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Ways of Seeing by Laurie Cox: Bigger doesn’t always mean better

If you have ever climbed one of our local peaks or ridges, you surely felt exhilarated as you looked out upon our world. There stretch the lakes, wooded valleys with fields and orchards, winding roads and rivers. There nestle small towns with iconic steeples, houses of mixed age and architecture, almost pages from Vermont Life magazine. It is all real, and from on high you can see it in its entirety.
I recently drove north for an appointment. I like Burlington well enough, but roads lined with car dealerships, fast food restaurants, or brand-new sub-divisions do not draw me. Avoiding big box stores, I would rather shop in something human-sized. When I read about the “need” for our state to grow, grow, grow, it makes me wonder. Size does matter, but bigger is not necessarily better.
The late Morris Earle of New Haven used to write about and even run for office on the mantra “Small is Beautiful,” words from a book entitled “Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered” by E.F. Schumacher. Schumacher wrote: “What is the meaning of democracy, freedom, human dignity, standard of living, self-realization, fulfillment? Is it a matter of goods, or of people? Of course it is a matter of people. But people can be themselves only in small comprehensible groups.” As our society grows, how can we maintain those small groups?
As a child, looking at a book of iconic photographs, I was struck by one — a man standing up, speaking. He is speaking from the floor at a New Hampshire town meeting. My parents told me how that sort of meeting was the essence of democracy, with all townspeople participating, sharing opinions and ideas, each voting for what would happen in their community. When did that change? It’s been happening slowly but consistently during my 50-plus years here.
Larger towns no longer have meetings, and the towns that do often note sparse attendance. Instead of everything being handled at town meeting, items are voted on by Australian ballot. A couple of years ago, in Ripton’s meeting, we addressed town issues and budgets and our elementary school’s needs and budget. The following day, we voted by ballot for the UD3 and Hannaford Center budgets. Now we addressed only town issues.
In February I attended the ACSD (consolidated district) budget information meeting. We were not there to vote — the budget had already been set. I counted the participants. Excluding board members and administrators, I counted 28 attendees. One fourth of them were from the smallest town in the mix: Ripton.
Yet Ripton essentially does not have representation. We have a district board of thirteen individuals, seven from Middlebury and one each from the six other towns, but they are all elected by the whole district. People from other towns could elect someone from Ripton who garnered zero votes from their own community. The same is true in every district town except Middlebury.
Often, when we seek to economize or create efficiencies, we lose the over-view. If the whole focus is providing an adequate education for the least money, we lose sight of what all those towns in the district need to thrive. Or what our state needs to thrive, or what is important for our environment. Who is thinking about what happens when those small towns wither? It’s like when communities focus only on growth, not realizing that the big box stores, fast food restaurants, etc. are literally paving over paradise. And then it is too late.
At times during my tenure on Ripton’s selectboard, we chose to reduce what was spent on town needs because of a rising school budget. We were in a position to see the whole picture in our community and balance it out. Who is taking the whole view now? Who can actually ensure that majority rule doesn’t harm the minority in our school district?
If being bigger is going to make us better, we need to remember it is the people who have value. Yes, costs matter, but the only real value is our environment, our towns large and small, our children’s education and the future of us all.
What needs to be bigger is our outlook, because the decisions we make in any one arena can have lasting results where we didn’t think to look. Whether we are trying to run schools or the state, businesses or farms, build a home, raise a family, or simply pay our taxes, let’s slow down and take that view from the mountain top. Small is beautiful, and we need the big picture.
Laurie Cox is a retired school counselor and long-time Ripton selectboard member. Besides occasional writing, she sings with Maiden Vermont, pursues art, takes long hikes with her dog(s) and seasonally gardens. She also is about to become more actively involved in things political, environmental, and just.

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