Starksboro narrowly defeats move to vote on school budgets at polls

STARKSBORO — Starksboro residents voted to keep town meeting as the forum for ratifying the Robinson Elementary School budget, instead of changing to Australian ballot.
More than 100 persons attended the Aug. 4 special town meeting at Robinson Elementary, which came about after some residents were upset over the way the school spending plan was increased at the town meeting on Feb. 28. Petitioners sought to have future school budgets approved by day-long balloting at voting booths.
The proposal to change to Australian ballot was defeated by a close vote of 65 to 58, with 53 percent of those attending voting to stick with town meeting and 47 percent of those attending voting to approve school budgets by Australian ballot.
Residents who attended the Aug. 4 meeting noted that there was good discussion on both sides and that both sides presented strong reasons for either keeping with town meeting or changing to Australian ballot as the best way to ensure democratic inclusion in the school budget-making process.
“It was impassioned on both sides,” said Robert Hall, who was there. “I think the folks who spoke felt very strongly about it one way or the other and it showed, which was great. That’s what it’s all about, and that’s why I don’t want to see it change to Australian ballot.”
“The meeting was well attended,” said Donna Lescoe, who led the petition drive to call the special meeting. “Many people spoke up. I think that was good. Obviously, I personally was disappointed in the outcome; it was very close. And it’s unfortunate that all those people won’t be able to vote on a $3 million budget.”
Attendees deliberated for about half an hour and then moved to resolve the debate by paper ballot.
“I think people feel that if they call for paper ballot, people will be more apt to vote the way they want to vote rather than having to do it by voice vote or by show of hands,” said Starksboro Town Clerk Cheryl Estey. “It’s more secretive, so they’re more apt to really vote the way they want to.”
The special town meeting was called when a petition with 67 signatories was submitted to the school board on June 24 meeting. That petition follows closely on the heels of a tumultuous school budgeting cycle for Robinson Elementary and schools county-wide. At the Feb. 28 Starksboro town meeting, participants voted to raise the proposed Robinson spending plan by roughly $195,000, to $3,005,169, from the school board’s proposed $2,809,709. A resident petition forced a revote on the budget at another town meeting in May, at which time a $2,925,000 spending plan was approved.
The budget approved in that May 2 special town meeting is about $115,000 more than that originally proposed by the school board in February, an increase of roughly 4 percent. Nonetheless, Robinson Elementary faced some tough choices after the final vote in May, and even with the increase in funds the final budget resulted in the loss of three staff positions: a library assistant, a para-educator and a literacy specialist.
Of the five towns in the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union, only Starksboro and Lincoln still vote the school budget on the floor of town meeting. Bristol, New Haven, and Monkton have all transitioned to voting by Australian ballot.
In Starksboro, the choice between ratifying a school budget by Australian ballot or on the floor at town meeting draws strong feelings on both sides. Both sides argue that their methodology gives voters the most voice and is the most truly democratic. Proponents of Australian ballot — which lets voters come to the polls between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., or vote by absentee ballot — argue that this method will give the greatest number of Starksboro residents the greatest opportunity to vote on the town’s biggest-ticket item — school spending.
Proponents of voting at town meeting argue that being able to question, discuss and amend from the floor, as happened dramatically at February’s meeting, is more truly democratic. Those in favor of Australian ballot suggest that Town Meeting Day could still be used to discuss the school budget and vote on the town budget only. And many point to the emergence of social media sites as a new and more viable way to voice one’s concerns and discuss community matters. Those in favor of town meeting point to a wealth of research from towns around Vermont that shows that moving the school budget vote to the polls dramatically decreases Town Meeting Day participation over time. Town meeting proponents argue that nothing can replace the integrity of face-to-face discussion that leads to a floor vote by voice, hand or paper.
“My husband and I both work every Saturday, so we can’t make town meeting but we also pay taxes in the town of Starksboro,” said Barbara Gibson, who works as a nail technician and massage therapist in Middlebury. Gibson’s two children have both been educated at Robinson, and she herself worked at the school for 10 years as an aide.
“My mother-in-law is gone for the winter, so again she can’t vote either,” Gibson. “But she pays taxes here. We would like the opportunity to vote on where our money goes. It seems to be a few people making the decisions for a lot of people.”
Vermont tax rates have led Gibson’s family to consider leaving Vermont, where she has lived for close to 20 years and her husband has lived all his life.
“It’s too expensive to live here,” Gibson said. “I will never be able to retire here.”
Hall, a retired builder and former Bristol town administrator who served on the Mount Abe school board for many years, wants to keep the traditional town meeting strong.
“If we went to Australian ballot, it would just be another nail in the coffin of town meeting. That’s happened to so many towns,” he said. “When you’re voting on a budget at the open meeting, it gives you the chance to amend the budget either up or down. You get discussion based on what the school board has done and you get a chance to answer questions and ask questions of the school board and that promotes a fairly lively debate because you know you’re going to vote on this question at some time during the morning. I think the dialogue is great.
“If you had an Australian ballot, you’d get a few people coming to the meeting to discuss the school, and you’d get a few people coming to discuss town business,” Hall continued. “For me, it’s the dialogue, it’s the bantering back and forth.”
Gaen Murphree is at [email protected]

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