Starksboro: Will it decide school budgets at town meeting or vote at the polls

STARKSBORO — Starksboro will hold a special town meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 4, to decide whether to change the method by which voters approve the Robinson Elementary School annual budget.
At issue is which method — voting in person at town meeting or voting at the polls by what is called “Australian ballot” — provides the best forum for public discussion and participation while ensuring a budget that matches the community’s financial resources with its desire for excellence in education.
The special meeting, which came as the result of a citizen petition, comes after several months of tumult over school spending in Starksboro. The school board warned a spending figure for the 2015-2016 school year, residents at the town meeting on Feb. 28 raised that figure and approved it, then that approved spending plan was revoted at a May town meeting, where a third figure was approved.
Donna Lescoe, an independent business owner and Starksboro resident, led the drive to circulate the petition for the Aug. 4 special meeting. She said she hoped that voting by Australian ballot would result in more voices being heard. Some people complain that they can’t make it to vote at a town meeting because of work or family obligations.
“People should be given the opportunity to vote by Australian ballot; it’s more representational,” Lescoe said this week.
Among the five towns in the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union, only Starksboro and Lincoln still approve elementary school budgets through a vote at annual town meeting. Lescoe’s petition was presented to the Starksboro school board on June 24. It proposes that Starksboro residents change to voting by Australian ballot (the name for what most people think of as election day: voting by official, secret ballot at a specified polling place).
Proponents of the change to Australian ballot argue that it preserves the strengths of town meeting while widening participation. Voters would still have a forum to discuss budget issues on Town Meeting Day and then be able to vote at the polls from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Those who need an alternative to voting at the polls would be able to vote by mail or by absentee ballot through the town clerk’s office.
Perhaps even more importantly, many proponents feel that Australian ballot gives the largest number of residents the final say in school budgets while leaving the fine-tuning of those budgets to those who’ve put the most time and expertise into drafting them: the school board, school administrators and the supervisory union.
“The school budget is by far the most expensive thing a town does,” says Bonita Bedard, a former Starksboro school board member and a signer of the Australian ballot petition. “So it seems almost cavalier to leave it to a floor vote on Town Meeting Day. With Australian ballot, if a budget is defeated then it goes back to the school board, the superintendent’s office and the administration and all that expertise can be brought to bear to re-craft a budget that the people can then reject or approve.
“When a floor vote on Town Meeting Day changes the budget, as it did this past February, all that work gets thrown out the window,” she added. “It’s like the budget gets kidnapped.”
Proponents of keeping the floor vote at the annual town meeting (whether by voice or by paper ballot) contend that changing town meeting to an informational forum only for the school budget — not the place where you discuss and vote — will weaken the town meeting process overall and give local residents less of a voice in school governance.
Recent studies statewide have indeed shown that changing town meeting to a discussion forum vs. the place where votes are cast decreases participation significantly over time, according to Frank Bryan, long-time town meeting advocate and UVM professor emeritus of political science.
“The importance of town meeting is people trusting themselves to govern themselves in person, to do it openly, face to face,” said Bryan.
The Starksboro resident said he is against changing the method of voting on school spending in Starksboro, and he opposes leaving up budget-making just to administrators in a “top-down corporate model.”
 “Yes, you might get a slight increase in turnout with Australian ballot, but those voters will be less informed and it will be easier for the ‘single issue’ voter who’s against higher taxes to take it out on the schools,” he said. “You’ll lose the richness and fullness of the discussion and the deeper commitment to community.”
The upcoming vote in Starksboro can be seen as part of a larger pattern statewide of controversy around school spending. In Addison County alone this past spring, voters rejected the original spending plans for Vergennes and Mount Abraham union high schools, and Ferrisburgh Central, Monkton Central and Bristol Elementary schools.
In Starksboro, at the Feb. 28 annual town meeting, attendees proposed and then voted from the floor to increase the proposed 2015-2016 Robinson Elementary School spending plan from $2,809,709 to $3,005,169. A petition to reconsider the budget led to a special meeting on May 2 to reconsider that budget. At that meeting the 200 residents who attended lowered the spending proposal and approved a budget of $2,925,000.
School meeting minutes since then show that community members have expressed concerns about the school going forward, and, as in other ANeSU towns, there has been a climate of lack of trust of the supervisory union.
The June petition that instigated the upcoming vote on changing to Australian ballot is in part a response to what some saw as the volatility of the Feb. 28 annual town meeting, which was held on the Saturday before Town Meeting Day. Driving these conflicting citizen movements are the challenges of addressing school costs at a time of declining and/or unstable enrollments, as student needs continue to remain high.
About 50 percent of Robinson’s students, for example, qualify for free and reduced lunch, a federal poverty indicator linked to lower school readiness and significantly lower performance in math and reading. At Robinson, as elsewhere, these realities lead to tough choices. Despite a 10 percent increase in spending from the previous year’s budget, Robinson’s final budget resulted in the loss of three staff positions: a library assistant, a para-educator and a literacy specialist.
Starksboro school board Chairman Louis duPont said the school board has a tough balancing act weighing educational needs vs. financial limitations.
Board members aren’t taking a position on whether the method of voting should change, but said they would, of course, follow the will of the people.
“Get out and vote, get involved, be as knowledgeable as you can,” duPont said. “Balancing fiscal responsibility with our desire to bring kids to their highest potential is something we’re all going to be grappling with.”
Starksboro’s special town meeting will take place on Tuesday, Aug. 4, at 7 p.m. in the Robinson multipurpose room.

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