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Luskin: Voting Season

02/06/12 5:55PM By Deborah Luskin
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(Host) Commentator Deborah Luskin lives in the Town of Newfane, where full participation in local government means attending and voting in separate meetings for the high school, the elementary school and the town.

(Luskin) Everyone who lives in Vermont knows there are more than four seasons. In addition to Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall, there’s Mud Season, Black Fly Season, and Hunting. In Newfane, where I live, we have one more: Voting Season.

Voting Season starts on the first Tuesday in February and runs through the first Tuesday in March. In that time, the voters in Newfane are asked to attend three different meetings and vote.

The information meeting for the Union High School is the season opener, held in the school gym. Voters from the five towns in the union district are invited to show up, ask questions, and voice opinions about the education offered in a school that serves four hundred students, grades 7 through 12. If there’s a bond vote, attendance can be robust; but typically these meetings are not well attended – especially since the vote on the budget takes place by Australian ballot the following day. A six and a half million-dollar budget hangs in the balance, but not everyone who is eligible will vote. Some voters won’t even know about it, some will forget, and some simply won’t care.

But for those who do vote in Newfane, there’s no rest. On the second Saturday in February, we’re warned to attend the annual meeting of the Newfane and Brookline Joint School District, which educates the two towns’ 127 elementary school-aged children, grades K through 6, and oversees a budget of nearly two million dollars. This is only the second year of the joint venture, so voters have lots of concerns, especially since the one budget affects the tax rates in the two towns differently. We vote on the budget right there. Last year, about sixty people were present, and the budget passed.

Finally, we have Town Meeting on the first Tuesday in March. With school meetings already played out by then, we’re left to vote about a million and a half dollars to pay town employees, maintain roads, and provide social services. Some years we debate impeachment, Vermont Yankee or foreign policy. These issues are debated from the floor, often passionately and mostly politely. After all, this is all between neighbors, the people we depend on to pull us out of a ditch – or help us after a flood. Typically, Town Meeting lasts from nine until noon and is followed by a community meal. We elect our town officers by Australian ballot, and the polls are open all day.

While I understand both the economic and educational logic of consolidating our schools, I lament that doing so has fractured our voting districts by creating so many different governing bodies and an entire season of meetings and votes. Our sense of community is damaged, and our sense of shared responsibility for educating our community’s children is diminished. I wonder if there isn’t some way to bring all the decision-making back to each town, where, instead of an entire voting season, we could manage all our business in a single, meaningful Town Meeting Day.

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