Six months after Croydon town meeting, reverberations felt as NH heads toward November elections

·3 min read

Sep. 19—SUNAPEE — This fall is the first time Hope Damon is running for state representative, taking the plunge into politics after years of thinking about a run.

Her bid was catalyzed by the efforts to restore Croydon's school budget this spring after residents at a sparsely attended town meeting voted to halve the budget.

The town's experience has quickly become a parable about the importance of civic engagement, and Damon said she thinks the town — maybe even the whole state — learned something.

"First, we didn't participate. Then, we super-participated," Damon said.

In New Hampshire, school issues are animating activists across the political spectrum. A year or even six months ago the public comment sections at school board meetings and on social media pages were dominated by concerns from conservative-leaning parents worried about mask requirements and how teachers addressed racist history. Now some progressive-leaning activists and parents are talking about school funding and their support for teachers at the state Board of Education.

Damon was one of about 50 people listening to a presentation about the way New Hampshire funds its schools at Sunapee's Sherburne Gym last week, watching as attorney John Tobin and New Hampshire School Funding Fairness Project's Zack Sheehan spoke about tax rates and funding formulas in the echoing basketball fieldhouse, projecting graphs and charts onto a wall between championship banners.

Many of those in attendance were state representatives or aspirants to the office, but several were just looking to learn more about the wonky issue of school funding and property taxes — wanting to get a little more engaged on local issues that touch everyone's lives.

Croydon's now-infamous town meeting was more than six months ago. But the organizing effort to overturn the vote didn't end at the special school district meeting in May, when voters moved to fund schools at the level proposed by school administrators.

Damon is running for office. A former school board member, Angi Beaulieu, plans to run for the board again in the spring. Meghan Pike, a Croydon parent, is volunteering at Town Hall.

"We understand this wasn't just a one-time battle," Pike said.

Another Croydon parent who was active in the effort to restore the school budget, Amanda Leslie, said Croydon saw high turnout during the state primary on Tuesday. Just over 200 people cast ballots in the primary races — nowhere near the May meeting's turnout of almost half the town's voters, but still unusually high for a primary.

"I think that's because we have continued to talk to people," Leslie said. "We're trying to help the community stay informed and engaged."

Jody Underwood, Croydon school board chair, was more skeptical about how long this hyper-engagement would last.

"If status quo returns, they'll be trusting again," Underwood said.

Underwood said she counts herself as a member of the Free State Project, and her husband, Ian Underwood, is the Croydon resident who moved to make the drastic budget cuts at March's town meeting.

Pike said her experience made her want to be aware of who her elected officials were, and has grown wary of the Free State Project's growing influence in the state Legislature and town government. She's taken to doing more research — mostly online — relying on advocacy groups' ratings and grades of candidates to figure out who might line up with her views.

Damon, the state representative candidate, said she hopes more people start paying close attention to their state and town government candidates, and stay engaged on local issues — like Croydon's school budget, or tensions on the Gunstock Area Commission.

"Work for what you value," Damon said, "or it goes away."