|Population||4,180 (2000 Census)|
|Area||42.3 square miles (109.5 square kilometers)|
|Focus Areas||Civic engagement; demographics; diversity; education; government; leadership; public participation; youth engagement|
|Methods||Dialogue; learning networks; workshops|
|Tools||Surveys; web tools|
|Coordinator Contact|| |
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When town meetings in Manchester, Vermont, let out, board members return to their lives as teachers, store owners, Little League coaches, home makers – and, now, high school students. In a unique partnership with the local high school, Burr and Burton Academy (BBA), and the Foundation, the Town of Manchester appointed high school students to serve on municipal boards and commissions.
Manchester is a lively, historic New England town. As regional center for tourism, the arts and shopping, it is no surprise that Manchester’s leaders regularly confront new development proposals, as well as new regulatory recommendations intended to guide their decisions. Planning is taken seriously, and vehement advocates on every side of issues and proposals weigh in. Until recently, town meetings and debates have been dominated by older voices. Manchester’s Select Board began appointing youth to all Town boards and commissions in 2007, and now high school students spend their weeknights discussing the nuances of zoning setbacks and design standards alongside their adult counterparts.
Students are appointed to the Planning Commission, Design Review Board, Development Review Board, Parks & Recreation Committee, Conservation Commission, Energy Committee and the Mark Skinner Library Board. They serve as full voting members on all but two of the boards, which, for legal reasons, do not allow minors to vote. Students attend meetings, read up on the issues, comment on proposals and make their voices heard.
Feedback to date from the students, the Town’s adult board members and from the community has been uniformly positive. The program will develop to include better training, opportunities for students to speak at conferences and network with other youth leaders, and a broader youth engagement initiative.
The Town of Manchester lies in the Valley of Vermont, between the Green Mountains to the east and the Taconic Range to the west. Mount Equinox watches over the community from an elevation of 3,850 feet, and the Battenkill River, famed for its trout fishing, runs through the town. The second largest town in Bennington County, Manchester includes several historic neighborhoods, each of which retains a distinct identity. Scores of national retail outlets like The Gap, J. Crew, Coach and Polo Ralph Lauren dominate the downtown area, but the historic Main Street also hosts locally owned independent businesses, including the renowned independent Northshire Bookstore. Manchester is also known for excellent educational and cultural facilities, including Burr and Burton Academy, Hildene (the Lincoln family summer home), the Mark Skinner Library, the Southern Vermont Arts Center and the American Museum of Fly Fishing, and is headquarters of the famed fishing and hunting outfitter, the Orvis Company.
While the year-round population in 2000 was just 4,180, Manchester seems much larger. The community serves as a regional service and economic center for a population of about 15,000 in surrounding towns, as well as thousands of visitors and second home owners. Tourists flock to Manchester for summer golfing, paddling, fly-fishing, mountain biking and hiking, while skiers pass through on their way to nearby peaks. Median household income tends to be above the state average because affluent retirees and business people live in the community, but a high proportion of retail and service-sector jobs provide only modest wages to Manchester’s working class.
As it has struggled to balance the demands of competing economies, Manchester has fiercely protected its appearance and livability. There are limits on the location and size of commercial buildings, detailed design guidelines that protect historic streetscapes and an innovative “Park and Walk” program. Citizens actively follow the work of the Planning Commission, Development Review Board and Design Review Board in the local newspaper and watch live broadcasts of the Select Board meetings on the local access television station.
Benning Wentworth, colonial governor of New Hampshire, chartered the Town of Manchester in 1761 and named it for Robert Montagu, 3rd Duke of Manchester, in hopes that the Duke might take a patronly interest in his namesake community. Manchester was predominantly agricultural in its early days: by 1839 about 6,000 sheep roamed the hillsides, which were nearly all cleared of trees. Early settlers harnessed Manchester’s streams for water power, fueling small mills, iron mines, marble quarries and lumber companies.
The railroad arrived in 1852 and brought tourists drawn by Manchester’s historic architecture and beautiful setting, which led to the Town becoming a popular vacation destination, especially among the burgeoning middle and upper classes. Manchester devotees included Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s son Robert, who eventually purchased 500 acres of land and built “Hildene,” a turn-of-the-century summer home that is a now a non-profit museum and education center.
Manchester has evolved over the years to become a “four season” tourist destination, with a ski season bolstering summer outdoor enthusiasts and fall “leaf peepers.” In the 1980s, factory outlet clothing stores landed in Manchester as well, and the town has since become a community of year-round residents and second homeowners, visitors, entrepreneurs and employees.
In 2005, a controversial proposal to develop a five-turbine wind farm on Little Equinox, a shoulder of Mount Equinox, led to community forums and debates. Issues revolved around the community’s future, but young people were absent from the public debate. Town officials later learned that students were having their own lively debate among themselves and in their classrooms, but they did not know how to join in the public debate or did not feel welcome.
Meanwhile, at the state level, concerns about “youth flight” led the Governor of Vermont in 2006 to establish a “Next Generation Commission” to study the issue and develop a plan to encourage young Vermonters to live and work in Vermont. Project proponents in Manchester surmised that including youth in decisions for the future of Manchester might be one way to keep them in the State, or at least to have students take ownership and responsibility for the future of their community and beyond.
In the summer of 2006, the Orton Family Foundation convened a group to consider youth involvement in Manchester’s government. The group consisted of the Town Planner and Town Manager, a Select Board member, Manchester citizens, staff from BBA and five high school students. The group researched and considered models for youth engagement used across the country, as well as laws and policies in Manchester and Vermont that would impact youth involvement. One Manchester student from another local school had already been serving on the Town’s Recreation Committee, and his experience informed the group’s thinking.
After discussing options, the group settled on a model that would best match the interests of Manchester students, the structure of local government and the culture of the community. With the support of the Foundation and BBA, three students presented the concept to the Select Board in November of 2006 and formally requested that students be appointed to the Town boards and commissions. The Select Board agreed to consider the proposal and, after receiving unanimous consent from all municipal boards, authorized the appointments in April of 2007.
As presented to the Select Board in 2006, the Project included two key components:
While student representation on boards and commissions is now well established in Manchester, the second component of the project – the Youth Commission – remains in limbo. During 2009, the students and their advisors will give further thought to the best way to broaden participation throughout the youth population.
The Foundation’s evaluations of the project partners, board members and student board representatives indicated unanimous support for the program; the overwhelming majority of respondents agreed that the program has helped to increase youth participation in Town government, bring new perspectives to the boards and increase student understanding of civic affairs. Students and adults alike indicated that the greatest challenge is helping students feel comfortable enough to speak up in meetings, which project partners will address with training.
In particular, nearly all students reported a low awareness of Town government, planning documents, and avenues for citizen participation before they began serving on Town boards. Nearly all reported a high awareness of the same issues and topics after serving on Town boards. Town staff members have received very positive feedback on the program from board members and the public. Anecdotally, the level of participation among student board representatives is mixed, but increasing. Students have found that training in leadership, town governance and effective public speaking makes them more comfortable with their role on boards; the Town’s regulations, land use planning documents and manuals are very detailed and can be overwhelming at first, so a short, clear guide for first-time board members would likely help students and adults learn about the Town’s policies and board procedures. When students do actively contribute, their suggestions have impressed their fellow board members and members of the public who appear before the boards; it is clear that student input has directly influenced the outcome of cases before the boards.
The program continues to evolve with changing needs and opportunities, and flexibility has been a key to its early success. Students originally appointed to the Conservation Commission were disappointed to find the group was inactive, but they were reappointed mid-year to the Town’s new Energy Committee. Project partners are working to adjust the timing of the appointment process to coincide with BBA’s leadership program and also to expand the program to non-profit organizations or other local towns that would accept students who are not Manchester residents. Manchester youth attending different schools have not participated to date and it is difficult to coordinate a program across multiple schools, but organizers hope to involve them in the future. The Open Youth Commission was not created at the start of the project due to time and staff constraints and some students now question whether it would be an effective structure. The students hope to raise awareness of the program and include other students in discussions about Town affairs, which would meet some of the original objectives for the Commission.
Having a project partner from the Town staff and another from the school was essential in helping the two institutions to collaborate. From the start of the project, the Town Planner and the BBA Advisor have conducted informal training about town government, Robert’s Rules of Order, and topics like zoning regulations and design guidelines. The students attended a retreat in August of 2008, with leadership training facilitated by Green Mountain Peer Projects, as the first step in creating a more robust training program. A second retreat is planned for the Spring of 2009 with the next round of appointees. BBA and the Foundation hope to connect the student board members with youth involved in similar programs to share experiences and learn from other communities.
Youth engagement programs are most likely to be successful if students have a strong hand in program design. Involve them from the beginning and use their knowledge about schedules and commitments, engagement strategies and ways to involve peers.
Support by school and town leadership are essential to the start-up and ongoing success of a program; to the extent possible, starting a program under the umbrella of an existing service or leadership program can help with organization. It’s difficult to coordinate efforts between multiple institutions (schools, town boards, town offices); it’s helpful to have staff members at each institution active in the project, with primary organizational responsibilities assigned to one person.
Students (and adults) need support as they learn how to be effective board members. Support should include training opportunities and a "coach” or advisor to ensure that the students’ needs are addressed, as well as opportunities for youth to meet together and talk about their experiences. Some communities also appoint an adult mentor on each board to help involve students.
It may be tempting to select the best and the brightest, but it’s more important to find students who are a good fit for the type of board and time commitment. Students of various ages can actively participate on boards, but high school freshmen and sophomores frequently have more energy and fewer time constraints than juniors and seniors. Students who are already involved in many activities may not be able to fully commit to board membership, but less active youth who are interested in careers in government, architecture, environment, and fields related to town boards may be especially excited to learn more about those issues.
It can be intimidating for a single student to serve on a board of adults, so students are most comfortable and effective on town boards when appointed with at least one other youth member. It is effective to stagger appointments such that one student is vacating a board each year and the other continuing on for a second term; in that way, the student continuing on can mentor a newly appointed student.
Adult board members need training in how to work with youth, just as youth need training in how to work with adults. Joint youth-adult leadership and group dynamics sessions can help to build camaraderie, improve communication and working relationships. Encouraging students to speak up on boards is difficult; training in public speaking can help, as can an adult board member who actively seeks to draw students into conversations, but the best remedy is simply giving students as many opportunities as possible to talk to fellow board members.
Most first-time board members (adults and youth) have a hard time wading through town plans and other dense documents, which are critical to understanding their work on boards. A simplified manual or primer on town government and planning issues can help board members adjust to their roles.
Serving on a board is an important accomplishment, and there are many ways to honor youth for the work they are doing. Ask the local paper to publish announcements of board appointments. Give students community service or academic credit for their work and encourage them to list it on college applications. Ask school faculty members to nominate potential board members and send letters home to families recognizing those nominations.
Many communities assume their youth are not interested in serving in local government, or are not mature or committed enough to do a good job. We found that, given opportunity and support, students are willing and highly capable of serving in town government and they can greatly influence decision-making in their communities.
Burr and Burton Academy is an independent, coeducational secondary school that serves as the public high school for students from Manchester and is offered as a school of choice for several surrounding communities. Current enrollment is about 700 students.
The Town of Manchester has a Town Manager form of government with a five-person Select Board, assisted by several boards and commissions. Manchester Village, while still a part of the Town of Manchester, is an incorporated village with its own Board of Trustees and Officers.
The Mark Skinner Library was founded in 1897 and acts as the sole public library serving the Manchester community. For most of its history the Library was governed and operated as a private library. In 2003 it was converted to a public library and now receives some of its funding from public sources.