Voters mark ballots July 14, 2020, at socially distanced polling stations at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

AUGUSTA — An at-large Board of Education seat vacant since October is to remain unfilled until June, after the Augusta City Council rejected a plan last week to add the position to a special election set for March.

The March special election, in which city officials are expected to seek voter approval to borrow for $4.4 million in planned capital improvement projects, is necessary for the money to be available in time for the projects.

The council approved holding the election in a 7-1 vote Thursday night.

Following extensive debate Thursday, councilors voted 6-2 to strip the proposal by city staff members to also have voters elect someone to fill an at-large seat on the school board.

The seat has been vacant since former member Jennifer Dumond resigned for personal reasons in October.

Councilors said they were concerned a March election would not allow time for candidates for the Board of Education seat to collect the 100 signatures of registered voters they would need to make it on the ballot, which they feared could result in few, if any, candidates seeking the spot.

Others also said they worried the March election is likely to attract a low turnout.

“I’m just concerned this time frame would not allow for candidates to know about the vacancy happening, with the vote happening in March, and for people to get themselves out there and campaign,” said At-Large Councilor Raegan LaRochelle. “In COVID times, I don’t think that prevents people from campaigning, but collecting signatures and everything just takes more time.

“I want to make sure we don’t just have a candidate, but maybe we have a contested election so people might have a choice. I’m not confident we’d have that with a March election.”

Councilors in favor of adding the school board seat to the March ballot said the board needs to be full to spread the workload, increase the odds it will have enough members for a quorum at meetings and give residents the representation they seek and deserve — eight school board members, plus a chairperson, as stipulated in the city charter.

“I agree it’s a short time frame, but I also see it is our duty to fill the school board seat, and waiting six months to do that is something I’m not in favor of,” At-Large Councilor Heather Pouliot said. “We should have full representation for our schools and for our students.”

Mayor Mark O’Brien said the city charter directs city councilors to hold an election to fill vacant school board seats, and if a vacancy would exceed six months, as soon as practical.

“That’s left to the City Council as to when that is,” O’Brien said.

City Clerk Kelly Gooldrup said there would be no difference in cost to the city if the Board of Education election were held in March or June because local elections are planned for both months.

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