ENOSBURG FALLS – The Enosburgh – Richford Unified Union School District (ERUUSD) organized Thursday night, establishing, among other things, that all future elections will be conducted via Australian ballot and authorizing ERUUSD’s transitional board to take steps toward preparing the district’s state-ordered merger.

With the conclusion of last night’s organizational meeting, ERUUSD’s transitional board also met formally for the first time last night, warning school board elections and setting the school district on track to have a budget brought before voters ahead of the district’s mandated operational date of July 1, 2019.

The district’s meeting was originally postponed two months ago under the pretense that following through with merger activity would send mixed messages about the voters’ stance on their merger to the courts, where Richford was challenging that merger through a statewide class action lawsuit.

That meeting was postponed until the suit’s conclusion.

Its resumption was ordered by Secretary of Education Dan French, citing authority existing within the state-drafted default articles of agreement, the document governing mergers ordered by the state under Act 46.

Whether the new district could even resume its meeting was the first question asked last night, debated for nearly 40 minutes as voters and district officials wrestled with contrasting legal opinions about whether or not French even had that authority. “I certainly believe this was a legally warned meeting,” French, present to call last night’s meeting to order, said.

When a motion was called asking whether voters would approve following through with last night’s meeting or postponing it in light of “the ambiguity of the legal question” behind it, voters, by paper ballot, narrowly agreed to continue the meeting, 31-to-24.

Immediately following, voters also approved a resolution reinforcing the district’s stance against the merger, with residents from Enosburgh and Richford overwhelmingly supporting a motion that read:

“Any and all action that may be taken or considered by this body shall not be considered as agreement to or affirmation of the legality or constitutionality of the State Board of Education’s report and order on statewide school merger decisions… Further, no motion under this warning will serve to bind us to future meetings of a district that is yet to be determined legal by the judicial system.”

“I feel like it recognizes Richford is in a lawsuit,” said former Enosburgh school board member Suzanne Hull-Casavant. “We’re getting the work done that needs to be done but we’re not taking the legs out of the lawsuit.”

The debate on whether the district would elect budgets and school boards through Australian ballots turned up similar arguments to ERUUSD’s counterpart in the Missisquoi Valley School District, pitting the direct democracy of floor elections against the wider-enfranchisement of Australian ballots.

Enosburgh’s Ward Heneveld speaks during Thursday night’s meeting. (Michael Frett, MESSENGER STAFF)

The district’s member communities of Richford and Enosburgh are practically split on this issue, as Enosburgh conducts elections through traditional Town Meetings and Richford relies on Australian ballot.

Opponents of an Australian ballot argued that the direct elections conducted through a floor made those elections more transparent and led school boards to be more receptive to their respective community.

“There’s a lot of people who come into our meeting on the floor with a lot of questions and a lot of opinions,” Hull-Casavant said, arguing for a traditional town meeting from the floor. “It’s a great opportunity for the school board to understand where their community is – whether they agree or disagree – and to make amendments.

“It’s a very, very democratic process which gives your voice a lot of weight.”

They also argued it led to a more informed public.

Proponents, meanwhile, argued Australian ballot made elections more accessible to voters who might otherwise be unable to attend a town meeting due to work or other scheduling conflicts.

“By voting from the floor in this day and age, you exclude a lot of voters,” argued a resident from Richford. “Australian ballot truly gives more people the right to vote.”

“I understand it’s nice if people can come to the town meeting, but in this day and age, people work long hours and they don’t have the opportunity,” another voter said. “I just think the more people who can use their voice, it’s more democratic.”

Along those same lines, Enosburgh town clerk Billie Jo Draper said she was hearing more requests from Enosburgh residents for Australian ballot, despite the fact the town only votes through town meeting. “I hear it all the time,” Draper said. “More and more people are asking for an Australian ballot here.”

The use of Australian ballots for voting on budgets was also approved through a paper ballot vote, with voters favoring Australian ballot 47-10.

ERUUSD’s transition board met for the first time Thursday night immediately following their district’s organizational meeting. (Michael Frett, MESSENGER STAFF)

When asked whether or not school board elections should also be conducted through Australian ballot, voters overwhelmingly approved it from the floor. School board members will be elected by the totality of voters in both towns, with each town having two seats reserved for representatives from that town.

Also decided from the floor last night:

  • The district’s official informational meeting will be held on the Thursday two weeks before Town Meeting Day every year at 7 p.m. Voters agreed to rotate the location of that meeting between Enosburgh and Richford, with Richford hosting the first meeting.
  • Longtime Enosburgh town moderator Patrick Hayes was elected to serve as the district’s moderator. Richford town clerk Alan Fletcher was also elected as the district’s clerk, and Fran Jackson was elected its treasurer.
  • Voters agreed to pay each of those officers $100 a year as compensation.
  • Voters also approved an annual stipend for members of the unified district’s school board. The chair of the ERUUSD’s school board will receive an annual stipend of $1,500 – the same received by the current Enosburgh school board’s chair – and every other member will receive $1,200 annually.
  • Voters approved all other articles as written.

With the conclusion of last night’s organizational meeting, the district’s transitional board formally convened for the first time. Its members were sworn in and Enosburgh’s Polly Rico was elected its chair.

Richford’s Pam Hazen was elected as the transitional board’s clerk.

The transitional board, featuring two members from the Enosburgh school board and two members from the Richford school board, warned elections for the unified district’s board for May 21, with an informational meeting set for May 20.

According to Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union business manager Morgan Daybell, May 21 was the earliest the district could hold elections while still having time for school board candidates to declare.

The transitional board also agreed to begin crafting the unified district’s budget, setting their first formal budget meeting for April 17.

That budget will be brought before the elected school board after May 21, which is expected to warn a budget election in the days immediately following that election.

Should this timeline be followed, according to Daybell, the district should still be set to have a budget voted on before its ordered operational date of July 1, 2019.

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