Chea Waters Evans with reporting by Juliann Phelps
Town working toward security agreement for election day
Town elections have been held at Charlotte Central School for decades; the space is the largest public indoor area in town, and up until two years ago, Charlotters owned and operated the school. In the last two years, since consolidation with four other towns into the Champlain Valley School District (CVSD), municipal events that have operated the same way for years are suddenly facing new regulations based on CVSD policies now that the school district owns the building. At the Jan. 27 Selectboard meeting, board members expressed their surprise, uncertainty, and frustration at an unexpected contract emailed from CVSD to Town Manager Dean Bloch. The email details new security requirements for election days and requires the town to pay for them, beginning with this year’s town meeting in March.
The email contained a contract, that, among other items, stated, “The Town shall be allowed up to four (4) days per calendar year for Election Days at the School,” “CVSD shall be allowed to hire additional staff as it sees fit on Election Days to provide security and/or traffic control,” and “The Town shall reimburse CVSD for the cost of said security up to the amount of $2000.00/day within thirty (30) days of being presented with an itemized bill.”
The Selectboard and town employees were concerned about the email. Town Clerk Mary Mead said, “I think this is outrageous. To send this to us via email, in this short period of time and say this absolutely going to be in place for March town meeting is outrageous as well. … We would be paying $8,000 a year to the school district for something we are not prepared to do.”
Selectboard Chair Matt Krasnow said, “I have a real concern about militarizing school zones and militarizing our polling. We have not been given any opportunity to weigh in on how discreet to keep the security. I don’ t think is appropriate; what’s been a very un-militarized Town Meeting Day and election day culture, to be forced up on the town based upon the liability perceptions of the district.” Board member Fritz Tegatz said, “This is an arrogant ultimatum…if public safety was truly their concern, they should be concerned about parking (during school hours).” He continued, “Maybe we should pay for security on voting days, and they should pay for traffic control every day they have school in the mornings and afternoons. What’s fair’s fair.”
Krasnow, Tegatz, and Mead all met with CVSD Chief Operations Officer Jeanne Jensen last Friday to go over their concerns. Jensen said in an interview that the Selectboard shouldn’t have been surprised at the contract, considering that the current standard facility-rental agreement outlines that for town use, they “wouldn’t charge for use of the building for town meeting, but that we would charge for security.”
Last year, the Charlotte Recreation Department worked out a deal with the school district which would allow for certain sports teams and rec department activities to use the school facilities; this agreement included a fee for maintenance and security that the school district said they were required to have for liability and safety reasons. Jensen said the Selectboard shouldn’t have been surprised with the email she sent.
“I’m kind of surprised by that, because we exchanged emails on April 12, 2019 with Dean [Bloch], Matt Krasnow, and it was forwarded to Mary Mead. I’m surprised that this is new news.”
Jensen also addressed the two main concerns the Selectboard voiced: the large fee and the possible police presence. She said that the phrase “up to” didn’t mean it would definitely cost that much, and that a current estimate places the figure more around $1,300, and that would only be for large elections like on Town Meeting Day and in November. In the past, the town has used Constable Josh Flore as a traffic and security presence.
She also said there wouldn’t be any armed or uniformed security on the premises, and that it would be security people in orange vests, unarmed, managing traffic flow and preventing people from walking into the building at unauthorized points. She said that last year, some voters went into the main building during school bus drop off and pickup times, and also attempted to enter the school from the rear doors that let children onto the playground. She also said security would only be there from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., when children were in the school.
Jensen also said that limiting the number to four was a practical guess, not an attempt to limit voting. “In the draft we put four because we couldn’t find a situation where there were more than four, but that’s totally negotiable,” she said.
Citing the loss of the gym, MPR, and music room for those days, Jensen said the elections get in the way of a regular school day. “It’s disruptive, but we’d never tell the town they couldn’t have a meeting there,” she said. She said that the school district is hoping to have a school holiday this fall for the November election, so the cost would be lower and the children would be more secure.
“Our intention is to really work with the town here; we really just want to keep the kids safe,” she said. Though there is no evidence that there has ever been a security-related emergency at Charlotte’s town meeting, Jensen said the changes are necessary.
She said the school district isn’t trying to make money or restrict people’s voting or gathering rights in any way. “This doesn’t make me happy,” she said. “I really wish I lived in a world where kids can come in and out of town meeting, and parents could come in and out of the school, but that’s not the world we live in.”