Wednesday November 21, 2012

Guilford School Board members say they’re confused over Monday night’s vote to not allow the future of their middle school to be the subject of an Australian ballot vote in March.

So are we.

Board members have been talking for months about possibly tuitioning seventh- and eighth-graders to Brattleboro Area Middle School. 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.

On Monday, board members 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 board Chairman Dan Systo.

However, the relatively small crowd gathered in the Guilford Central School’s gym on Monday opted for a floor vote, 28-26 against the Australian ballot.

"I’d love someone to explain this to me," board member Penny Lussier said. "I’m very confused."

Apparently there was some 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."

It’s true that some residents have no interest in spending an entire day at Town Meeting, and those same people probably don’t take the time to educate themselves about the issues being discussed and voted upon that day. But to imply that all of those who don’t attend Town Meeting are uninformed seems a little elitist to us.

There are many reasons why some residents won’t or can’t go to Town Meeting, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t informed or don’t have a vested interest in the outcome. Some may have health issues that prevent them from devoting a whole day to the annual event. Others have work or child care obligations, and ironically it’s the latter group who will be most affected by this vote.

"Ninety percent of the floor (participants) at the town meetings are not parents of students at the school," Systo said on Monday. "That’s disturbing to me."

Us, too.

Deciding on the fate of Guilford’s seventh- and eight-graders will have long-term implications for all of the town’s children, its educational system and the associated costs. It’s too important a decision to leave in the hands of the few dozen or so people who are able to attend Town Meeting. It should be opened up to all residents to ensure the fairest possible vote and outcome.

As resident Don McLean noted during Monday’s meeting, 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," he said.