In looking at what took place around the valley, the Australian ballot vote in Wilmington was as controversial as anything. In short, voters were being asked to approve by floor vote an article to set up an Australian ballot to vote to have all town items decided by Australian ballot. A bit confusing, for sure. In essence, supporters said they wanted to increase voter participation in Town Meeting issues by removing them from floor discussion and having a paper ballot for everything from budgets to bridge work. That change would have allowed for ballot booth voting throughout the day, and remove the need for someone to leave work or other commitments to be at the meeting during the day. In the end, after some procedural maneuvering to simplify the discussion, voters turned thumbs down on the idea.
While voters strongly rejected it, the sentiment behind the article deserves continued consideration.
The idea of increasing participation in Town Meeting is not one to take lightly. As we’ve said before, there seems to be some middle ground officials in Wilmington could consider, such as holding Town Meeting on the Monday evening or Saturday prior to the first Tuesday in March. Wilmington wouldn’t be the first town in the area to move their meetings. Readsboro, Searsburg, and the Wardsboro School District all meet the Monday evening before Town Meeting day.
After all, there’s no doubt Town Meeting is a tradition worth holding on to. But at what cost? If no one participates, how useful is it? We encourage folks on all sides of this issue to continue talking and see what can be done to increase turnout.
Speaking of voter turnout, there’s no doubt that turnout was pretty strong in Dover, Marlboro, and Wardsboro. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that those towns were voting on whether or not to merge their school districts as part of an Act 46-driven consolidation plan in the Windham Central Supervisory Union.
In the end, only voters in Dover supported the plan. Marlboro voted it down by a wide margin, Wardsboro by only 17 votes. It shouldn’t come as a surprise the merger was voted down in Marlboro. The plan was very controversial there. In fact, it wouldn’t have really been a surprise for the plan to be voted down in any or all of the towns. There were as many uncertainties as there were benefits, and voters often don’t like to mess with their schools, especially when the perception is that Montpelier is forcing something on them.
In many ways, Wardsboro and Dover were a good fit for an expanded district, but voters didn’t see it that way. So now school officials, especially in Wardsboro, will have to decide what to do next. Will someone petition for a revote in Wardsboro? After all, the vote was close. A reconsideration vote will have to take place in the next month, but given the narrow defeat that is certainly a possibility.
We don’t foresee any revote in Marlboro. The defeat was to be expected, as residents in that town had to grapple not just with the school district merger idea, but also were being asked to give up their seventh and eighth grades to accomplish the merger. That was a big pill for many in the town to swallow, and in the end they couldn’t choke it down.
This was just the first round of decisions Dover, Marlboro, and Wardsboro will have to make in the next year or two concerning Act 46. By voting down the merger, the path is less clear than voting for it, but both directions had risks. Now it will be up to officials in those three towns to determine the next steps in the process. Where that process goes next is anyone’s guess. No doubt there will be more committees, more consolidation talk, and more handwringing over the fate of local schools. After all, Act 46 isn’t going away, and more and more school districts will have to run the law’s gantlet. The law gives most of the final say to the state, in the form of the Agency of Education and the State Board of Education. Those two entities hold the final say over who consolidates, how that happens, and when. By the time 2019 rolls around, every school district in the state will have been touched by some part of Act 46.
The bottom line, when it comes to Act 46, is that it ain’t over till it’s over. And it ain’t over yet.