As the ongoing pandemic forces municipalities across Vermont to rethink how business will be conducted this Town Meeting Day, some school districts are facing challenges in coordinating with member towns to get their budgets and other ballot items to voters.
On Tuesday, Gov. Phil Scott signed into law new provisions that give municipalities more flexibility in order to safely hold their annual meetings.
Under existing legislation passed last year, municipalities and school districts can already conduct town meeting business by Australian ballot.
Earlier this month, the Joint Fiscal Committee allocated $2 million of federal CARES Act money to reimburse school districts and municipalities for the cost of printing and mailing ballots and postcards “over and above normal, previously budgeted election expenses.”
The law enacted this week, H.48, while not mandatory, allows legislative bodies the latitude to cancel and postpone meetings to a date later in the year, as well as proactively mail ballots to all active, registered voters.
It also provides authority to the Secretary of State’s Office to implement temporary election processes related to these provisions. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Jim Condos outlined those additional processes in a letter to town clerks. They include: allowing drive-thru voting, the use of outdoor polling places, early processing of absentee ballots, the inclusion of ballots from more than one municipality in a single mailing, and the inclusion of ballot questions from more than one municipality on a single ballot.
In addition, union school districts are permitted to allow member towns to count ballots and report them to the school district clerk rather than compile all the ballots prior to counting, which is how the process has functioned in the past.
But as municipalities consider moving their meetings, the question of how to administer union school district votes, which are conducted across multiple towns, has added an extra layer of complexity.
Most districts vote on their budgets by Australian ballot; however, the election of officers, such as district clerk and moderator, are often done by floor vote. This year, many districts have opted to move all articles to Australian ballot, but if not every member town is sticking with the March 2 date, it complicates matters.
By statute, every town within a union school district must vote the same way and on the same day. To that end, H.48 encourages towns to coordinate with districts to get ballots out. But without a mandate, a town could still opt not to do so.
“Our guidance has just been to coordinate with each other as much as possible to assist union school districts,” said Will Senning, director of elections and campaign finance for the secretary of state’s office.
“I would say for the majority they are trying to be helpful, but some of these towns are really low-resource,” he said. “Throw in COVID and that they’re all closed, and it’s a challenge.”
Senning noted that, even pre-COVID, “election law procedures in the union school district statutes were really lacking.”
He explained that there’s no equivalent entity in a school district to a board of civil authority and the school district clerk, which is an administrative position, doesn’t typically have much to do with elections.
“So there’s a void there, of election administration for the union school districts, when it’s not all easily aligned with the towns,” he said. “It’s an example — we’ve seen them all along — of COVID exposing weaknesses.”
Senning acknowledged that if not every member town gets on the same page with the rest of the district, it could create headaches around figuring out how to distribute ballots or manage polling places, if needed.
He clarified that, unlike statewide primaries and the general election, the secretary of state’s office plays a “minimal role” in local elections and annual meetings.
“This is an issue of local control and local decisions around the annual meeting,” he said. “We’re going to try to provide as much as possible in the coming weeks. We’re not the election police.”
Sue Ceglowski, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, has been fielding questions from board members across the state. Last week, she and Senning hosted an informational webinar for about 80 board members and superintendents.
“There’s definitely a level of concern to make sure that they are conducting the elections properly with the new, temporary changes in place,” she said.
“I think it just becomes a complicated issue. When there’s a school district that crosses town lines and includes up to nine or 10 towns, coordinating with all of those towns can be challenging,” she said.
Given the complexities of the changes being considered, Ceglowski said communication is important.
“It would be very helpful for state officials to take the lead with an organized communication strategy and encourage towns and school districts to align their votes,” she said.