The Universal Notebook: How to ruin a good Town Meeting

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The Yarmouth Town Meeting last week went pretty much as it has all 27 years we’ve lived in town. A few hundred people showed up in the middle school gym, the annual Latchstring Award was given for outstanding community service, retiring School Committee members were given Windsor chairs in recognition of six years of service, and then we proceeded to the dry recitation of the budget articles on the town warrant and a show-of-hands vote on each.

In the past, once the business of the meeting was completed, we would all await the results of the election of Town Council and School Committee members that had been going on all day at the Amvets hall across town. Thanks to the unwelcome monkeywrenching of the Baldacci administration, the state Department of Education, and the state Legislature, however, this year and last we had to wait a week to hold town elections and to ratify the school budget, which passed easily at Town Meeting.

In one of the more cynical provisions of what most people now understand as a totally useless school consolidation initiative, the state tried to appease tax-cappers by making it more difficult for municipalities to pass school budgets. Showing up at Town Meeting and voting is no longer sufficient. Now we have to hold a separate secret ballot vote to ratify the school budget. Not only that, but at Town Meeting, we also have to stop everything and hold written ballot votes in order to allow the school budget to exceed the state’s Essential Programs and Services guidelines. The budget ratification process is as big a waste of time as the school consolidation offensive is of money and energy.

When I first moved to town, there were usually three or four citizens at Town Meeting who complained that too much money was being spent on the schools. At the height of tax-cap mania, when we felt the school budget might be threatened by a couple dozen organized budget-cutters, school supporters rallied the troops and defeated attempts to reduce the school budget by margins of least 10-1.

This year, we were back down to two naysayers. Of course, thanks to the state, they get a second cut at the school budget apple this week on Election Day. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the budget will be overwhelmingly ratified.

Yarmouth was exempted from the consolidation craziness by virtue of being a high-performing school system, meaning administrative costs are low and student achievement is high. It should also be exempted from the school budget ratification boondoggle.

Many other towns with good school systems, Falmouth and School Administrative District 51, for instance, could have sought high-performing exemptions had their education leaders not drunk the consolidation Kool-Aid and failed to understand that there were no educational benefits or financial savings to be had. We are all grateful here in Yarmouth that Superintendent Ken Murphy and school Business Manager Carol Kinney – both, alas, retiring this year – saw through consolidation immediately. They tried to warn other school districts, but to no avail.

Once residents in neighboring communities figured out for themselves what a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing consolidation was, they rejected it, leaving several local communities in an education funding mess. The recent failure to pass the proposed SAD 51 budget is a symptom of the chaos caused by the state’s meddling.

The unwarranted obstacle the state-mandated school budget ratification process sets up is just one more reason why I truly believe we need to get state government out of the education business. Public education is just not an enterprise that politicians should have any hand in directing, or in the case of the budget approval process, derailing.


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beem-edgar-op.jpgThe Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s weekly personal look at the world around him.