LEWISTON — A former Lewiston School Committee member hired a company to make robocalls to voters Monday night urging them to vote against the school budget Tuesday, according to City Clerk Kathy Montejo.
The calls were initiated by Benjamin Martin, Montejo said. Martin did not run for re-election last year.
Montejo said Martin called her Monday to ask what he had to legally do to make robocalls. After checking with the state, Montejo said if someone is spending less than $5,000 on a local election, no financial paperwork need be filed.
Federal Communication Commission rules say robocalls must identify the person responsible for the calls, Montejo said.
Reached by email Tuesday, Martin said the $82.9 million budget, representing an 11.7 percent increase, “is just not sustainable to the taxpayers.” And while administrators make high salaries, “teachers continue to foot the bill for supplies in the classroom,” he said.
School Superintendent Bill Webster said he agrees the increase is not sustainable, “but this is only a one-time jump reflecting both the increase in the funding formula and the cost of the new elementary school previously approved by voters.”
The state is paying the bulk of education expenses in Lewiston, $61.5 million, with taxpayers shelling out $20.1 million. The 11.7 percent increase means a 5.3 percent property tax increase, or an additional $81 a year for a property valued at $150,000.
Martin also complained Tuesday that Webster has shown graphics that Lewiston has among the lowest costs for administration, but administrators are in different parts of the budget, such as special education and English Language Learning.
“The graph is far from the truth,” Martin said.
Webster said administrators are in the budget “in accordance with the requirements of the state.”
“The public can go on the Maine Department of Education website and see the state’s calculations that compare costs across various districts,” he said.
On the required minimum local share to receive state money, Webster said for the first time since the Essential Programs and Services state funding formula was created, the state last year increased its share from 97 percent to 100 percent.
“Lewiston allocates more to classroom instruction than almost any other school district in Maine,” Webster said.
Martin declined to share how much the robocalls cost, or how many households received the calls.
Bruce Damon said the robocall he received urged him to reject the budget because school administrator pay is too high.
“I didn’t agree with that robocall last night,” said Damon, who said he voted for the budget. “We got it at the house last night. I was really surprised who was behind it.”
Administrator pay is not the issue, Damon said.
“The budget increase has to do with more staff and that we’re trying to meet the minimum we have to spend to get the state reimbursement,” he said. “People don’t understand it, but you don’t have to talk to many people to figure it out.”
Damon, a local businessman, served on the new school building committee and taught night school for years.
“The thing we’re suffering from the most from now is an uneducated next generation who can’t learn, were never taught to learn or won’t,” Damon said. “I don’t know how we break that cycle other than trying to ensure it’s the best (education) we can give them.”
Other voters at the polls Tuesday said they rejected the budget.
“I voted no,” Judy Baird said. “I think it’s too high.”
Joyce Caron also voted no, saying, “It’s too high.”
Text of robocalls that were made Monday night. The robocalls were initiated by Benjamin Martin:
“Do you agree with raising our taxes to pay for an irresponsible 12 percent increased in the school budget? Hi neighbors, I’m Janet Beaudoin, mother of two. I’m calling tonight to urge you to vote no on tomorrow’s budget validation at Longley Elementary.
“A responsible budget should focus on classroom sizes and teachers, not six-figure salaries for administrators.
“Wrong priorities. Too high. Vote no.”
“Paid for by resident, parent and taxpayer Ben Martin.”
Source: Martin sent the text to the Sun Journal at the newspaper’s request