School budgets bring low voter turnout

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On Tuesday Lewiston and Auburn voters will go to the polls — at least a few of them — to have a say on their city’s school spending.

Two questions will be asked of voters across Maine this month and next.

Do they favor the school budget approved by their city or town officials? And, do they wish to continue the budget validation referendum in their town or city for another three years?

Last May 4.4 percent of voters cast ballots on the school budget in Portland; 2 percent in Auburn, and 1.7 percent in Lewiston, the lowest ever for any kind of Lewiston election, said City Clerk Kathleen Montejo. Numbers were not available for statewide voter turnout, but officials agreed turnout is low.

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Considering that, opinions are divided as to whether the referendums should stay or go.

Some history: Three years ago as Gov. John Baldacci said there were too many school administrators and districts driving up costs. A law was passed to consolidate many districts. At the same time Baldacci pushed to make school spending more transparent. A state law was passed saying that school budgets had to be approved in local referendums. Every three years voters would be asked if they want to continue with the local school budget referendum.

Typically November presidential elections enjoy high turnouts, as much as 85 percent, and June primary elections receive low turnouts, about 20 percent.

But the school budget referendums seem to hit new lows.

In Lewiston in 2008 voter turnout for the school budget was 3 percent. Last year’s 1.7 percent was “definitely the lowest turnout for any type of election we’ve had,” Montejo said. “It makes for a long day. We tell workers to bring knitting, newspapers, books, anything to pass the time.”

The city takes steps to let people know. In Lewiston the school department does a mailing to every resident, in Auburn information is sent home with students.

Auburn City Clerk Mary Lou Magno said voter turnout “has been very poor.”

In 2008 voter turnout was 5.5 percent, which seems high compared to last year’s 2 percent when 304 people voted.

“From what I observed, it’s a waste of taxpayers money to put on an election” for that small number, she said.

Other districts hold the school budget referendum during the June primary which improves turnout. Voter turnout in Mexico last June was about 33 percent last year, said Mexico Town Clerk Penny Duguay. In towns like hers where school spending used to be decided in open meetings, citizens like the referendum because they can vote in private, Duguay said.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said the school budget referendum should stay, even if turnout is low. If people don’t care about the school budget they give up their right to vote, but they have the option, he said.

A Maine Department of Education spokesman agreed.

“As in any one-subject election, the turnout is on the low side,” said David Connerty-Marin. “But voters not showing up to vote says something too. It says I’m not that unhappy with the way things are going. If people were outraged, they’d show up.”

Regardless of turnout, the law has achieved what it set out to do, improve school budget transparency and give local voters control, Connerty-Marin said.

In the few cases where voters rejected the school budget, officials had to do a better job explaining, he said. “I’ll be surprised if many districts give up the vote.”

In Lewiston:

Voting on school budget, 7 a.m. To 8 p.m., Tuesday, May 11, at the Lewiston Multi-Purpose Center, 145 Birch St. (Only polling station open).

Proposed K-12 school budget: $50.64 million. State share: $33.98 million; Lewiston taxpayers share, $15.91 million.

Impact on city taxes: No tax increase.

In Auburn:

Voting on school budget, 7 a.m. To 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 11, at Auburn Hall (Only polling station open).

Proposed budget: $32.75 million.

Impact on city taxes: No tax increase.

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