GUILFORD -- In a surprise development, a slim majority of voters decided on Monday to not allow the future of Guilford’s middle school to be the subject of an Australian ballot vote in March.
Monday’s vote will not end the debate about sending Guilford’s seventh- and eighth-graders to Brattleboro Area Middle School next year. In fact, the matter likely still will come up at Town Meeting in March.
But officials say an Australian ballot would have made it easier for more residents to vote on the middle school issue. That’s why one school board member described herself as "baffled" after Monday’s vote.
"I’d love someone to explain this to me," board member Penny Lussier said. "I’m very confused."
Board members have been talking for months about possibly tuitioning seventh- and eighth-graders to BAMS. Some cite a shrinking enrollment in Guilford and the additional educational and extracurricular activities available at the larger school in Brattleboro.
At the same time, some have expressed concern about losing the individualized, "place-based" curriculum available to middle school students in Guilford.
There also are cost considerations, though Guilford board members have said their goal is to make the two middle school scenarios as financially neutral as possible.
But Monday’s special vote was about none of that.
Instead, board members simply were asking for permission to set up an Australian-ballot vote regarding the middle school on Town Meeting day. That would have allowed residents to cast a ballot on the matter at their convenience at any point during the day.
In contrast, voting on a Town Meeting article happens only at a set point during the meeting when that article is discussed.
"The whole idea of the Australian ballot was to make sure that everybody in town gets to vote on this issue," said Dan Systo, Guilford School Board chairman.
Officials further clarified that, due to a recent rule change, there can be discussion at Town Meeting about a matter that’s up for Australian ballot.
There was little debate before Monday’s vote, and the relatively small crowd gathered in the Guilford Central School’s gym opted for a paper ballot. When those ballots were counted, the Australian-ballot proposal was voted down by a 28-26 vote.
That sparked a lengthy discussion that spilled into the regularly scheduled board meeting down the hall in the school’s library.
There seemed to be concern that an Australian ballot might have stunted further discussion on the middle school or would have led to an uninformed vote: One resident remarked on Monday that "informed votes are more important than just raw numbers."
But resident Don McLean also noted that a vote limited to Town Meeting participants can be skewed by low turnout.
"You have 10 people leave to go to the bathroom, and the vote comes out differently," McLean said.
In reference to Monday’s special vote, McLean said there seemed to be confusion about it -- a sentiment echoed by a few others.
Ron Stahley, superintendent of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, was present for the vote and said he "clearly heard that some people wanted to have more discussion" on the middle school issue.
That left some board members frustrated. On one hand, Systo said there will be plenty of discussion in coming months at school board meetings.
"Almost every meeting (between) now and Town Meeting, we’re going to be discussing this," he said.
On the other hand, Systo and Lussier also wondered what it would take to get more residents involved in those discussions. In response to a question about delaying the middle school decision, Systo said the issue has been debated for years.
"How long to you prolong it?" he asked. "How long do you beat a dead horse?"
Lussier added: "At some point, serious decisions have to be made. We’re going to have to come up with a budget."
She also wondered whether a majority of residents thought the middle school debate was being rushed.
Stephen Redmond, a Guilford Center Road resident who participated in both the special vote and subsequent board meeting, said he wants more specifics before making a decision.
And he saw Monday’s debate as a positive development.
"I think we will see a lot of discussion now," Redmond said. "I think this is a good sign for either side of this issue."