Wallingford Voters Energized by School Debate

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(Host) It was standing room only at Wallingford’s town meeting Monday night and larger than usual crowds gathered again Tuesday at the polls.

As VPR’s Nina Keck reports, rising education costs in Wallingford have stirred up debate and action.

(Sound of people singing "God Bless America," then laughter) "Thank you! Thank you very much!"

Wallingford Select Board Chairman, Chris Dinnan and town clerk candidate Nancy Gandella stood in the windy cold and greeted people as they walked into the local fire station to vote.

(Sound of discussion outside the polls) "You know I’m voting no…. After last night, you should know how I’m going to vote…."

Chris Dinnan says that while the town’s municipal budget has remained relatively flat, the school budget has gone up considerably. But he believes the school board, which his wife chairs, has done a good job: cutting positions where possible and keeping expenses down. He says it’s the things they can’t control, like special education costs and declining enrollment, that have really hit hard this year:

(Dinnan) "The school budget is a big issue. I think the tax rate between the school and the town in total now is $2.50 and that’s really high. And yeah, we need to work on that and try to get it down, because it’s only a few years ago that it was like a $1.70 and now it’s $2.50."

The escalating tax rate is so troubling to some residents that they recently formed a group called Wallingford Involved Citizens. Local resident Donald Green, says about 30 people came to their first meeting . When they met again last week, he says there were more than a 100:

(Green) "They invited all the candidates to come over and talk about the issues, particularly as it relates to taxes in the schools. And they were primarily interested in people who thought they could work to get the expenses under control."

The group decided which candidates they would support and went to work:

(Sound of discussion outside the polls) "Well, look at this guy… what are you selling today Fred? You’re going to freeze your nose!" (laughter)

Fred Thurlow, one of the founders of the Wallingford Involved Citizens group braved the cold on Tuesday to greet voters and hand out slips of paper listing candidates they want to see in office:

(Thurlow) "Taxes just got run out of hand where people just can’t afford it. We happen to have one of the highest school taxes in Rutland County. Our cost per pupil is 20% higher than the average in Rutland County…. People are fired up. I mean it’s a tough time, it’s a difficult time."

But he says, it’s a time when people can do something – like run for office and vote. Select Board Chairman Chris Dinnan, says even though he and his wife are not on the group’s point of view, he’s excited to see people getting involved. He says turn out at Monday nights’ meeting was the largest he’s ever seen. The number of people voting was high and he says several candidates were running for just about every positions.

(Dinnan) "And that’s good. People have a choice. It’s not blaze around here, it’s a very, very engaged community."

Regardless of the outcome on Town Meeting Day, Wallingford has been energized by the school budget debate.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in Wallingford.

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