In an institution oft-dominated by older voters, some town meetings in central Maine this year bucked that trend and saw enhanced involvement from the under-40 element. Farmington and Kingfield elected two of the youngest selectmen in the region, both of whom defeated adversaries a generation older.

It was a bad year for incumbents all around. In Farmington, the lone incumbent selectman seeking re-election, last year’s GOP Congressional nominee John Frary, 68, became the first incubment in 13 years to lose a seat on the board. Thirty-five-year-old Ryan Morgan will take his place. In Mercer, both incumbents lost, as did incumbent selectmen running for re-election in Strong, Sidney, Alna and New Vineyard.

These defeats were significant. Crucial long-term decisions also entailed displacement, not just of officeholders, but also of school buildings that are being surrendered to towns after being vacated by students. In the last few months, voters in Smithfield, Weld, Mercer, and New Portland have been asked to decide this issue. Only a 6-to-5 school board vote spared Starks this same dilemma, its 25-pupil facility will remain open for another year.

Mercer was the scene of one of the more moving demonstrations of the youth movement in community debate on the school issue. The backdrop was September 11, 2008, the day SAD 54 deeded the building – replete with gymnasium, four classrooms and associated facilities – to the town.

Townspeople were thus asked at the March 7 town meeting whether to keep the school building, or sell it. School board member Robert Gardner, once a statewide supervisor for Montgomery Ward, led off with a presentation of options.

One was keeping the building as a community center for social and cultural events and as a place to move the town offices and public library. A second option was to let the town office and library remain as present, but lease part of the building and use the rest for community events. A third was to sell the building outright.

After Gardner’s presentation several speakers ardently advocated for a sale of the building. Local sawmill owner Mike Bartholf and two others referred to the town’s present inability to maintain some roads as reason why it shouldn’t be burdened with an additional venture.

“If we can’t maintain the roads that we have,” they said, “How can we take on the added expense and upkeep of this building?” Others derided cost estimates for annual upkeep and maintenance, set at some $24,000, as unrealistically low.

Mary Burr, a respected long-time resident, characterized the school as a “luxury” which the town could ill-afford. At 12,000 square feet, the school is some four-times larger than the current town office and library. Given the uninterrupted succession of well-spoken opponents, it seemed to this outside observer the school would probably be out of public custody and into the hands of private owners almost as soon as his gavel fell to signal adjournment.

But the debate had only just begun.

Younger voices – most mothers of small children, many making their first town meeting appearances – emanated from the crowd, Cindy Worthen, Laurie Clement, Stephanie Obert and Heather Doane among them.

One after another, they and others made their way to the microphone and made ardent and near-tearful pleas to let the town own the school. Where would the preschool playgroup and after-school recreation programs go if the school were sold? This discussion was punctuated by the chatter of small children running in the corridor outside the meeting hall, blissfully unaware of the storm brewing inside.

The community’s youth was then joined by veteran speakers, erstwhile skeptics who seemed won over by the stirring testimonials. They were also attracted to potential the building might hold for senior citizen activities.

They included property appraiser Debbie Crandall, a leading proponent of conservative causes. Crandall observed the town could recoup some of the building’s expenses by selling the existing town office as a private residence.

These arguments worked. Even if it could no longer be a public school, Mercer wanted to keep and sustain the building. By a vote of 84 to 20, the town chose Gardner’s first option to keep the building, to be a community center and the new town offices and library.

With plummeting enrollments – translation: Mainers are having fewer kids – school closings will be up for debate in many communities in years ahead. So will decisions on what to do with the empty space, once children are bused to consolidated schools in larger towns or cities. These important decisions, however, don’t have to divide town or city.

As Mercer this month demonstrated, although buildings may no longer be schools and towns may no longer have as many schoolchildren as once before, towns remain communities.

Ones in which everybody has a voice.

Paul Mills, the moderator of this year’s Mercer, Farmington, Kingfield and Industry town meetings, is a Farmington attorney well-known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine’s political scene. E-mail: [email protected]

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