EAST MONTPELIER — A tiny sliver of voters in the five-town Washington Central Supervisory Union have grudgingly set the stage for a state-ordered school district merger scheduled to launch July 1.
Nearly two months after abruptly adjourning the organizational meeting of the “Washington Central Unified Union School District,” voters made all the decisions they were asked to during the reconvened Monday night meeting held in the U-32 Middle and High School auditorium.
Less than 150 of the more than 7,800 registered voters in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester attended the session, and a majority of them overruled just-elected Moderator Gus Seelig to make one thing clear at the outset.
“Nothing that happens tonight is consent to the forced merger,” Middlesex resident Kyle Landis-Marinello said.
That was the substance of a non-binding resolution Landis-Marinello urged Seelig to allow voters to consider at the front-end of the meeting, notwithstanding the veteran Calais moderator’s stated preference of taking it up after the warned business was complete.
Seelig was overruled, triggering a discussion about whether the proposed resolution suggested voters in all five towns did not support the merger.
“This is not where we want to be right now,” Berlin resident Diane Nichols-Fleming said, speaking in favor of a resolution that would allow her to voice that opinion.
Others were puzzled by the motivation and at least one — Worcester resident Rick Thibodeau — suggested the resolution was misleading.
“It’s worded like we’re all opposed to it,” Thibodeau said of the proposed merger.
That wasn’t the case.
In one of the closer voice votes of the two-hour meeting, Seelig concluded the resolution was approved.
It wasn’t the only time Seelig strayed from the warned script, though the strategic juggling of other articles was requested by the supervisory union’s executive committee.
Before asking voters when to hold future annual meetings of the merged district, committee members wanted to know whether those elections would be conducted by Australian ballot or decided on the floor of an open meeting like the one held at U-32 on Monday.
Though the question provoked a protracted discussion that saw some express a preference for the traditional town meeting format, they were in the distinct minority.
Most agreed that budget votes — particularly one large enough to finance the operation of five elementary schools and U-32 — should not be left to those willing and able to attend a school district meeting.
Proponents of using Australian ballot said that’s how voters in all five towns approve the U-32 budgets and how voters in four of them — Worcester is the exception — approve budgets for their elementary schools.
Middlesex School Director Brian Tagliaferro had the only applause line of the evening when he argued “accessibility” trumped the opportunity to have a face-to-face discussion when it comes to voting.
“Anything that is going to limit participation is not a good idea,” he said.
Voters were more leery of a proposal to the extend the use of Australian ballot to “all other public questions.”
Some struggled to understand what they complained was an overly broad term, while others suggested they are routine “housekeeping” questions like authorizing the school board to borrow money and accept grants.
“It’s not nefarious,” said Alice Angney, a now-retired superintendent who lives in East Montpelier.
Voters rejected East Montpelier resident Michael Duane’s suggestion they table action on that portion of the article for a year, agreeing the Australian ballot was the best way for voters in the sprawling district to make decisions. Though the voice vote was closer than the one involving the adoption of budgets, it comfortably passed.
So did an article requiring the use of Australian ballot to elect school board members. That article passed after Seelig ruled an amendment proposed by Berlin resident Robert Wernecke out of order.
Uncomfortable with a requirement that members of the new board be elected in district-wide votes, Wernecke suggested each community use Australian ballot to select its own representatives.
Without amending articles of agreement in a way that would alter the proposed composition of new board, several questioned the constitutionality of what Wernecke was proposing.
U-32 School Director Kari Bradley was one of them.
Bradley noted Wernecke’s amendment was a significant change from what was warned and raised legal questions associated with state-imposed articles of agreement. He said the proposed change could be considered in the context of amending those articles of agreement.
“This is a topic for another day,” Bradley said.
Seelig agreed, and voters chose to use Australian ballot for school board elections.
With those decisions out of the way, voters agreed to elect a school board for the merged district on May 21 and to schedule subsequent school district elections on Town Meeting Day in March. They also authorized the yet-to-be-elected board to both borrow money in anticipation of payments from the state and to pay for expenses incurred in the run-up to the merged district’s launch.
Voters also established compensation for the officers they elected Monday night, as well as those they’ll elect on May 21.
Seelig, who was elected moderator after Paul Hanlon declined the nomination, will be paid $250 for his services.
Mary Ormsby will be paid $500 for her role as clerk after defeating Rosemary Morse for that position. Ormsby, who lives in Calais, was also elected treasurer and will receive $6,600 for those duties.
Voters also agreed to set the annual stipend for board members at $1,000 after rejecting an amendment that would have provided no compensation at all. U-32 School Director Carl Witke was among those who spoke against the amendment proposed by Berlin School Director Vera Frazier.
Time aside, Witke said there are costs associated with serving on a school board, and he worried offering no stipend would shrink the pool of those interested in running but for whom transportation or child care were financial hurdles.
“By not compensating, we limit who can serve,” he said.
Calais resident Barry Bernstein agreed, suggesting those who forego the stipend can donate it back to the district. For the work involved, he said: “One thousand dollars is a real deal.”