams them online. And all ID-4 board meetings (except for executive session discussions) are held in open session.
“What it really came down to, at the heart of the matter, was a desire for increased voter participation,” said ID-4 board member Billy Connelly, chairman of the panel’s Policy and Communications Committee. “It’s not a question of the date on which we hold this annual meeting, it’s not a question on how we proceed with voting, it’s a desire on behalf of the people of Middlebury to have more people involved in moving our democracy forward. We welcome that.”
Connelly stressed, however, that the board’s decision to include the two citizen-initiated articles on the warning did not mean the board endorsed them.
“It does mean that because citizens brought these to us, it’s important to have this discussion,” Connelly said.
The crowd began to buzz when resident Judy Olinick invited ID-4 Moderator Carol Eckels to share her opinion (as a former ID-4 board member) on the prospect of changing the ID-4 meeting date. Eckels declined, saying as moderator, she had to maintain her neutrality.
The crowd buzz climbed another notch when resident Heather Seeley, a past candidate for the Middlebury selectboard, moved to table (until some future day) the article on changing the ID-4 annual meeting date. Her reason: To allow the selectboard and school board a chance to speak about collaborating on a meeting date that might maximize public participation.
Her motion was defeated by voice vote.
Attention then turned back to the original questions. The proposed annual meeting switch and Australian ballot process both passed decisively by voice vote.
While there was a clear difference of opinion within the crowd on when future ID-4 meetings should be held and how the district budget should be adopted, virtually everyone at the April 8 gathering was pleased with the proposed Mary Hogan Elementary spending plan and how it was presented. Board Chairwoman Ruth Hardy, using multiple charts and statistics, gave the overview on a 2015-2016 budget for ID-4 that reflects an overall 1.94-percent spending increase, but a 0.09-percent decrease in the elementary school portion of Middlebury’s equalized homestead property tax rate. News of that decrease had just come to light in recent days, she said.
She also showed how growth in spending at Mary Hogan Elementary compared favorably to growth at other Vermont schools, and how per-pupil spending had been held in check over the past five years.
The budget passed by an overwhelming voice vote majority.
“I’m really pleased we had such strong support for the budget,” Hardy said after the meeting. “The board and the administration worked really hard on the budget and we feel it was really responsible to our taxpayers and our kids.”
She also offered a reaction to the other major votes of the evening.
“I was really pleased with the turnout,” Hardy said. “It wasn’t as diverse of a turnout as I had hoped for, in terms of talking about this issue, but I think it’s a complicated issue and I think the board has always stated as a board, we want to support what our town wants to do to promote democracy in our town. If this is what they feel is the best way to promote democracy and community participation, then the board will do what it needs to do to work with our town, students and administrators to meet the challenges the town has asked us to meet.”
School board member Jason Duquette-Hoffman was also happy with the turnout.
“I thought it was great to hear residents really interested and engaged in deciding a question about participation,” he said. “We were going to continue to do the work that we do, either way.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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