As school and town deliberative sessions have unfolded during the past week or so, we’ve taken notice once again of numbers large and small.
First the large: $6.5 million; $32.4 million; $1.6 million; $3.5 million.
And the small: 1.1; 3; 3.8; 2.2.
The first group represents the money some of the region’s taxpayers will be voting on come March 12: the operating budgets in Swanzey, the Monadnock Regional School District, Alstead and Winchester. The second is the percentage of voters in those same towns and districts that showed up this past week to discuss and debate those budgets, and other ballot issues.
Add to those numbers these: $66.7 million and 0.4. They represent the proposed budget put forth for the Keene School District last year, and the percentage of Keene voters who showed up to discuss it. Ouch.
Saturday morning, the 2019 deliberative session for the Keene School District will be held. For those alarmed by the city’s tax burden — which in 2018 was the fourth-highest rate in the state — the school budget represents well more than half. Yet year after year, less than 1 percent of registered voters in the city show up to hear about and discuss it. In a good year, maybe more than 100 of the city’s 16,000 or so registered voters will show up. And that number includes the board members, administrators, teachers and staff who have a vested interest in the warrant.
Advocates of the official-ballot system, or SB2, which almost all school districts now use, will tell you “participation” in local elections is up, because more people show up on Town Meeting Day to cast votes than used to sit through a full town or school district meeting. What they don’t acknowledge is that voting on a number when you have little idea what it represents is a very lame definition of “participating.”
The bulk of voters on March 12 in Keene won’t — despite the best efforts of The Sentinel and other sources — know what’s driving any budget increase, what the costs of any cuts might be and what the alternatives really are. How was the default budget — to which the district will turn if voters reject the proposed number — derived? How many teachers, administrative staffers, tutors or aides are being added to or dropped from the mix? What new technologies are being eyed that will save or cost money and/or benefit students or staff?
Voters entering the polls March 12 will have no opportunity to ask questions. They won’t have any say, save for a thumbs up or down, in determining the budget or the wording of any other ballot questions. Those opportunities come only on Saturday.
But budgets are complicated, one might argue. And it seems every time someone tries to cut the budget, some school advocate moves to amend that cut to make it moot. Both of these complaints are true, but those dynamics continue to exist only because not enough voters take the time to attend and learn how the budget is put together and what rights they have in influencing what’s on the ballot; they don’t ask the questions and therefore, don’t learn the ropes. If they did, they might find there are ways to address their concerns.
We’re not advocating people show up at Keene High School Saturday at 9 a.m. with only the notion of cutting the school budget so as to save themselves some tax dollars. The school board will make and defend its case for the proposed budget. Rather, we urge residents to show up so whatever the budget number they’re faced with on March 12, they know what it represents and will have had the opportunity to weigh in on it, along with any other ballot items.
The official ballot system sets up deliberative sessions specifically to give voters an opportunity to debate budgets and issues before they’re put on the ballot. In Keene, that session has historically been slated on a Saturday to make it easier to attend.
Not attending means you either haven’t given it any thought or have, but can’t or won’t spend your time helping make key decisions that affect all taxpayers and students in the city.