Where are they headed next?
There were no signs that the Croydon town meeting in March would be unusual.
The weather was bad; not bad enough to really intimidate New Hampshire drivers, though other towns had canceled their meetings. Amanda Brown attended the town meeting about Croydons schools, expecting nothing special; her husband, who had attended the earlier town meeting, did not attend with her. When Ian Underwood, town selectman and husband of school board chair Jody Underwood, made his surprise motion, Brown texted her husband that he had better get over there right away. But by the time he arrived, it was too late. By a vote of 20-14, the meeting had cut the school budget from $1.7 million to $800,000.
The Free State Meets The Granite State
The Underwoods are part of the Free State Project, founded in 2001 with the intent of moving 20,000 Libertarians to New Hampshire with the hope that they might have an outsized influence on the small-population, liberty-loving state. Free Staters have been successful in landing elected offices in New Hampshire, even at the state level (most elected offices in the state are unpaid).
The Underwoods came to Croydon in 2007. Before moving, Jody had worked for the Educational Testing Service, and before that a researcher for NASA and Carnegie Mellon University. Ian was a "planetary scientist and artificial intelligence researchers for NASA," a certified hypnotist, a "fourth generation wing chun sifu," as well as director of the Ask Dr. Math program.
In New Hampshire, Free Staters find many sympathetic politicians. After Frank Edelblut dropped out of the governors race in favor of Chris Sununu, Sununu offered the homeschooling businessman the post of education commissioner. The Underwoods testified at his 2017 confirmation hearing.
Free Staters oppose most taxation. The small town of Grafton, just up the road from Croydon, has cut spending in the town dramatically (read Matthew Hongoltz-Hetlings A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear for a full picture). Two years ago, Croydons three selectmen (including Ian Underwood) made a surprise motion to fire the towns only policeman and dissolve the department. At that meeting, the twenty-year veteran was told to turn in his uniform and equipment, so in a fine show of Yankee spirit, he stripped down to briefs, boots, and hat and walked home.
Croydons tiny population (801 as of 2020) includes 80 students; the school system maintains a local K-4 school and an innovative, hard-won school choice system which pays full tuition for students to attend whatever school the family selects. Many choose the neighboring public school systems. But those costs are far in excess of Croydons slashed budget, which was based on $10,ooo per student.
Nationally, Libertarians are often vocal supporters of school choice, but the Free Staters have largely moved beyond that position. In a Libertarian Institute podcast, Free State board member Jeremy Kaufman explained that school choice and vouchers are just "a stepping stone towards reducing or eliminating state involvement in schools."
Jody Underwood has written that vouchers are only a stepping stone, while Ian Underwood has referred to school budgets as ransom and (in a post entitled Your house is my ATM), extortion.
Two days after the budget-slicing meeting, over 100 mostly-angry Croydon residents attended a school board meeting. Accusations were thrown about. Jody Underwood insisted that she had no idea her husband was going to make such a proposal, a claim that locals say she later retracted.
Board member Aaron McKeon said that a failure to adapt to the new budget just represented a failure of imagination. The message on that Monday was that the new budget was a legally done deal.
Families with students in grades 5-12 had few options. The solution that was repeatedly floated was the use of microschools, particularly Prenda, a company that just last year won $6 million in pandemic relief money from the state of New Hampshire. The company was founded by Kelly Smith, a physicist who started Code Clubs of Arizona; he launched his first Prenda pod in 2018 with seven neighborhood kids. Prenda has since picked up some major funding from VELA Education Fund, a new Koch-Walton initiative.
Microschools are set up with small pods of students, whose education is delivered via computer. Pods do not require teachers, but depend on an adult guide. Microschools in this model are not public education, but the outsourcing of public education to a private company.
The prospect of giving up schools for pods did not excite many of the Croydon parents. And other taxpayers in the town werent happy, either.
The Real Fight Begins
Among the alarmed taxpayers were folks with long time roots in Croydon. Amanda Brown has lived there for 20 years, having married into a family that had been in Croydon for generations. Hope Damon has lived there 36 years, raising two daughters. They were among the many interconnected Croydon folks who were now sparked into action. The Free Staters were about to find out what the wide web of small town connections can do.
When a mistake is made, says Damon, there ought to be a way to rectify it. Tapping a network that included an education lawyer and connections all the way to state Attorney Generals office, the group found that there wasan obscure law that allowed taxpayers to petition for a special meeting to undo the new budget.
The petition had 150 signatures in two days. The special meeting was scheduled for May 7. In order to act, the meeting would require at least half of the towns 565 voters, and so the battle shifted toward driving turnout.
Brown says, We spent every second we could afford on this. They went door to door. They held two calling events. They wrote letters to the editor. They enlisted assistance from surrounding communities, including teachers, administrators and boards of nearby districts.
Jody Underwood reportedly said the board had legal advice to not advertise the special meeting. Meanwhile, Ian Underwood was blogging increasingly angry posts: parents dont understand how children learn, the special meeting was actually not legal, the school district wanted to take money by force, and a piece in which he argues that majorities in a democracy are a big problem.
We Stand Up For Croydon Students formed to back the budget restoration; soon, another group calling itself We Stand Up For Croydon Students and Taxpayers appeared, causing confusion.
The pro-budget cuts group sent out a mailer that argued that microschools would be fine (small class sizes, limited screen time) and that there would be Better education. Lower taxes. Repeatedly, the plea was to stay home. If you like the budget you have, you can keep it. Just stay home on May 7. If fewer than 283 registered voters attend the special meeting, no vote can be taken.
Dozens of Croyden residents registered to vote. Cathy Peshke, a Croydon freedom fighter and veteran of many school budget debates, resigned her post as a voting official when the state said that the new voters would not change the 283 requirement. The budget cutters, she told residents, were the silent majority in this fight. Somebody stuffed pro-budget cut materials in peoples mailboxes.
Ive been exhausted and distracted, says Brown. April was a long month, but then May arrived. And a lot can change between March and May.
The Special Meeting
379 voters showed up.
Outside, there were tables set up by both We Stand Up For Croydon Students and We Stand Up For Croydon Students and Taxpayers; only one was doing much business.
Independent journalist Jennifer Berkshire traveled from Massachusetts to attend the meeting. She found people piling in, with lots of media and residents of all ages. She anticipated tension. I really was expecting a kind of face off. Moderator Bruce Jasper opened the meeting with his own story and, she says, you could feel people kind of exhaling.
The room was packed and, Berkshire says, it became evident early on that everyone there was supportive. Damon says that supporters anticipated that someone might propose a compromise amendment, restoring only part of the original budget. It didnt happen.
There was no wrangling, no points of order, no real debate. One board member tried to plug the microschools and budget cuts. Says Berkshire, The people in the audience did not appreciate his presentation, and they did not respond to it as gracefully as they might have, and encouraged him to wrap it up.
Berkshire found herself sitting next to Jody Underwood, who was agitated. During the We Stand Up For Croydon Students advocacy for a restored budget, she blurted out lies.
In the end, the Free Stater campaign to keep people home had been effective only with their own allies. The budget was restored to its original full condition by a vote of 377-2.
In the end, the debate in Croydon was not about school choice or about quality education, both of which the town already had. As the re-vote came down to the wire, the argument was literally about democracy itself.
The budget cutters were explicitly trying to keep people from voting, arguing against registering more voters, and insisting that the original vote on a surprise motion by 34 of the towns 585 voters was good enough. This was a fight about dismantling a piece of democratic government.
Budget cut advocates had claimed to be the silent majority, but the actual majority turned out to be taxpayers who support public education and are willing to fund it.
People in Croydon had not paid close attention to their new Free State neighbors. Theyre paying attention now; petitions are circulating to remove two school board members (a move that New Hampshire law doesnt actually allow for). Said Damon, They come in acting nice, people trust them, and they turn out to have goals other than what you thought.
Amanda Brown says, I do not think this fight is over. But people are finally aware.
Asked how they got to this point, Hope Damon says, Apathy. Taking for granted that the status quo would be maintained or that somebody had it covered. Free Staters have gained so many elected positions by virtue of being unopposed.
That may change. We won the battle, not the war, says Damon. Were not going away.
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