Editorial: Mount Abe vote a mixed message, cautionary tale

On Thursday, Nov. 2, not Tuesday, Nov. 7 as I erroneously wrote in a prior editorial, Mount Abraham voters rejected a $36.6 million bond to extensively renovate the high school by a 93-vote margin, 1,261 to 1,168. The question now, according to school officials and members of the renovation committee, is not “what next” — but when should the next vote be and for how much.
To that end, this latest vote may offer a mixed message. Of particular note is that residents of the five-town district rejected a similar $32.6 million bond vote in 2014 by a much larger spread: 3,328-1,239.
What’s interesting about the two votes is that the number of supporters wasn’t higher. While the total number of voters dropped substantially in the most recent vote — and those who opposed the bond dropped dramatically (by 1,067) — 71 fewer voters supported the bond.
In off-year elections — and particularly when the election day doesn’t coincide with any other election and falls on an unusual day of the week (other elections throughout the state were held on the more typical Tuesday, the 7th) — it’s normal to have supporters of an issue turn out in greater numbers. As a percentage of the vote total, that was certainly true in this second election, but that’s not to suggest the public mood has shifted by a like amount and now is closer to a 50-50 split.
The turnout of both elections is telling. In 2014, residents cast their ballots on Tuesday, Nov. 4, which coincided with the gubernatorial and other state office and congressional races — generating the much higher turnout and a better cross-selection of the public sentiment. One might suppose that would be equally true today.
We do sincerely believe the five-town communities need to find a solution and commit to fixing the building’s shortcomings. We also believe that the five towns — Bristol, Lincoln, Starksboro, Monkton and New Haven — are selling themselves short in thinking growth is limited and the future is a downward spiral they must prepare for by cutting expenses to the bone, particularly on such vital assets as the district’s high school. As I argued in the previous editorial, a stellar school system can act as a stimulus to growth as much as a poor school can act as a detractor — and the five towns have many great assets to champion. There is good reason to think the five-town region will grow in the next 20-50 years and that long-term investments in public education will be repaid in a higher grand list and more vibrant communities.
But it’s also a mistake to slight the public vote.
Bonds twice defeated should be modified in a significant enough way to reflect the voters’ will. The approach needed isn’t rocket science: take the essentials required to meet today’s building codes and add up the costs; add factors that most influence academic performance (poor light and temperatures that are either too hot or cold are known to be detrimental in most facilities) and specific classroom issues that hinder high level work; fix the auditorium, which is a valuable link and source of pride between the students and the community. Tally those costs. If other items — like the second gym, a new library oriented for public use, or outside terraces for lunch — are too extravagant for the taxpayer’s appetite, cut them out. Sure they would create a better environment, but what bond proponents should not want to project is the sense they are being excessive or flamboyant.
Then, hold the vote on a day that drives the most voter participation. Local residents want elections they feel accurately reflect the public view, but if they think the powers-that-be pulled a fast one and passed a proposal of this significance with the lowest possible turnout, they’d call it into question, hold a revote and create a schism in the district that could take years to heal.
That said, opponents must shoulder the responsibility to help decide how to reduce the bond amount to an acceptable level. Contribute by being on the next renovation committee, or at the very least, attend the public meetings and help decide the critical issues being discussed. Just voting “no” won’t take the school district, or the five-member towns, forward.
Angelo Lynn

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