By Stephanie Choate
As the smells of home-cooked food and the buzz of communal chatter filled the Williston Central School cafeteria, a band of characters dressed in period garb marched through the cafeteria.
The scene was the first Town Meeting held in Williston, 1786.
“Welcome, Williston, to this, our first Town Meeting on our own native soil,” boomed Jim McCullough, transformed for the night into Giles Chittenden, son of Gov. Thomas Chittenden.
The first order of business was to approve a 40-pound expenditure—payable in grain, barley or corn—to improve Williston’s roads, leaving them wide enough for “those 18-wheeler wagons,” said Jonathan Milne, in the role of Col. Jonathan Spafford.
“We have over 450 residents… second only to that boomtown of Charlotte,” he said.
The crowd—amid peals of laughter—passed the motion with a chorus of yeas, prompted by cue cards hoisted by Jim Heltz, who helped write the skits.
After stopping in 1804 to settle a dispute over land boundaries, the crowd of local actors jumped forward to 1850, when a temperance movement had already swept through the neighboring towns of Richmond and Hinesburg.
A line of men and women hoisted signs—the most colorful emblazoned with “men are nicotine soaked, beer besmirched, whiskey greased red devils”—encouraging the men of the town to vote to ban alcohol.
Banjamin Hain, in the role of William French, gave an impassioned speech in favor of alcohol.
“Williston is home to many a tavern,” he said. “If it was good enough for Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, it’s good enough for me!”
“I loved them,” said Joyce Oughstun, adding that the dinner and skits drew her and her husband. “It was really very well done.”
“It’s good to hear about the history of the town,” she added. “We’re celebrating 250 years, and that’s something.”
Bill Skiff—one of the event’s organizers and actors—said he was pleased with the turnout, which he estimated at approximately 140 people.
“People were saying it was like the old days,” Skiff said. “Food, fellowship and a little entertainment before heading off to Town Meeting.”
He added that although the speech and monetary amounts are different, some of the issues are remarkably similar to those Williston faces today. In 1786, the town was addressing shortcomings in transportation—albeit for wagons—a topic that pops up frequently today. In 1850, the town was deciding whether to allow alcohol. Today, it is medical marijuana.
THE MODERN TOWN MEETING
After traveling back in time to historic town meetings, many residents traveled down the school hallway to weigh in on ballot issues facing the town in 2013 at Monday’s Town Meeting.
The most debated issue was Williston School District’s 1-to-1 iPad initiative, a $96,000 line item in the school’s budget, paid for in part by $70,000 allocated from the current school budget.
Resident Tim Bourgeois questioned whether the program was sustainable, and pointed out that iPads typically last two years, rather than the four years school board members said they were hoping to get out of the devices.
Several residents questioned whether the technology was needed or a justifiable addition to the budget.
“I have some math books published in 1920, and they’re still quite usable today,” said Kurt Oughstun, an engineering professor at the University of Vermont, prompting a round of applause.
“Why wasn’t it made a ballot question?” asked resident Brian Gagne. “I think it’s a significant addition, and you’re not letting the community vote on it.”
His wife, Michelle Gagne, expressed concern that the iPads would be a continuing expense, built into the budget each year.
“Seems to me it’s a huge expense right now… in a time when the economy stinks,” she said.
Williston School District Principal Walter Nardelli defended the initiative, noting that all of the groups that spent months working on the budget listed the iPad initiative when asked for the five most important budget items.
“It’s a game changer, it’s the future of education,” he said.
Nardelli said iPads allow for “24/7 learning anywhere, anytime” and that students must know how to fully use modern technology to be prepared for high school, college and life beyond school.
Voters ultimately rejected the Williston School District budget at the polls Tuesday.