Twin Valley students design governments

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WHITINGHAM — Balancing taxation and community needs caused some struggle for students as they created their own governments in a group project at Twin Valley Middle High School.

"It's hard to keep everybody happy," eighth grader Hannah Woodson told Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, during presentations Monday at Twin Valley.

Woodson said her group didn't always agree on the number of leaders needed for their system or how services would work. They felt the president should have a two-year term. They also pitched a flat tax, where citizens would pay a percentage of their salary.

Eighth grader Riley Dionne said he found it most difficult to collectively agree on concepts. His group had a "tiny argument" over how laws would be passed and decided the public would cast votes to help the process.

"It's going to be slow and costly," warned Sen. Jeanette White.

Eighth grader Jimmy Place said he mostly agreed with his partner except on leadership. Ultimately, the duo went with a council of leaders.

"We have 11 leaders, one of which is the tiebreaker," Place said when describing how voting would work. "That's the leader of the council."

Their philosophy, like other groups, was "tax more, give more."

"They're far more sensible than others it seems," said Scott Salway, social studies teacher at Twin Valley, who found students were largely for the greater good. "They said everyone is going to complain about taxes anyway."

Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, took a look at one group's poster board.

"Which drugs are we decriminalizing?" she asked.

Eighth grader Desiree Moore said crack, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine would be outlawed.

Her group also proposed having all the branches of the United States government and then another one that looked primarily at finances.

"We wanted the other branches to focus on other things," said Moore, citing America's large debt load.

Eighth grader Matt Hammond said a computer game allowed students to look at balancing the costs of programs and services.

"It really struck me how you could lose so much money by funding one thing," he said, calling research for the project "stressful but fun."

White said she was "really impressed" with how serious the students took the exercise.

"I thought you all did an incredible job," said Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington.

As a former middle school history teacher, Balint said, "it was fun to be back with you."

Former state representative David Larsen said he taught in Wilmington for 32 years and in the Whitingham building for his final and 33th year.

"Eighth graders were always my favorite," he said.

Sibilia asked if any students were considering running for public office and only Hammond's hand went up.

"Every single one of you in this room can," Sibilia said. "I went to this school. I graduated from this school. My family didn't have a lot of money. This is what our government is about. everybody learning and participating. If that ever becomes a dream of yours, don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it."

Alex Beck, workforce and education specialist at Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., is organizing a class trip to the Statehouse. He offered to set up visits to committee rooms or to legislators discussing specific issues.

Trevor Barlow, who ran for governor this year and started a software company, advised students to think hard about time management.

"You really have to learn what your priorities are," he said.

A lot of aspects of the lawmaker's job are challenging, Balint told the class.

"Right now, one of the hardest things is we live in a hyper partisan, hyper polarized landscape," she said, later pointing to a politeness still found among state legislators where they can sit down to meals together and talk across party lines. "When you do that — when you see people as human beings, not just as partisan political operatives in a political party — then you have a basis on which you can govern together."

Sibilia called the Vermont House of Representatives "the most politically diverse legislative body in the country."

"So there are five elected Independents, at least six elected Progressives, a number of Republicans and a whole lot of Democrats," she said. "But we do work together."

Salway wanted to know why students should care about government.

"You will get out of your government what you put into it," Sibilia said. "Just like most things in life."

Balint told students everything decided by the Legislature will have an impact on them — from school funding to the opioid epidemic.

"You already have a stake whether you have realized it or not," she said. "The other thing I'll say is it's wicked fun. I love politics. I always have loved politics."

She sees in Statehouse conversations a "microcosm of human experience."

"Men and women have died for our right to go to the gym in early November, write down a name and put it in the ballot box," Larsen said. "In my opinion, you have an obligation. It's part of citizenship. It's part of being in this country ... It really does matter."

Salway told students they did not have to wait until they were 18 years old to get involved.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

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