Small Town Democracy In Action

I've just returned from an exercise in small town democracy.

While most of our town's deliberations and voting on spending for municipal functions and education take place in February and March, an education issue going back to the March voting has come to a head and our school board decided it had to meet this head on rather than continuing an ongoing fight in the local papers, with heated point/counterpoint letters to the editor creating some of the best local gossip seen around here in some time.

It all came down to what is called a petition warrant article, in this case dealing with one specific petition warrant article that was aimed at eliminating an administrative position the petitioners believed was never authorized when our school district broke away from a larger school administrative unit (or SAU) 13 years ago. The warrant article passed by a 2 to 1 margin, but the school board ignored it, claiming it was “advisory only.” That didn't sit well with a lot of folks in our town.

On top of that, the school board announced the day before the vote in March that they had hired a replacement to fill administrative position being vacated due to the retirement of the person occupying that position. Quite a few people saw that as a slap in the face, taking it as arrogance on the part of board by flaunting their decision ahead of the vote as if to say “We don't care what you want, we going to do it our way.”

But was it arrogance? Or was it poor timing on their part? It doesn't matter, the reason being that perception is reality. (If the voters see it as arrogance then it is arrogance, motives not withstanding.)

A lot of people showed up for this 'special' school board meeting, held at the our high school auditorium, and a lot of people spoke up, not pleased with the way the board handled the matter. There had been a lot of name calling in the letters to the editor published in our two local papers. Some of the anger displayed in those letters was evident at the meeting as person after person took the opportunity to address their comments and questions to the board. There was plenty of fancy footwork (figuratively speaking) displayed by the board and the school district's attorney. A lot of people left the meeting feeling nothing had been accomplished.

Some questions did get answered. The one I asked dealt with what criteria is used to determine whether a petition warrant article is advisory or binding. (If the petition deals with a specific action, such as adding or cutting funding for a specific purpose, such as a job or activity within the town or school district, then it's binding. If it doesn't address a specific action, then it's advisory.)

One thing is certain, the people got involved in how our school board is performing its function. Another thing that's certain is that a number of school board members will be seeing some serious competition come the next election in March.

And so it goes in small town New Hampshire.