Usually when a new political party racks up a big win they're eager to tout their success as a sign that they are now an important voice in their community, but somehow that's not happening in Montpelier.
Montpelier's newest political party, Vibrant and Affordable Montpelier (VAM to its members, the Austerity Party or Chai Party to its opponents), racked up a big win last week, holding the mayor's office and two council seats, and defeating the school budget.
Funny thing, though. They have no problem talking about their municipal office wins but they're trying to duck the
blame credit for the school budget defeat. When you look into it, though, their disclaimers don't seem legitimate.
Speaking at a School Board meeting the night after Town Meeting Day, VAM leader Phil Dodd said:
“This year, however, with the projected 13 percent increase in the school tax rate on top of 9.4% last year and projections that we will see more big increases in the future, some – but not all – VAM members started to express concern about the school budget. In the end, we never as a group pushed for a no vote on the school budget, though we did express reservations and urged people to attend school board meetings to express their own opinions.”
If you're paying attention to politics in Montpelier, however, you can see that Dodd is understating VAM's involvement in the school budget debate.
Start with Thierry Guerlain, reelected Council member and one of the founders of VAM. In response to questions in the Montpelier Bridge, here's what he said about the school budget:
I support excellent schools but can’t support a 13 percent school tax rate increase this year, on top of last year’s 9.4 percent increase, with next year’s increase projected to be as large as this year. That’s a 40 percent increase in just three years! Montpelier incomes have not gone up 40 percent. How can taxpayers pay for this?
VAM's opposition to the school budget goes beyond that, however. Green Mountain Daily has obtained e-mails from VAM leaders to their membership that makes clear that the organization was providing operational support to the school budget opposition, even if the group never took a formal membership vote to do so.
In an e-mail to VAM supporters from Phil Dodd and forwarded by school budget opponent Dan Boomhower, Dodd said:
While VAM has always supported good education and understands there are problems with the complicated state education financing system, we think the board should consider taking a harder look at the budget in light of this large projected increase”
Maybe not exactly a statement opposing the budget, but damn close.
Then, in an e-mail to VAM membership on February 2, VAM leader Phil Dodd, writing on behalf of the VAM Steering Committee, said “As you know, the proposed school budget tax increase of 13% has caused some consternation in town. . . . VAM is supporting the idea of forming a citizens’ committee to study the school budget with the goal of minimizing future tax rate increases.”
In a follow-up e-mail to the VAM membership on February 7 Dodd, again on behalf of the Steering Committee, devoted one full paragraph of a two-paragraph message to the school budget:
“Meanwhile, some VAM-affiliated folks and others are mounting an effort to urge voters to vote no on the school budget so it can be sent back for reconsideration. This is not an official effort of VAM at this point, but if you are opposed to the proposed 13% school tax increase and want to get involved, please read the following e-mail.” (Emphasis added.)
And the attached e-mail was from another VAM leader, Carol Doerflein, and argued for creation of a coordinated campaign to oppose the school budget:
Too often, items on the school budget published in the Times-Argus and the Bridge go without any citizen response. This is a lost opportunity for those of us who believe the school budget to be unsustainable and who have constructive points to make in favor of rationalizing and prioritizing the budget ahead of Town Meeting day.
Informed voters able to consider critically the proposed FY2015 school budget before they head to the polls will offer us the best chance to send the budget back for reconsideration by rejecting the current proposal.
We need to get our views out there in a continuing way between now and March 4th. The more people who express their opinions publicly, the greater the likelihood of creating a favorable environment for reining in property tax increases by encouraging voters to return the proposed school budget for further review. A new budget with reduced expenditures achieved through sensible prioritization would serve the interests of the whole community, lessening the impact on taxpayers while refocusing efforts to make high quality education in our city sustainable for the future. Should we fail this year, we may usefully lay the groundwork for success next year by gaining enough votes to draw the attention of budget-makers and thereby increase chances for a more responsible school budget proposal in FY2016.
This process won't be useful or credible if it is the same people writing the letters. We need new names, and new perspectives, on changing topics that can be large or small, on many issues that concern us all or on a single issue that particularly engages one individual. Even a handful of letters could make a difference.
In light of this organized campaign, is it really believable that VAM was not actively trying to defeat the school budget?
You can draw your own conclusions, but I think the answer is a clear no. Maybe the fact that they're trying to hide from their victory is a sign that they're afraid their anti-school budget campaign may not be as popular as they thought.