Poor little Windham. By now nearly everyone is Southern Vermont knows our story. Our school is very small and many of the parents want their children to go to a larger school with more offerings. But a majority of the school board vigorously resists such change, citing broad community support for the school.
A spunky bunch of parents finally challenged the longstanding myth that everyone in Windham thought the school was “our little jewel.” They petitioned for a vote on closing the school and when the votes were in, the myth was shattered: the close-the-school vote won by two votes.
One long-standing member of the school board, known for her statement that the school will close “over my dead body,” swiftly organized a petition for a “reconsideration” vote, reportedly circulating new petitions in the room where a recount had just confirmed the two-vote margin. After another few weeks of nastiness, culminating in a second vote, the keep-the-school open side declared victory. By three votes.
Many of us were disappointed, with an obscure sense that something unfair had gone on. There was anger too, which eventually came to focus on a family of five who don’t live in Windham and whose children attend a school in the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union (BRSU), but three of whom nevertheless voted here. Given their public advocacy for the school and close association with the school board majority, it is certain that they voted to keep the school open. In fact, it can be said that they provided the three-vote margin of “victory.”
How, you might ask, can they live in one town and vote in another? The Vermont Secretary of State tells us that people owning a property in Town A but living in Town B, can vote legally in Town A if they express their intention to reside in Town A in the future. The naive folk of Windham naturally assumed that the family intended to return to their Windham home, given that they voted here. Curious (and angry) about the matter, a Windham resident filed a FOIA request for the Declaration of Residency, a form that must be completed when enrolling children in any of the BRSU schools. To his dismay, he found clear evidence of fraud: the home owner states unequivocally in her declaration that her Windham house is not habitable and that she is trying to sell the property. Hence, she has no intention of returning to the property to live. Asserting voter fraud, two parents of children in the Windham school filed a court challenge to the second referendum.
To be clear, our finding of fraud has nothing in common with Trumpist “anti-fraud” activity, the hallmark of which is that it seems manufactured, packaged, and distributed from above. No, our fraud is intimate and homegrown, which somehow makes it worse. In a town as small as ours (around 320 registered voters), it’s pretty easy to know a lot about everyone, which you would think would inhibit such blatant wrong-doing. But such familiarity can also stifle action to expose something as unpleasant as voter fraud. We all knew that this family did not live here, but who wanted to take the next step? We were able to demonstrate fraud only because we finally got mad enough to try to “get the goods” on the erring family.
And while it may be hard to commit fraud in a small town, when it does happen it can be significant. The parents who started the drive to close the school want their children to go to school elsewhere, but they are trapped. By three fraudulent votes. Unless they are able to pay tuition to another school in addition to the Windham education tax, they have no choice about their kids’ education.
Another point has come up as well: when voter fraud is suspected, where, short of an expensive court battle, can a Vermont citizen turn for help? We contacted people in the Secretary of State’s office who could only offer the advice that we should hold a Board of Civil Authority meeting to purge our voter list. This helps for the future, but what about our recent referendum? We tried to contact the Attorney General, but the AG’s office has an off-putting system based on a web form with no feedback. So there’s really no way to know if anyone sees your complaint. Very dispiriting.
However the court battle turns out, two things seem certain: disappointment, resignation, and anger will remain high in our little town; and, anyway, the fate of the school is already determined. Vermont’s demographic data show a steady decline in student numbers, with experts declaring that the trend is unlikely to be reversed. So Windham can limp along for a while longer or it can acknowledge reality, close the school, and send our students to another school with more of what many parents want for their children.