Jim Kelley votes June 11 at the Litchfield Sportsmen’s Club on Hallowell Road in Litchfield. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Voters in at least five school districts across Maine earlier this month rejected school budgets that would have resulted in sizable property tax increases.

In other communities, budgets passed, but just barely. Gorham, for example, is gearing up for a recount this week after its budget passed by just four votes.

Steve Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said the number of rejections and close votes was higher than usual this year, but he’s not sure if it’s a trend or just a blip.

“We’re surprised there weren’t more school districts voting ‘no,’ actually,” he said. “Not necessarily because of widespread pushback, but more so because of other types of things that have happened that put pressure on school budgets.”

“I hope it’s not a trend,” said Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association. “But relying on property taxes as much as we do is a concern.”

School officials had been warning for months ahead of the June referendum votes that this year’s budget cycle was dire. All federal funding distributed to Maine from the COVID-19 pandemic expired this year. Although districts were advised to use that money for one-time expenses such as technology upgrades, some used it for ongoing spending and faced new holes in their budgets.


On top of that, many districts are dealing with massive staff shortages, some tied directly to wages. Districts need to increase their salaries to attract and retain good workers, but if they do that, budgets balloon.

Gov. Janet Mills, in her supplemental budget this spring, set aside more than $20 million in additional funding to ensure the state continues to provide 55% of the total cost of funding K-12 education. But the budget also set a minimum wage for education technicians starting in July 2025 that is 125% of the state minimum hourly wage, and a minimum wage of 115% of the state minimum for other school support staff who are paid hourly. The first year of implementation will be paid for by the state, after which the cost will be shared by the state and local school districts.

That means things could get even more challenging for some school districts next year.

The top Democrat and Republican on the Legislature’s Education Committee both said the state might soon need to take a closer look at how public schools are funded to reduce the burden on local taxpayers.

“I believe that Maine should actually set a goal of 60% of school funding, not 55%,” said Sen. Jim Libby, R-Standish. “I think there is a frustration among citizens who feel like they are forced to pick up a lot of cost through their property taxes, but we also need to continue to have excellence in education. I think some people see Maine getting poor marks in education, and the response is to throw their arms up in disgust.”

Sen. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, agreed that the state should consider other options. He suggested tapping increased revenue from gambling and marijuana sales.


“I don’t think people have grown more hostile toward education or don’t want good school budgets,” he said. “But I do think some taxpayers wonder if there’s another way.”

The effort to find another way might include conversations about consolidating resources in areas with declining enrollment – an idea that always generates strong emotions in a state like Maine where local control is sacrosanct.

Max Sanchi votes at the Portland Expo on June 11. Poll workers said turnout was very light at the polling location, and Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said that voter turnout was very light throughout the state. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


Residents across Maine have voted to approve or reject local school budgets each year since 2007, when the state passed a new law intended to give local communities more say about education spending. There have been efforts to amend or overturn that law since, most recently two years ago, but they have not been successful.

The law also includes a provision that every three years, towns must vote on whether they want to keep holding annual school budget votes or drop the practice. Most towns have chosen to keep voting each time residents have been asked.

Because of when school budgets are drafted and presented to school boards and committees, referendum votes on those budgets almost always happen in June primary elections, when voter turnout is often in the 10% to 20% range. November elections usually top 60% or more.


That means the budget votes might not necessarily reflect the wishes of an entire community, especially because it’s often easier to motivate people to vote against something than to vote for it.

In some districts this month, voters overwhelmingly supported the school budget, even when it increased taxes.

In Brunswick, 72% supported a budget that represented a 2.4% increase, and in Auburn, voters supported the $62 million budget (5.2% more than last year) by a 2-to-1 margin.

Many other states, including New York and Vermont, have similar laws requiring public approval of school budgets.

In Vermont, though, Gov. Phil Scott this spring floated the idea of taking away local control over school spending. That came after 30 school budgets – almost one-third of the state total – were voted down in town meetings there.

“That’s not going to be popular. My just saying that probably isn’t popular, but I think it has to be on the table,” Scott said at a weekly news conference in April.


Brennan, the Portland legislator, said he has not supported the state law requiring all municipalities to approve school budgets through referendums, but he said the Legislature collectively has been “reluctant to take that away from towns.”

Libby, the state senator from Standish, also didn’t think the statewide law should change, although he acknowledged its limitations. “You can put together an opposition group or a pro group and win an election with low turnout,” he said.

Leavitt, the teachers’ union president, declined to take a position on whether Maine’s law requiring local votes is working as intended.

“I do think it’s important for members of the community to be engaged in the process of developing the budget and be informed,” she said.

Maine ranks 14th among states based on spending per pupil, according to census data, at about $15,700. That’s roughly the national average, but it’s last among New England states.

Maine’s minimum teacher salary of $40,000 also is lower than any other New England state.


Brennan said towns also wrestle with referendum votes on proposals to pay for new school construction. State funding for school projects doesn’t go as far as it has in the past because of high construction costs.

“We had a bill this past session to create a commission to look at school construction and other ways we might finance construction,” Brennan said. “It didn’t pass, but I think that’s something we might need to revisit.”

In Auburn, voters on June 11 supported the $62 million school budget by a 2-to-1 margin. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal


In Westbrook, as in most communities, the biggest reason for a proposed increased spending was salaries and benefits for staff. The budget proposal represented an increase of 9.6%, which would have raised the town’s tax rate by $1.45, or $580 a year on a $400,000 property.

Superintendent Peter Lancia has said the district’s diverse population continues to need more support services. Any cuts will likely be staff.

“The complexity of our student population continues to expand,” he said in a letter to the community after the vote. “This includes students in special education programs with over 600 learners receiving services including a record number of students requiring outside of district placements in programs and facilities due to significant needs. Additionally, our population of students receiving multilingual services continues to grow, now to over 500 students, many of whom are newcomers and require targeted support in English as well as social services.”


The vote in Westbrook was close – 844 voted no, while 791 voted yes – but 902 people who showed up at the polls left the question blank. Just under 13% of registered voters in Westbrook weighed in on the school budget.

Lancia and his staff responded by trimming $718,000 from the $51 million proposal. Another citywide vote is likely to be scheduled for mid-July.

In Lewiston, one of the state’s largest districts, voters rejected a proposed $110 million budget. It was the second rejection there in a month.

Lewiston Superintendent Jake Langlais and his staff have cut an additional $1.7 million, on top of the $1.1 million removed from the proposal after the first no vote, in hopes that voters might come around.

“This is ugly work, all of it is hard – every bit of it,” he said a meeting last week.

Jaye Rich, president of the Lewiston Education Association, said the election’s outcome was devastating to her.


She understands the concerns of property owners, but she also has lived in a state that has historically underfunded education and she doesn’t want to see Maine follow that path.

“We cannot continue to rely on taxpayers the way we do because it creates inequities,” she said. “So we really need to look closer at our funding formula. Our kids are worth it.”

In SAD 17, which encompasses several rural Oxford County towns, voters shot down a $51.6 million budget, an 11.7% increase.

“It is clear that the request from the district was too high of an increase for the community,” Oxford Hills School District Superintendent Heather Manchester told the Sun Journal in an email.

Administrators will revisit the budget with a plan to bring it back before voters this summer. One town – Paris – now wants to investigate spending practices by the school district.

“This is an effort to get the process started at taking a hard look at what the district’s expenditures are and what parameters they are using to spend those moneys,” town select board chair Chris Summers said last week.


If a school district’s budget is rejected, state law dictates that the current budget remain in place. Most towns move quickly to schedule another vote.

In Gorham, where the school budget was rejected twice last year, voters approved this year’s proposal by just four votes. Now, there will be a recount.

“I think there are two important comments to share regarding this year’s budget vote,” Gorham Superintendent Heather Perry said in an email. “First, I think the results demonstrate the importance of every single vote and voice in our local democracy. Second, I think it demonstrates clearly to our school and municipal officials that we all still have work to do in regards to creating sustainable taxes in our community for the long term.”

Turnout in Gorham was 28%, much higher than many other towns.

Bailey, with the Maine School Management Association, said there is often a perception among taxpayers that school budgets are bloated with unnecessary spending. He doesn’t see it.

“Everybody is looking at the bottom line in their communities,” he said. “But they need to make sure they are looking out for the needs of students as well.”

Staff writers from the Sun Journal and the American Journal contributed to this story.

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