The morning after
Expect the unexpected, the New York City-based alternative newspaper known as The Village Voice used to warn its readers, and often the same can be said about Town Meeting.
Along with the routine wave-throughs of small dollar amounts for charitable organizations that provide the vital glue for the communities they serve come debates that stretch on for remarkable periods of time. And just when you think there's absolutely no reason to continue with a separate school district floor meeting where simply staying awake is a noteworthy accomplishment, comes an absolute gem of a floor meeting, with thoughtful, informative and civil discussion, which brushed aside the happy talk in favor of a substantive conversation.
We're talking of course about the Manchester school district floor meeting this past Monday, which for those who were unable or uninterested to attend is worth watching on GNAT-TV when time permits. It's three hours long, but worth seeing if you missed it. During it, ordinary citizens stood up and expressed concerns and hopes, and heard some pretty good, if often complex, answers from school board members and officials. It was refreshingly candid and didn't shrink from staring at the very real issues of enrollment declines and education costs. It also gave the more than 100 attendees — a sizeable upgrade over the few hardy souls who typically make it — a window into not just the local questions of budgets, costs, and education quality, but with the arrival of Act 46, questions of school district consolidation and local control and the broader statewide view as well. The ugly bottom line is that with enrollment numbers across the state on a long term decline, and with the state spending more per pupil than any other in the nation, the status quo isn't viable and something else needs to take its place. We've been willing to be bet that some form of school district consolidation points the way, and this need not come at an unacceptable level of loss of local control. If someone has a better idea, let's hear it, because education taxes have nowhere to go but down.
Staying on the positive side of things, we'll congratulate Manchester's voters for turning thumbs up — again, as they have done repeatedly and annually for almost 15 years now — on the appropriation for the Manchester Community Library. Certainly with the opening of the new library in November, 2014, there can be no doubt that this is an investment that pays for itself many times over. It especially benefits those in our community who lack ready internet access, and with job searching and employment opportunities more and more an online experience, this availability is critical for those who need that sort of helping hand to help themselves. When you add in all the programs and special events the new space at the building on Cemetery Avenue has provided, there really isn't much to debate. And yet annually it seems, voices are raised about how this adds to the local tax burden, and those folks who the library helps the most will collapse under the weight of it. And yet this important discussion would up being close to dead last on the town warning for the municipal floor meeting, which would be fine if it weren't controversial, but, alas, still is. An expenditure outside the budget deserves a better hearing than it got last Saturday, with a handful of survivors remaining from the pretty decent crowd that showed up earlier in the afternoon, hanging on to the finish. This should have been discussed much earlier when the meeting was at full tide. Hopefully those who schedule the order of things will fix that for next year, even if it makes superficial sense to bundle the items to be decided by Australian ballot together at the end of the warning.
Finally, the Partnership. It failed to pass muster in Manchester by a handful of votes, and even though the dollar amount requested was relatively small, this is a setback. It may be that the overall concept of a familiar chamber of commerce transitioning to some sort of newer organization was unclear, or that this was perceived as financial heavy lifting that should be performed by businesses themselves. Maybe so, but the regional marketing strategy The Partnership is pursuing offers, in our view, a bigger bang for the buck than one centered solely on Manchester, which voters approved, for the same dollar amount Saturday. It is as part of a regional tourist destination that Manchester can best grow the pie in the ever evolving travel and economic development arena. We see the regional concept in play with education, with Act 46; we see it in studies like the recently finished Northshire Economic Development Strategy and the Southern Vermont Economic Zone. A visitor coming to Manchester to shop or spend an afternoon at Hildene may also want to walk across a covered bridge in Arlington, or ski in Peru. Bottom line: all communities benefit. There's a potentially larger benefit to thinking regionally. Hopefully, the chamber will still be able to move ahead with its plans, and perhaps a year from now come back and close the sale.
Overall, though, it was another good series of town meetings, which even if they go a little long on occasion, sure beat the alternative. When it comes to the community-building that goes on at them, especially in our atomized, online, plugged-in, headphones embedded world, nothing else comes close. Anything that celebrates the social dimension of a community is very much worth saving and protecting.
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