NORWAY – SAD 17 officials are questioning the impact of a new state-mandated budget process that may put absentee voters and others at a disadvantage.

The law, part of Gov. John Baldacci’s fiscal 2008 budget for approval of regional school systems, obligates towns and cities to follow the standard starting with their fiscal 2008-2009 budget, regardless of their school consolidation plans.

The budget-approval process is placed directly on voters without a budget hearing, and does so on such a tight schedule that absentee and other voters are likely to not be well-informed, according to some officials.

“I’m very concerned about the disenfranchisement of a segment of voters,” said Director Dale Piirainen of absentee voters. “That troubles me greatly.”

Under the law, school systems must hold a town or budget meeting where voters will be required to act on at least 11 different budget articles prepared and approved by the school board. The warrant would include regular instruction, facilities maintenance and special education. Voters can increase or decrease recommended amounts and then vote on a summary article which approves the total amount.

SAD 17 officials have predicted that voters will be asked to act on at least 19 budget articles at the budget meeting, Assistant Superintendent Rick Colpitts said.

“The state wants taxpayers to know exactly where their money is going,” said Colpitts, who made the presentation to the directors Monday night.

Voters will have to be informed about which areas are being spent over the essential services and programs formula; the amount and percentage of change of the state allocation, local share and total budget; a breakdown for each major subcategory and so forth. The statute says the school board may only transfer 5 percent or less of the total appropriation from one category to another.

In the past, the board has had much greater flexibility in its movement of money between line items, and voters have had no say in the transfers.

Following the budget meeting, voters will go to the polls and be asked one of two questions: whether they favor the budget or, if the budget exceeds EPS, do voters favor the budget that includes locally raised funds that exceed the required local contribution.

The timeline, said school board members, is the real kicker.

“It radically changes the process historically used in Maine,” Colpitts said.

Under the law, after the school board approves a budget and signs warrants for both the budget meeting and the budget validation referendum, warrants have to be issued and posted at least seven days before the meeting. Warrants for the budget validation referendum must be posted at least 14 days prior to the validation referendum. The referendum has to be validated within 10 business days after the budget meeting. Absentee ballots must be delivered seven days before the date of the budget meeting and cannot be processed until after the budget meeting, but before the close of polls on the day of the budget validation referendum.

“How do you inform the public?” asked Colpitts. No information is posted on the ballots, so presumably absentee voters would have no knowledge of what they are voting on. The statute requires that printed information be displayed at polling places, but officials questioned how much time a voter would take in a polling booth to read and understand it.

If the budget validation referendum fails, another one must be held with 10 days and must be repeated until approved.

Every three years, residents will be able to vote whether they want to continue with the validation process.

SAD 17 Superintendent Mark Eastman said there are two or three districts that use the method, and apparently at least one does so successfully.

In SAD 17’s case, the board will vote on the budget on May 5, 2008, a budget meeting will be held on June 3, followed by the budget validation referendum on June 10. It is expected that budget workshops, that have been traditionally held in each of the eight towns in the district, will still be held to help inform voters.

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