OAKLAND — With proposed school budgets falling like dominoes in referendum votes, school districts across the state are learning the hard way that their budgets are facing more rigorous challenges from residents focused on keeping local property taxes as low as possible.

For them, organized opposition groups are a challenging aspect of the new, digital age in which we live.

“Facebook wasn’t even around seven years ago, and think about how that has changed our world,” Jonathan Moody, principal at Messalonskee High School, said. “This is a new, fairly effective approach that I wouldn’t be surprised to see happening more in the future. A few people can fairly easily connect to a lot of other people to get a message out.”

When the Oakland-based Regional School Unit 18 budget was rejected by voters 1,031-831 at the polls in Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney for the second time recently, it was a victory for budget opponents who had lobbied the public actively. School administrators said that they were surprised to see sophisticated, aggressive campaigning techniques in a process that historically has been quiet.

“This approach was very new,” Superintendent Gary Smith said, describing the use of phone banks to deliver recorded “robo-calls” to voters and urge them to reject the budget.

Budget opponents, which included selectmen in two of the district’s five towns, used a variety of other strategies that are seen more often in larger political campaigns, including distributing fliers in public places, publishing letters of support from local municipal officials and raising money to fund campaign efforts.

David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Department of Education, said that organized opposition to school district budgets has been rare.

Connerty-Marin said that the department doesn’t track numbers of how many budgets fail in any given year, but that this year’s number didn’t seem unusually high to him, as compared to other recent years.

This year, budgets were also defeated twice for RSU 73 in Jay, Livermore and Livermore Falls; RSU 23 in Saco, Dayton and Old Orchard Beach; and School Administrative District 13 in Bingham and Moscow. The budget for RSU 67 was also rejected by the voters of Lincoln, Mattawamkeag and Chester.

Sleeping giant

The sheer number of people who have a personal stake in a school district seems to offer a huge advantage for education funding. The families of the district’s 500 employees and 3,000 students make up a significant percentage, if not a majority, of the 13,637 registered voters in the five towns.

However, those numbers, which have been enough in the past, didn’t work to the district’s advantage this year.

Jessica Garten, president of the Athletic All Sports Booster Club at Messalonskee High School in Oakland, said that she was disappointed with apathy among supporters of education funding.

“Less than 14 percent came out to vote, and it’s ridiculous,” she said. “Everyone wants to complain about the budget cuts, but no one goes out to vote.”

“I just think people are not getting out there and doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” said Dawn Bradfield, co-president of the Parent Teacher Organization at James Bean Elementary School in Sidney.

Kelly Couture, a Sidney selectwoman who was active in the campaign against the school budget, said that affiliation with the school shouldn’t be confused with support for a district budget increase.

At the same time, budget opponents have acknowledged that the large majority of those who are actively involved in the school district are likely to support its referendum.

The answer to the failure of the school community to campaign for the budget may be simply that it was outworked and outmaneuvered by budget opponents.

“It’s true that the opposition was very well organized,” Frank Brown, president of the RSU 18 Education Association, said. “There was no comparable organization supporting the budget.”

The groups that have a stake in education funding — parent groups, the union, booster clubs and the district itself — did not play an active role in trying to convince the public to vote.

Smith said that during his career as a superintendent, he has never been in a position that made him think he had to lobby on behalf of a school budget.

“My approach has always been to educate and inform as well as possible and try to be very neutral in that presentation,” he said. “I personally struggle with moving to a spot where we’re actively out there promoting to say, ‘Vote yes for the school budget.’ I haven’t seen that as my role.”

Garten said that while the athletic boosters supported the budget, they was more focused on the specific effect on athletics funding. The group’s campaigning was limited to sending emails to its membership asking them to vote for the budget.

Bradfield said that her parent group took no formal action. “We’re such a small school,” she said. “We lack a lot of the organization that some of larger schools have.”

Christine Devine, of the parent group at Belgrade Central Elementary School, said her group didn’t discuss the budget situation at all.

Even the education association didn’t hold any meetings or play any active role, other than including budget information in a mailing to the nearly 300 teachers, education technicians, custodians, librarians and guidance counselors in the union, according to Brown.

“I think that one of the things that has made it difficult to organize people is the fact that it’s summertime and people are so scattered all over the place,” he said.

Couture said that the district is actively trying to persuade the public to support the budget, through public meetings at which the budget is presented, and with an automated telephone system used to remind parents and staff of voting dates.

She said that the referendum results are not the result of an handful of people having a disproportionate effect on the outcome. It is, she said, a grass-roots effort in which she has seen voters from various towns speak up independently against the budget.

With just 13.5 percent of registered voters casting ballots, it means that people from both sides of the issue failed to weigh in, Couture said.

“I know of 100 people who didn’t vote because they were working or because they forgot,” she said.

Future budget battles

If next year’s proposed budget provokes the same level of interest as the current one, the campaigning on both sides could escalate.

Brown said that this year, he wouldn’t campaign for the upcoming flat budget, which he predicted would pass.

“I don’t think that I’m going to play a more active role in campaigning. For one thing, I’m going to be teaching. The classroom is always top priority,” he said.

In future years, however, he said, he would be more active in a tight budget referendum.

“If it looks as though I need to campaign, then I will do it,” he said. “There’s no question that it’s in the interests of the membership, so it’s my responsibility to support the budget.”

The athletic booster clubs, too, would be more active if the program were threatened by future budget cuts.

“If we’re looking at significant cuts to the athletics program, then we are going to be more boisterous and active,” Garten said.

Smith said his perception of the superintendent’s role could change if he saw the education of children threatened by future funding cuts.

“I would think that if this continues, I would definitely seek advice on how to promote a school budget, because I never want to go through this again,” he said. “This is awful. It’s created all kinds of challenges.”

Communication key

Connerty-Marin said that he has seen the drama play out many times in the past, and that usually, lack of support for education funding comes down to lack of effective communication from the school board.

“Typically, it will happen in a community one year, two years in a row. Then it will force the school board and the administration to really educate the public about the finances and how the school budget works,” he said.

Of course, communication is a two-way exchange of information, and the district also may need to do a better job of hearing concerns. Smith said he understood the message this year, but only after two failed referendum votes and months of wrangling.

Smith has scheduled a meeting with selectmen this year to hear what they have to say about the third version of the district’s budget.

Meanwhile, school board member Len LeGrand made a suggestion at a board meeting Wednesday that showed the board is thinking about changes.

“I’d like to propose what we form a public information committee for the express purpose of bettering communication between the board and the public,” he said.

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