Waterville residents will not go to the polls next year to validate the school budget as they have for the past three years.

The budget approved by the school board and the City Council will be enough, voters decided recently.

The move eliminates what amounts to a third step in the process of adopting a spending package for district schools in Waterville — a budget validation vote by referendum.

Waterville and the Mount Desert Island Regional School District were the only school districts statewide to reject renewing the referendum process, according to Jim Rier, Maine Deputy Education Commissioner.

All of the other 218 state school districts will continue to use the method, he said.

Rier said the advantage of holding the budget validation referendum is that the voter’s choice comes in the privacy of the voting booth.

Many, though not all, Maine communities hold district budget meetings at which the vote is by a very public show of hands, either “yea” or “nay” on each budget article.

“The philosophy behind all of that was there were some folks that either chose not to or couldn’t make the budget meeting,” Rier said. “It’s called validation on purpose because it’s meant for a wider number of voters to weigh in and have information from the budget meeting at the polling station so they understand what was proposed and what was approved by the voters.”

He said people who felt strongly against the proposed school budget sometime would not show up at the budget meeting where the vote is public and “puts them in a tough position.”

Waterville School Superintendent Eric Haley said some residents did not favor the third step because they thought it was expensive and time-consuming and generates only a small turnout.

Haley agrees.

“I think it is very cumbersome and labor-intensive, and I don’t think the budget validation referendum is needed,” he said. “What I think and what is law is not necessarily in line.”

Voters in Vassalboro and Winslow, however, the other two towns that make up Alternative Organizational Structure 92, said “yes” to the referendum question and will hold a referendum vote to validate the budget for the next three years.

The question that was asked of voters in each school district was: “Do you favor keeping the budget validation referendum for the next three years?”

The vote in Waterville was 132–132.

“Because the question is written in the positive — do you favor keeping it — the question fails because it was a tie, so we don’t keep it in Waterville,” Haley said. “That means we go back to the way it used to be, with the City Council having the final say. It stops there.”

Winslow voters said “yes” to the continued referendum vote, 98–74. Vassalboro residents voted 118–92 to continue the budget validation process for three more years.

Haley said the question does not need to be asked again in Waterville unless residents ask the school board to do it or there’s a petition signed by at least 10 percent of the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election.

In addition to extra labor involved, holding a referendum also costs money.

The three communities spent about a combined $2,500 for the referendum to use voting machines and pay ballot clerks and employees who have to stay for the final ballot count, Haley said.

Rier said discussions about referendum validation voting began in a legislative committee in 2000 and finally was enacted with the 2007 school reorganization law under Gov. John Baldacci.

The budget first is passed by a school district’s elected board of directors. The budget then is brought to either a town-meeting style public vote for approval or a vote by the municipal council.

Under the law, the “yes” or “no” budget validation question is then sent to voters, referendum style, finalizing the budget process. This year, another question appeared on the referendum ballot, Rier said.

“Every three years they have to ask the question if the voters want to continue to do the validation for another three years,” Rier said. “If the voters say ‘yes,’ they want to continue it; then it begins again next year. Then at the end of that third-year cycle, they’d be asked again.”

The first year that question was asked was for fiscal 2010-11, he said. In 2010, every community in the state voted to continue with the validation process. The process came up for a vote again this year.

Rep. Karen Kusiak, D-Fairfield, a former member of the School Administrative District 49 board, said she likes the town-meeting style of approving a budget, but not the referendum vote.

“The district meeting is the best place for voters to learn about the budget and the activities or services included in the articles,” Kusiak said. “Approving the budget at a district meeting also requires less time, work and expense for towns that are now required to set up and staff a polling location — perhaps more than once if a budget vote fails.”

In Skowhegan-based SAD 54, where the referendum question was approved 449–207, Superintendent Brent Colbry said keeping the validation process is a good idea.

“By adding a referendum, where everybody had a chance to vote, it helps increase the percentage of passage,” he said

Mount Desert Superintendent Harold Colter said many voters in Bar Harbor, Mount Desert, Southwest Harbor and Tremont did not favor the referendum process.

The vote there was 270–174 against holding any referendums during the next three years.

“My impression is that it is quite costly for the towns to offer these and arrange for the additional vote,” Colter said. “Also at issue for some voters, perhaps, is that the turnout has been quite low for the referendum vote, even by comparison to town meeting; so there’s concern about the possibility of an even smaller number of people.”

Colter added, “That’s why we have town meeting,” saying that is the venue for discussion, debate and the final vote on the school budget.

Voters in the other districts statewide will be asked to consider the referendum question again in three years.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367
[email protected]

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