Plainfield Residents Weigh Changes in School Voting
Beth Houde speaks during a discussion on whether to switch to all-day voting during a School Board Meeting at Plainfield Elementary School yesterday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Margaret Drye asks the School Board to clarify a few things during a hearing last night at the Plainfield Elementary School on a warrant article proposing to switch the annual school district meeting to an all-day balloting format.(Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Plainfield — Just a handful of residents attended a public hearing last night to discuss the article on this year’s warrant to switch the annual School Meeting from the traditional floor meeting to all-day balloting.
A switch to so-called Australian balloting system was defeated by residents in 2008 and again in 2009 after it failed to receive the required three-fifths majority.
Noticeably absent from the hearing last night was Maria Guzman, who organized the petition to put the proposal, known as SB2, on the warrant. As a result, much of the hour-long discussion was facilitated by school board members who offered those in attendance their reasons for the board’s unanimous opposition to the proposal.
Planning Board Member Mike Sutherland explained that the board’s main problem with SB2 was that the deliberative session, which precedes the voting, typically has low attendance, meaning that a small group of motivated residents could change the dollar amounts for the budget and other spending articles, such as school bonds, to anything they deemed appropriate.
“Isn’t that democracy?” interjected Planfield resident Tom Flynn.
Sutherland responded, “It is democracy in one form, it certainly is.”
Under the SB2 system, residents can amend the dollar amount in the budget and other appropriations at the deliberative session, which must take place at least 30 days before the town votes by ballot.
Sutherland said that the SB2 system usually leads to more people voting on the budget than the traditional model of the School Meeting, but that few people attend the deliberative session, which opens the door open for last-minute tinkering from factions of residents.
“From my perspective, we’re better of to have an open process where everybody participates together,” he said.
Norm Berman asked the School Board why other nearby districts, such the Dresden School District and the Mascoma Valley Regional School District, have switched to SB2.
School Board Chair Myra Ferguson said, “Usually, it’s done because the community is too large (to hold a School Meeting), and ours is relatively small. That’s the simple answer.”
Margaret Drye said she signed the petition circulated by Guzman to discuss the matter but didn’t indicate whether she supported the SB2 system.
She raised the point that in both the SB2 and the current format, town residents are asked to attend at least one meeting where they would weigh the budget and other spending articles.
“It would be incumbent upon the voters to either be there or not,” she said.
Sutherland agreed, saying, “Either way you look at it, it’s asking for participation.”
He continued, “Some people are trying to get away from participation. They think that SB2, for whatever reason, means you don’t have to attend those meetings.”
Flynn expressed concern that the School Board had not done enough to get the word out about the meeting last night. He said that he works in New York and has had a hard time keeping up with the school district’s budgeting process.
“It turns into dissemination of information from you guys, since you compose 80 percent of the budget, if not more,” he said. “This is really important as our property taxes go through the roof, so I think that you guys need to do a better job of getting the information out.”
One of the reasons why residents might favor an SB2 system is that it allows for a larger window of time in which to decide the school district’s budgetary issues, a point Plainfield resident Steve Taylor acknowledged when he spoke to the room after quietly listening for the bulk of the discussion.
“I understand the concerns that people have about the complicated lives we live today ... I just think it’s the kind of thing to be careful what you wish for,” he said. “If you go in this direction, it’s not perfect.”
Under Plainfield’s present format at the floor meetings, all articles requesting an appropriation are automatically voted on by paper ballot at Town and School meetings.
Beth Houde said that one of the things she values most about the annual School Meeting is the exchange of ideas, which she feared might be lost if the district switched to the new system of voting.
“I often learn and change votes based on what I learn at Town Meeting,” she said. Before the meeting was adjourned, Houde made a public offer to the crowd. If anyone needed a ride to the next town meeting, she said, she’d be happy to provide one.
Ben Conarck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.