Town Meeting Day nearly stretches into two in Orange
ORANGE — A community divided over the cost of a small-school education argued late into the night Tuesday, turning Town Clerk Rita Bisson’s swan song into a really long day at the office.
There may have been longer traditional town meetings in Orange, but not in the 33 years that Bisson has served as clerk and treasurer.
“This was special,” Bisson said of a fiery five-hour session that began on the first Tuesday in March but came perilously close to ending on Wednesday.
Orange’s evening town meeting — an old-school affair where local officials are nominated and elected from the floor — started promptly at 6:30 p.m. It adjourned moments before 11:30 p.m., according to Bisson, who didn’t get home until after midnight.
“We had a late night,” said the woman who on Wednesday had already settled into her new role as the part-time assistant to her former assistant — newly elected Town Clerk Kathie Felch.
Bisson was nominated Tuesday night but politely declined, paving the way for Felch’s election and a transition that saw the two women swap jobs after one swore in the other on Wednesday.
Both had their hands full Tuesday, as Felch dealt with the presidential primary and Bisson tended to a town meeting that she said was, well, memorable.
“I went out with a bang,” joked Bisson, who wasn’t talking about the fact she was presented with a framed legislative resolution honoring her decades of service to Orange.
“People were pretty wound up about the school budget,” she said.
According to Bisson, a meeting that began with a moment of silence for longtime Town Moderator Kermit Richardson, who died in January, got loud pretty quickly when talk turned to a $2.7 million school budget. That budget, she said, was rejected, reconsidered and then cut before it was approved during a span of three dizzying hours.
Bisson said voters expressed real concern about the sustainability of a K-through-8 school system that serves 90 children and tuitions 51 other students to high schools of their choice.
“I think they think the state needs to come up with a better way to fund education,” Bisson said, noting voters weren’t happy that Rep. Phil Winters, R-Williamstown, spent more time updating them on the future of the Vermont State Hospital than he did discussing education reform.
“In Orange (the state hospital) is not a top priority when people are losing their houses and can’t pay their taxes,” she said.
According to Bisson, voters made a statement — or at least thought they did — when they rejected the school board’s budget, 62-44, in the first of a series of paper ballots.
However, even as Moderator Adrian Otterman was preparing to move to the next question, Bisson said some of those at Town Hall insisted that if the school board didn’t pick an acceptable number it was up to those in attendance to do it.
Otterman told voters they were free to reconsider the budget defeat, which led to another paper ballot and an even closer vote. The motion to reconsider was approved, 57-50, Bisson said.
That decision angered some who wanted the budget defeat to stand. However, Bisson said that once the budget was back in play it was quickly amended to reflect a $43,000 cut, then a motion was made to amend it again to last year’s level of $2.6 million — more than $120,000 less than the board was asking for.
Bisson said the latter amendment was defeated, 60-45, and the $43,000 cut was ultimately approved by that same margin.
According to Bisson, the discussion featured renewed interest in exploring a possible school merger with neighboring Washington and a brief debate about whether future school budgets should be voted by all-day Australian balloting. That idea was rejected by a voice vote.
“Town meeting is town meeting and they want to leave it that way,” she said.
Bisson said school board members told voters they have no immediate plans to designate a high school in an effort to cut the cost of high school tuition. As a result, parents will remain able to decide where to send their high school-age students.
In other school business, Bisson said voters did agree to spend up to $30,000 to pave the parking lot at Orange Center School and elected two new school board members. Alan Small was elected to a three-year term, and Sarah White won a two-year term. Small was the only candidate nominated from the floor, and White defeated Erica Jean, 60-42. The two new board members will fill the seats that had been held by Pam Bean and Sean Brown.
According to Bisson, the “town” portion of town meeting went comparatively quickly and the crowd thinned considerably after the school budget debate.
“The house kind of cleared out,” she said, explaining that perhaps 40 voters stayed until the end and didn’t request any paper ballots.
Bisson said voters easily approved the Select Board’s proposed $227,640 general fund budget and $424,185 highway fund budget and agreed to spend up to $140,000 on a new town truck. They also voted to increase the property assessment exemption for veterans to $40,000, from $25,000, she said.
Felch was elected the town’s clerk and treasurer, and Selectman George Wild Jr. was re-elected to his seat on the town board, according to Bisson.
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