A low voter turnout and a narrow margin of victory Tuesday for a 4.5 percent increase in the Regional School Unit 18 district budget has left some crying foul.

Only 1,053 people, about 7 percent of registered voters in the district’s five towns, cast votes Tuesday on the $33.75 million budget, an increase of 4.55 percent over last year’s budget.

Critics accused the district of intentionally depressing the turnout by holding it the day after the end of a three-day weekend.

“I think it was strategically planned to have a weird date to vote,” said Kelly Couture, a Sidney selectwoman who opposed the budget.

But RSU 18 Superintendent Gary Smith said administrators made a significant effort to get out the vote and said the day’s near-constant rain was a factor.

“I feel strongly that it’s important to get out to vote,” Smith said.

The budget passed 559-494, with two towns — China and Sidney — opposed and three towns — Belgrade, Oakland and Rome — in favor.

It isn’t the first close budget vote in the district in recent years.

In June 2012, the budget failed by 39 votes, touching off a budget battle that ended when the district submitted a flat budget on its third attempt, in August.

DEEP DIVISIONS

The significant levels of opposition to this year’s budget show that those deep divisions on education funding levels still exist within the district.

In an effort to resolve the underlying issues that created the 2012 showdown, district administrators and board members pledged to increase transparency and to do a better job of involving the public in its budget process.

That seemed to be paying off last year, when a 1 percent increase passed with significant public support but Tuesday’s vote shows that a disconnect between the district and many voters remains.

Members of the board of selectmen in Sidney circulated an open letter last week urging voters to reject the budget.

Two years ago, Couture was part of a loosely organized group that paid to send automated phone calls to voters asking them to vote against the budget. That year, residents also circulated literature, wrote letters and put up lawn signs opposed to the budget.

This year, there was no organized effort to defeat the budget hike.

Couture said that’s because she and others were frustrated by the failure of residents to step forward and be more active in lobbying against the tax hike.

“It’s a lot of work on our part to do what we did a couple years ago,” she said. “The people who were heavily involved said ‘if more people don’t take the time to get involved, then maybe they’re okay with paying higher taxes.'”

The $33.75 million budget is still lower than 2009’s peak funding of $33.8 million. In the four-year period leading up to Tuesday’s vote, the budget has been decreased twice, remained flat once and gone up once.

Sidney’s town leaders and school district officials differ on whether communication has improved.

Smith said he invested a lot of time and effort into meeting with voters to hear their concerns and engage them in the process.

“I personally went to each town to meet with the selectboards and the town council,” he said.

In addition, administrators held a series of open public budget meetings throughout the district and disseminated information about the budget to news agencies and through its website.

Couture said there have been more conversations, but the communication level is no better because the district hasn’t been able to answer questions satisfactorily.

“We’re worse,” she said. “We’ve got more questions than we’ve got answers.”

Smith said he and his staff held more meetings and gave out more details about school spending than in most districts.

“There’s something in our system that’s not right and I haven’t figured out how to fix it yet,” he said.

TURNOUT LOW

The turnout was the smallest since 2010 and 2011, when 4.4 and 5 percent of voters turned out, respectively to approve school budget cuts.

Couture said holding the referendum on the first work day after the Memorial Day weekend held down the turnout.

“I think people simply forgot,” Couture said. “They forgot to vote.”

Couture said the vote should have taken place on June 10, when state election primaries would have driven significantly more voters to the polls. The highest turnout for a school budget vote in recent history was in June 2012, when 17.2 percent rejected the budget on the state’s election primary day. Last year, 11.6 percent of those registered voted, in late May.

“If the vote had been on the same day as the primaries, the vote would have been defeated,” Couture said. “It’s really not a win for the school department. They ought to look at how close the vote was.”

Smith said the primary election comes too late in the year for the district to hold the vote.

If the budget is defeated, as it was in 2012, he said he wants to be able to present a second budget to voters before the district’s fiscal year begins on July 1.

TAXPAYERS HIT HARD

Sidney Selectman Doug Eugley said reduction in state and federal support is responsible for much of the budget increase.

“On the face of it, the 4.55 percent was hard to swallow,” he said.

Smith said taxpayers were hard hit this year because it is the first in which there has been no way for the district to cushion the local tax base from a cut in state assistance. In other years, the district has used federal stimulus and reserve fund money to narrow the funding gap, but those revenues are all gone.

“Next year, we won’t have the same financial issues we were dealing with this year,” Smith said.

In Belgrade, the increase in taxes is about $424,000, or 8.3 percent. In China, the increase is about $515,000, or 13.9 percent. In Oakland, the increase is about $484,000, or 11.6 percent. In Rome, the increase is about 268,000, or 19.6 percent. In Sidney, the increase is about $407,000, or 13.3 percent.

Eugley said he believes many residents didn’t fully understand the impact the school budget would have on tax bills.

Although he said the turnout should have been higher, Eugley said he accepts the outcome and is thinking about next year.

“I’m going to just move on,” he said. “I hope they have a great school year. I hope everything they need is in this budget. We evaluate where we are a year from now.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287 | [email protected] | Twitter: @hh_matt