Monday, February 26, 2007

Town Meeting

The Portland Press Herald ran a piece about town meetings in this weekend's paper.

I will not comment on town meetings in Maine as I am sure they are wonderful and colorful. I don't believe they are very efficient these days and I have a little trouble with letting small numbers of people - who have the time to attend these meetings - make all the decisions about a town's affairs. My guess is that they are probably past their prime and will continue to become a vestige of bygone years.

But my perceptions of town meetings may be adversely affected by the experience at my very first town meeting in Bartlett, New Hampshire.

I kept hearing about this phenomena when I arrived in town the the school district I worked for was pretty worked up about the process. In SAU 9 in the Mt. Washington Valley, there were nine towns making up the district and that meant there were actually TEN town meetings the district administration had to contend with. One for each of the towns and then one for the whole SAU.

In actuality these were really Annual School District meetings because the only thing that was discussed was that school district's business. The actual town meeting took place about a month later after the school district meeting had been held and the school budget approved. So, in those days, all we seemed to do and talk about were the annual school district meetings and town meetings.

Well, anyway at this first annual school district meeting in Bartlett, I witnessed what was perhaps the most reprehensible behavior of a public figure in my life.

Now, I thought that that thing with Richard Nixon was pretty bad, and I certainly had seen my share of corrupt politicians, but this one took the cake.

It began when one of the town selectman - these are three people, almost always men - who basically run the town - stood up at the annual school district meeting and demanded to know what the thousands of dollars of special education was being spent on. The special education director, my boss, carefully responded in general terms talking about teachers' salaries, specialists' (like me) salaries, books and materials.

The selectman was not satisfied with this explanation and asked for more specifics about "out of district placement costs."

My boss then explained that occasionally a student's needs could not be met in the local public school and that the law required we find a special placement for them.

After several more questions it became clear the selectman had an axe to grind and he wanted to know about a specific student.

The special ed director would not budge and refused to answer specific questions due to confidentiality.

With that, the selectman said, (paraphrasing) "I know that we are spending $30,000 per year on that [insert name here] kid to go to that school in [insert name here] and I have a solution..."

By now, everyone was on the edge of their chairs. I was was simply horrified.

"You get me a silver bullet and I'll put that kid out of his misery and save the town all that money."

Mild pandemonium ensued, but the selectman did not back down and did not apologize for his statement. The moderator eventually moved us off the topic and the meeting continued. I found out later that the parents of the child in question were in the room and that they had endured this behavior for many years.

In the years that followed, I attended a number of town meetings without the same antics, but always with a fairly large amount of "high theatre." It seems that there are some in town who attend those meetings only for the theatrical value and that there are others in town who like to be the actors and hear themselves talk.

In all fairness, usually the only ones who attending the annual school meeting were the teachers and parents and they always voted in the budget. At one of these meetings, one of the parents I worked with insisted they get me some help - yes he mentioned me specifically, thought I did a crackerjack great job and that I needed help. And right there the town did just that, they voted to add more money to the budget and add another position. Six months later there were two of us.


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