Dan Barry: One Small Step for Democracy in a ‘Live Free or Die’ Town
Dan Barry visits Croydon, NH, where a libertarian tried to cut the school budget in half, and the locals learned a valuable civics lesson.
“Showing up. That’s the big lesson,” said Chris Prost, 37, a Croydon resident who runs a small brewery from a barn at the back of his house. “And not just showing up, but also knowing what’s going on.”
On a snowy Saturday this past March, the 2022 meeting began in the two-century-old town hall, where the walls are adorned with an 1876 American flag made by the “women of Croydon” and instructions to reset the furnace to 53 degrees before leaving.
Residents approved the town budget in the morning. Then they turned in the afternoon to the proposed $1.7 million school budget, which covers the colonial-era schoolhouse (kindergarten to fourth grade) and the cost of sending older students to nearby schools of their choice, public or private.
This is when Mr. Underwood, 60, stood up and threw a sucker punch to the body politic.
Calling the proposed budget a “ransom,” he moved to cut it by more than half — to $800,000. He argued that taxes for education had climbed while student achievement had not, and that based in part on the much lower tuition for some local private schools, about $10,000 for each of the town’s 80 or so students was sufficient — though well short of, say, the nearly $18,000 that public schools in nearby Newport charged for pupils from Croydon.
In pamphlets he brought to the meeting, Mr. Underwood asserted that sports, music instruction and other typical school activities were not necessary to participate intelligently in a free government, and that using taxes to pay for them “crosses the boundary between public benefit and private charity.”
The pamphlet did not note that its author was a 1979 graduate of the public high school in Chesterton, Ind., where he starred on the tennis team, ran track, played intramural sports and joined extracurricular activities in math, creative writing, radio and student government. Also: National Honor Society member, National Merit finalist and valedictorian.
One person not completely gobsmacked by Mr. Underwood’s proposal was the school board chairwoman: his wife, Jody Underwood. The Underwoods, who do not have children, moved to Croydon from Pennsylvania in 2007 in part to join the Free State mission; they are now considered a Free State power couple.