LEWISTON — With a low voter turnout, Lewiston voters approved a $58.4 million school budget on Tuesday.
With only 625 people voting, the budget passed 346 to 276, according to unofficial returns late Tuesday, said City Clerk Kathy Montejo.
The voter turnout was 2.5 percent, or 625 out of 24,000 registered voters. Three ballots cast could not be counted, Montejo said. Two ballots were blank, and one was incorrectly filled in, she said.
Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster said he was gratified that voters supported the budget. "The vote is closer than I would like," Webster said. "That's likely an indicator of the tough economic times we're in." School officials take their stewardship of public funds seriously, Webster said, "and will do our best to make Lewiston proud" of work done by Lewiston schools.
At the polls Tuesday, several voters interviewed said they came to support the budget, even with its 7.2 percent hike.
The school budget alone would mean an increase of $72 a year for a home valued at $150,000; but because the city side of the budget is being reduced, the overall impact on Lewiston property taxes will be less, about $39 a year more for a $150,000 home.
“After 40 years in the school district, it's important to support education,” Diane Bleakney said after voting shortly before noon Tuesday. She and her husband, Charles, both retired Lewiston teachers, said they voted for the budget.
As property taxpayers, it would be nice if spending didn't go up, she said. “We're on a fixed income. But we also understand that everything goes up.” The increase is not exorbitant, Bleakney said. “We also know how hard the teachers are working in the district, regardless of the grading system from Augusta.”
Other voters casting ballots agreed.
Ambiya Adan, Ifrah Sheikh-Kassim and Abdihakim Kassim said they voted for the school budget. “I voted 'yes' to help the schools,” Sheikh-Kassim said.
The same for retirees Claire Breton and her partner, Roland Metayer.
"I read the information available on the budget,” Metayer said. “I thought it was well put together, well justified.”
He said he did not approve of state policy that shifted new special education and teacher pension costs from the state to municipalities. And he noted that part of the budget hike is from renovating and expanding the middle school.
“It's probably a lot cheaper than a new school,” Metayer said.
Montejo said throughout the day that the turnout was going well. By noon, a little more than 200 voters had voted.
"It's been steady," Montejo said. "We always seem to have a voter in the booth.”
Compared to other elections, voter turnout for school budgets is low, Montejo said. Often it is only 3 percent voter turnout. "Last year, it was 1.5 percent," she said.
Lewiston voters were asked a second question on the ballot, which was if they wished to continue validating the budget approved by the Lewiston City Council. A majority, 399, said yes, and 218 said no, Montejo said. That means the school budget validation in Lewiston will continue, she said.
One common reason for low turnout numbers is non-controversial questions or budgets, Montejo said. Even though Lewiston's school budget will increase property taxes, “we haven't heard a lot of residents talking about it, one way or the other. A lot of folks are coming out today, saying it's their civic duty. We've heard that all day. A lot have kids or grandkids in the schools.”
Many have followed the budget process and understand the increases, including the middle school renovation. “They know that is going to have an impact,” Montejo said. Several voters said that renovating the Lewiston Middle School is less expensive than what Auburn taxpayers could face to replace their high school without state dollars.
Big reasons for the higher budget include a change in state policies that's shifting special education Medicaid costs and teacher pension costs from the state to municipalities. Other costs are Lewiston's first-year payment on the $9.1 million bond to renovate and expand the Lewiston Middle School ($740,000), raises for teachers ($846,000) and 13 new positions, mostly teachers and ed techs ($501,000) to keep pace with the student population of 5,139, which is expected to increase by another 150 students this fall.
The new budgets takes affect on July 1.