N.H.: CROYDON – With its charming general store, one-room schoolhouse, and nearby museum that is open by appointment, the tiny New Hampshire town of Croydon embodies the idea of New England. A stoplight is the only thing that should be present but isn’t.
But more than just the Rockwellian setting contributes to the impression that this 800-person community is distinctly American. The recent fractious come-to-Jefferson moment has left many with a renewed appreciation for democracy, which they had previously taken for granted.
being present. That’s the key lesson, according to Chris Prost, a 37-year-old resident of Croydon who operates a small brewery out of a barn behind his home. And it’s not just about showing up; it’s also about being informed.
Hope Damon, a 65-year-old dietitian who recently experienced a crisis in her town and is now pursuing a new career, concurred. She remarked that what had occurred “could happen most anywhere.”
You should keep in mind the state motto of New Hampshire, “Live Free or Die,” to comprehend what transpired and continues to transpire in Croydon. After all, this is the only state that does not mandate that adults use seatbelts.
You should also be aware that New Hampshire, with its small population (1.38 million) and large legislature (400 representatives and 24 senators), attracts libertarians like colonists to a tea party due to its strong individual rights culture.
This includes the Free State Project, a movement that has long encouraged a mass influx of “liberty activists” into the state in an effort to plant the seeds of a kind of Shangri-La with limited government. According to the organization’s website, it supports “constitutional federalism,” “radical personal responsibility,” and “peaceful resistance to expose the force that is the state.”
One of the towns in New Hampshire with a free-state vein running through its granite hills is Croydon, which was founded in 1763. This was alluded to in 2020 when Ian Underwood, a Free State-aligned town selectman, suggested dismantling the police force in order to oust its lone employee, the long-serving and occasionally contentious chief.
The three-member select board agreed with the strategy and gave the chief the order to give back his badge and equipment. He quickly handed over his uniform, which he just so happened to be wearing, and then walked outside into a snowstorm in February while wearing a hat, boots, and underwear. He was picked up by his wife near the general store.
Life went on in Croydon, with Halloween parties at the fire station, yard sales at the museum, and typically low attendance at the annual town meetings, which are a direct-democracy tradition common in New England and where residents gather to approve, deny, or amend proposed municipal budgets.
The 2022 meeting started on a snowy Saturday in March in the two-century-old town hall, which has a flag made by “women of Croydon” in 1876 hanging on the walls and instructions to turn the furnace down to 53 degrees before leaving.
The town budget was approved by the citizens in the morning. Afternoon discussions then turned to the proposed $1.7 million school budget, which includes funding for the colonial-era schoolhouse (kindergarten through fourth grade) as well as transportation costs for older students to nearby public or private schools of their choice.
At this point, Mr. Underwood, 60, rose and delivered a knockout blow to the political establishment.
He moved to lower the proposed budget to $800,000, referring to it as a “ransom.” He argued that although education taxes had increased, student achievement had not. Based in part on the significantly lower tuition for some local private schools, he claimed that about $10,000 was enough for each of the town’s 80 or so students. This was considerably less than, for example, the nearly $18,000 public schools in nearby Newport charged for Croydon students.
Mr. Underwood claimed in pamphlets he brought to the meeting that sports, music lessons, and other common school activities were not necessary for intelligent participation in a free government and that tax money being used to support them “crosses the boundary between public benefit and private charity.”
The leaflet omitted to mention that its author was a 1979 graduate of Chesterton High School in Chesterton, Indiana, where he excelled on the tennis team, ran track, participated in intramural sports, and joined extracurricular activities in math, creative writing, radio, and student government. In addition, the valedictorian, finalist, and member of the National Honor Society.
The head of the school board, Mr. Underwood’s wife Jody, was one person who wasn’t completely taken aback by his proposal. The Underwoods, who are childless, made their 2007 move from Pennsylvania to Croydon, in part, in order to participate in the Free State mission; they are now regarded as a Free State power couple.
The 61-year-old Dr. Underwood, a learning scientist with a doctorate in education, claimed that although she was aware of her husband’s budget-cutting proposal in advance, she had not felt compelled to inform the neighborhood. “Do Ian and I discuss various topics? Yes, she replied. Does that surprise you?
She continued, “I didn’t think it was going to pass,” despite this.
The motion of Mr. Underwood was actually seconded, which sparked a heated discussion during which his wife read a statement in favor of the budget cut, effectively opposing the $1.7 million budget that she and the rest of the school board had previously suggested. (Dr. Underwood later clarified that she had been persuaded by her husband’s claims, which included the fact that educational spending had increased by 30% recently.)
The Free Staters are attempting to cut the budget more than in half, worried 42-year-old resident and teacher from another district Amanda Leslie, who texted her husband to hurry to town hall.
His vote would have been irrelevant. 20 to 14 voted in favor of the budget-cutting amendment.
The school secretary, Angi Beaulieu, was so appalled by what she had just seen that she signed her account of the minutes with regret rather than the traditional “respectfully submitted.”
The unexpected budget cut forced the school board to create a new financial strategy, and many parents were left scrambling to raise thousands of dollars to keep their kids in public schools.
A 38-year-old painting contractor whose two sons attend Newport public schools said, “I would have to put in an extra thousand hours of work a year.”
No comments were given by Mr. Underwood in response to inquiries. He and his wife, however, made separate appearances on an online Free State program to discuss what Free Staters were claiming as a victory for their cause in the weeks following the meeting.
Why is that guy paying for that guy’s kids’ education? is a question Mr. Underwood seemed to consider to be fundamental. — and refuted claims that he and his wife were working together.
Mr. Underwood, who identified himself as a former planetary scientist and artificial-intelligence researcher, said: “It’s a lot of stress on her at home.” Less strain on myself. The school board now needs to clean it up because I just threw the wrench into the machinery.
Meanwhile, Dr. Underwood grinned as she recalled the amendment’s approval. In addition, she said that “people were pissed.”
This is an understatement for debate students, as Mr. Underwood did in high school. Many people in Croydon were furious.
However, they were also corrected. The town meeting had not been attended by them. They had failed to uphold their democratic duty. They were not up to date on the Free State movement. They had received what they deserved, according to some observers.
Mr. Spiker admitted, “I was almost kicking myself in the ass for not being there.” I guess I thought our town would handle it.
The incident exposed an impoverished democracy. Town meetings have long had low attendance. The town’s websites are incredibly basic, and school board minutes are only occasionally posted online. The town hall, which is open three afternoons a week, and the general store both have the select board minutes available next to chocolate bars being sold to benefit the neighborhood humane society.
But from this jumble of rage, perplexity, and regret, a movement emerged. We Stand Up for Croydon Students became its name.
An “entirely nonpartisan group,” according to Ms. Damon, one of the members, started meeting online and in living rooms to reverse what they believed to be a catastrophic error. They investigated right-to-know laws, consulted nonprofits for guidance, and got in touch with the state attorney general’s office to see if they had any legal recourse.
They did: If at least half of the town’s voters turned out to vote and were present, they could petition for a special meeting where the budget cut might be reversed.
Project manager for a kitchen and bath retailer Ms. Beaulieu, 44, assisted in obtaining the required number of signatures for the petition. She and other volunteers spread the word once a date for the special meeting in May was decided upon by door-to-door canvassing, running phone banks, and erecting yard signs.
The three-member school board created a strategy in the meantime to work with its reduced budget. It would entail the loss of more than half of the town’s meager number of jobs or their outsourcing.
For the lower grades, a private contractor would offer in-person instruction at the schoolhouse with a certified teacher supervising three “guides,” who weren’t required to have certification. For the higher grades, the $9,000 allotted for each student would cover the cost of nearby private schools or an in-person online option, which would be held “in a church, or town hall, or some rented space,” according to Dr. Underwood, but only about half the tuition for public schools.
Particularly in a town of 800 people, democracy is a scrum. There were awkward encounters at the Newport Shaw’s supermarket, accusations of bullying and spreading false information, and frank remarks made at town meetings and on Facebook. Some neighbors stopped going on lengthy walks.
Additionally, there was a growing awareness of the Free State movement, as well as, for some, a growing mistrust of it.
We Stand Up supporters “didn’t waste any time starting a Free State witch hunt,” according to 39-year-old school board member Aaron McKeon, whose children were already receiving education at home. He claimed that they incorrectly labeled him as a Free Stater due to the fact that he occasionally shared the Underwoods’ political views, despite the fact that he thought Mr. Underwood’s sudden and contentious motion to cut the budget wasn’t the best course of action.
Mr. McKeon remarked of the Free Staters, “I agree with some of the things they try to do. But I’m not one of them because of that.
Ms. Leslie, the teacher, reacted, “I don’t believe it for a second.
The Croydon crisis led to an odd democratic dynamic. People who wanted to overturn the Underwood budget urged people to attend the special meeting, while those who wanted to keep it in place urged people to do the exact opposite and stay at home, as required by law for the vote to be binding.
Residents of Croydon gathered in a large building at the nearby YMCA camp on the brisk morning of May 7 for their special meeting. At least 283 voters were required for the We Stand Up campaign.
Attendance was 379.
377 people voted in favor of rejecting the Underwood budget.
People voted against
The We Stand Up crowd applauded and hugged, leaving Mr. Underwood to rant online in posts titled “Your House Is My A.T.M.” and “Possibly Dumbest Thing I’ve Heard Someone Say, Ever,” and Dr. Underwood to portray the event as a triumph for “mob rule” and both an impressive voter turnout and.
She remarked, “I got the impression that a lot of woke people came to Croydon.
The events in Croydon were felt far beyond its borders, and they were extensively covered in local news. It turned into a warning story or perhaps a mirror of these times.
A political science professor at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire, Wayne Lesperance said, “As citizens, we have many rights, but we also have obligations.” And when we don’t follow through on our commitments, we frequently get outcomes that we don’t like.
It appears that many people in Croydon now feel that obligation.
Dietitian Ms. Damon has started running for a seat in the state legislature as she prepares to retire. She remarked, “I hope enough of us can come together and find a middle ground.”
Breaking a private promise, Ms. Beaulieu, the school clerk and former school board member, intends to run for re-election to the board. I didn’t have the time, I thought, she said. Then I acknowledged, “Yes, you do.”
The teacher, Ms. Leslie, is assisting her We Stand Up coworkers with their political campaigns. She claimed that she is motivated by a desire to remove anyone connected to the Free State movement from public office.
A camera and a microphone cost a few hundred dollars and were purchased by Mr. Spiker, the painter. He now records and posts the meetings of the school board and select board online.
We Stand Up for Croydon is the new name of the organization that was formerly known as We Stand Up for Croydon Students. A few weeks ago, its members gathered in a living room to discuss future plans, including how to address complacency, the main threat to democracy.
Mr. Prost, the brewer, said that “outsiders think they know what happened.” “Town comes together to balance the budget! Democracy is still alive! But the majority of locals are aware that’s not the whole story. This is only the beginning.