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Published in Print: April 13, 2005, as A Civic Education

A Civic Education

After meeting as a community to set policy on schools and other matters since 1766, residents of Deerfield are altering that democratic process to make room for modern demands.

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One Saturday each year, when the cold weather begins to break and the maple sap rises, the citizens in this central New Hampshire town pull on their boots and head to the town’s only public school for the annual school district meeting.

Residents of Deerfield, N.H., vote on one of several education policy issues on the agenda for the annual school district meeting on March 19 at Deerfield Community School.
Residents of Deerfield, N.H., vote on one of several education policy issues on the agenda for the annual school district meeting on March 19 at Deerfield Community School.
—Photo by William B. Plowman

Rare outside the six New England states, school district meetings are gatherings where voters debate and then decide how to educate the town’s youngest residents. Should they build a new school? Raise teachers’ salaries? Those and other questions are all up for deliberation at the annual meeting.

The traditional New England school meeting—like the town meeting, which Deerfield holds on a different Saturday in March—is democracy at its purest. Every one of Deerfield’s 3,212 registered voters is entitled to attend either meeting and have a direct say in local government.

As there are few public services here besides education, though, the school meeting is where the money is. In fact, according to R. Andrew Robertson, who chairs the Deerfield board of selectmen, or town council, the decisions citizens make at the school meeting account for as much as three-quarters of their property-tax rate. Though Deerfield has held regular school meetings over most of its official 239-year-old history, this year’s session was more historic than most. It was the town’s last traditional-style school meeting. And that change has big implications for local education.

Under a 1997 New Hampshire law, known as Senate Bill 2, towns can opt to break their public-voting meetings into two events: a hearing where citizens hear the issues and decide which ones to bring to a vote, and a separate session where voters simply show up throughout the day to cast ballots. By a thin margin, Deerfield residents voted March 8 to shed the old and go with the new. Unless the town decides otherwise at a later date, the era of the old-fashioned town meeting has ended for this New England town.

7:30 a.m.

Deerfield’s last traditional school meeting dawns in perfect “sugaring” weather; freezing cold nights followed by warm, snow-melting days.

In the Deerfield Community School gymnasium, where the March 19 meeting will take place, tarps cover the hardwood floor to shield it from being scuffed by metal folding chairs. Technicians are wiring microphones, and the custodian has pulled out the bleachers.

By 8:30 a.m., residents are drifting in, a few toting knitting supplies or collapsible lawn chairs.

Nancy Gross totes her 18-month-old daughter, Sophia, on her back during a voting session on school issues at Deerfield Community School.
Nancy Gross totes her 18-month-old daughter, Sophia, on her back during a voting session on school issues at Deerfield Community School.
—Photo by William B. Plowman

“Sometimes, the only time you see certain people is at the town meeting or the school meeting,” says George F. Clark, a 77-year-old Deerfield native. Clad in his navy-blue Deerfield Volunteer Fire Association sweatshirt, Clark and his wife, Beryl, are among the early arrivals.

As regular attendees of the town and school district meetings, the Clarks profess sadness at seeing the tradition end. George Clark links the change to the town’s growing size and shifting demographics. Once largely a farming community, this 50-square-mile town is evolving into a bedroom community for workers commuting to jobs in the New Hampshire cities of Manchester, Concord, and Portsmouth.

“A lot of people have moved here because they wanted to get out to the country to live,” Clark says, “but a lot of them don’t take much of an interest in the town. They just hang their hat here.”

“They don’t want to go to a town meeting and sit all day,” he adds.

It’s a familiar story statewide, according to experts at the University of New Hampshire’s Center for Public Policy Studies, in Concord, the state capital.

They say that towns tend to drop traditional-style public-voting meetings as their populations approach the 5,000 mark. That seems to be the point, experts say, when the meetings become too cumbersome or when citizens psychologically seem to disconnect from their local government. Deerfield has a shade over 4,000 residents.

The Clarks are concerned that the new meeting structure will make it harder to pass spending measures. They say most voters will skip the hearings where school leaders make their case to the public and then make uninformed choices at the ballot box.

“They’ll just vote no on everything because taxes are high here,” George Clark predicts. It’s easier for voters to vote their pocketbooks, opponents of the new format contend, when they don’t have to look their neighbors in the eye.

Thomas Haley, who has been the superintendent of schools for Deerfield and four neighboring towns for 11 years, says Clark has a point. Among the towns whose schools Haley oversees, Deerfield is the third to modify its school meeting. In both of the other towns, he says, it became tougher to get spending increases approved under the new format.

The prospect of dwindling financial support for schools worries parents and educators because Deerfield’s public school, with 578 students in prekindergarten through 8th grade, is already operating beyond capacity. The town sends high school students, at public expense, to six different schools within a half-hour’s drive of town. Looking to accommodate all of its students, the town bought 70-plus acres four years ago, but Deerfield voters have repeatedly rebuffed proposals to build schools there.

9 a.m.

Douglas Leavitt, the meeting moderator, steps up to the microphone.

“Good morning, it is now 9 a.m., Saturday, March 19, at Deerfield Community School, and the Deerfield school meeting has now come to order,” says Leavitt, who was elected to this one-day-a-year job.

An early issue on the ballot is whether to approve a contract that would give teachers a 6 percent pay raise. Harriet Cady, a fixture at most Deerfield public meetings, is among the first citizens to question the proposal.

“In a year when people have taken one hit after another with costs and taxes, and we know that the state is coming down with less money, can somebody tell me why you are coming here with this increase?” she asks.

Deerfield residents hear arguments for and against school budget proposals before casting their ballots.
Deerfield residents hear arguments for and against school budget proposals before casting their ballots.
—Photo by William B. Plowman

It’s not that she’s against schools, Cady says later in an interview. She just doesn’t equate bigger expenditures with better education. “I despair more because I see too many people expecting schools to take on what are parents’ responsibilities,” adds Cady, whose own children have long since graduated.

Like many people in Deerfield, Cady is troubled that rising property-tax rates are driving longtime residents and senior citizens out of their homes and farms. Such concerns resonate throughout New Hampshire, in part because the state has no way other than property taxes to pay for schooling. In the “Live Free or Die” state, income-tax proposals are political suicide, and sales taxes are limited.

The property-tax pains are fresh here because Deerfield residents’ December tax bills contained a whopping $4.61 increase in the town’s property-tax rate of $27.81 per each $1,000 of property value.

As for Cady, she’s glad to see the traditional school meetings end because she believes the method gives school supporters an unfair advantage. “When you have 120 school employees here with their husbands and wives, and you have only 246 people voting, they can control anything,” she says. Like other proponents of the new structure, Cady hopes more townspeople will turn out to vote if they don’t have to sit through a daylong meeting in order to do it.

9:40 a.m.

The voting begins on the teacher-pay question. Deerfield citizens can raise their hands or hold voting cards in the air to signal a “yea” or “nay” vote. But this vote, at Cady’s request, will be by secret ballot.

At the moderator’s call, seven designated vote counters grab cardboard shoe boxes and fan out around the room, passing the boxes down the aisles. Voters stuff colored ballot cards through slots cut into the lids. When the results are in, the teachers’ contract has passed by a vote of 139-107.

10:18 a.m.

The right side of the bleachers is getting raucous.

“Atta girl,” a man shouts when a woman from that section of the room makes a hard-hitting point that is critical of a school board spending proposal.

“Typical town,” someone else shouts in disapproval of the moderator’s call on a parliamentary procedure.

From their perches on the stage, school and town leaders have noticed that voters who are prone to vote down spending increases tend to congregate in that right section of the bleachers. The cause of that group’s displeasure at the moment is a proposal to continue spending $75,000 a year to pay $30 a month to parents of high school students to defray the cost of transporting their children to out-of-town schools. A speaker from that part of the room unsuccessfully proposed reducing the total expenditure to $40,000.

Residents say that the angry atmosphere beginning to pervade the meeting has become more typical in recent years at all of Deerfield’s public debate and voting sessions. They say it also might explain why some voters chose to say goodbye to their town-meeting tradition.

“There’s more animosity, more of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ feeling,” says Kathy A. Berglund, who has attended school and town meetings for 35 years. Still, she understands that the bitterness her neighbors feel is a reaction to years of steady increases in property-tax bills.

“People are hurting,” she says. “It’s not just the people who have something and who want to keep it that way.”

The changing tone of the meetings has caused some residents to sit them out altogether. One no-show this year is 80-year-old Joanne F. Wasson, the town historian.

“I think the propaganda has been that we’re going to lose the flavor of the town meeting or the school meeting, and that’s probably true,” she says later in the day, seated in her farmhouse kitchen. “Well,” she adds, “I could do without the flavor.”

11:40 a.m.

The most controversial item on the school district agenda, a proposed $161,000 expenditure to plan for the district’s future facility needs, is now on the table.

Kevin J. Barry, the school board chairman, says the board had originally planned to bring a proposal for a new school to this year’s meeting. The board tabled that idea, however, because of the sticker shock that hit after the December tax bills.

A school bus sits unused in a field owned by the Deerfield school district. Voters have repeatedly rebuffed efforts to build a school on the land.
A school bus sits unused in a field owned by the Deerfield school district. Voters have repeatedly rebuffed efforts to build a school on the land.
—Photo by William B. Plowman

The plan the board now has in mind would allow it to explore several options for dealing with Deerfield’s expanding school-age population. One citizen after another, though, rises to question the need for such studies. An hour later, after secret balloting on the proposal ends, the district suffers its first setback of the day. The article fails in a vote of 126-76.

The crowd begins to thin out, and debate continues on other school board proposals. Then a school supporter tries once more to rescue the defeated study proposal. He says new information that came out in subsequent discussions puts the proposal in a different light. He calls for a revote. The moderator, after consulting with a legal adviser, concurs.

Hoots ring out from the right side of the bleachers. “Sure, now that everyone’s gone,” a man shouts.

“Sorry, I can’t help that,” the moderator says. “You should never leave a school district meeting until Article IX is voted on.” The attempt comes to no avail, though. By a show of hands, the measure fails again.

2:08 p.m.

The meeting adjourns.

One of the newer families in town, the O’Briens, collect their two children and prepare to go home. For Julie O’Brien, it will be a relief to not have to attend the school meeting next year. The couple, both of whom work in the retail industry, have found it hard to make the meetings because of conflicting work schedules. During her first year here four years ago, Julie O’Brien recalls, she attended the meeting alone while balancing a newborn on her shoulder.

“I like the idea that people can get involved,” she says, “but I think a lot of the population is not able to express their vote because they’re not able to come to the meeting.”

Across the room, school board member Donald Gorman is feeling more nostalgic. A transplant from Boston, Gorman still remembers the first New Hampshire town meeting he attended in the 1960s.

He recalls that a farmer stood up at that meeting to ask the town to reimburse him $35 for a chicken that had been killed by a neighbor’s dog. He would’ve sued the dog’s owner for the money, the farmer said, except that the offending neighbor was also the local judge.

“That blew my mind,” says Gorman, the retired owner of a chimney-sweep business. “This farmer can actually go in front of the town and ask for $35? I’ve been hooked on politics ever since.” In fact, Gorman has since taken his political passion to the national level, running to be the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee in 2000.

He stopped to talk as he headed to congratulate stragglers from the right-side-of-the-bleachers crowd on defeating the planning proposal.

“It’s a small town; you have to live here,” he says. “You’re still going to meet these people at the post office or the supermarket.” He’s too late, though. The room has emptied, and the gym’s lights darken around him.

Vol. 24, Issue 31, Pages 43-45

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