Maine voters will decide gubernatorial nominees, tax reform and bonds when they visit the polls June 8.

But along with those important choices comes another: They also will choose whether to keep deciding school budgets by referendum for the next three years, or return to earlier forms of public review such as district budget meetings.

Welcome to Year Three of school budget validation referendums in Maine, the time to decide whether this town-by-town process is working.

The 2007 school district consolidation law put in place a two-step budget approval process, requiring school districts to let voters weigh in on budgets at town meeting-style gatherings and, later, by districtwide referendum.

The law requires that voters decide every three years whether to keep the referendum part in place. Virtually all Maine districts now face this question.

Low turnout is often cited as one reason to discontinue the referendums, yet the referendum “maximizes the number of people who have input,” said Steve Hunnewell, the board chairman in Gardiner-based Regional School Unit 11.

“When you get the budget meeting only, a lot of times you get 50 or 100 people who have an issue they’re interested in,” he said. “If you don’t have the check of a referendum on that, you end up stuck with what 50 or 100 people wanted.”

And in a school district that covers a large geographic area, that budget meeting might only reflect the opinions of the people who live in the town where the meeting is held, said Steve Kolenda, of Monmouth.

A referendum “just gives so many more opportunities to give a real reflection of the people,” said Kolenda, a former school board member and selectman in Monmouth, which now is part of Regional School Unit 2.

“In the case of RSU 2, people from Monmouth may have to drive to Dresden if (the budget meeting is) over there, and people from Richmond or Dresden would have to drive to Monmouth, if the meeting was there,” Kolenda said.

When voters turn down school spending proposals, the law implementing the budget referendum requires that school districts repeat the approval process until a budget is ratified.

That’s proved a challenge for some districts.

Voters in Bingham and Moscow last year, for example, turned down their school budget three times at the polls before finally ratifying a spending plan in November.

And the eight-town Sheepscot Valley Regional School Unit is still operating without an approved budget for the current school year after voters turned down spending proposals four times.

“It could go on forever, even though you’ve already spent your budget and your teachers have been paid and the school year is done,” said Hilary Holm, a Sheepscot school board member from Whitefield who supports discontinuing the referendums.

The small group of people who attend the Sheepscot district’s budget meetings can never come to agreement with the larger group of people voting in the later budget referendum, she said.

“And the people who come to the second part never seem to find a way to communicate why they voted that way, which makes it very hard for a board to understand the direction needed to go to get both parts to pass,” Holm said. “It’s a very complex process.”

And that might be why the two-step budget approval is too much to bother with in a small town that operates its own school, said Fayette Superintendent Briane Coulthard.

He said his school board prefers not having a referendum.

“They have always felt like you get everything done in Town Meeting,” he said. “That’s their form of government.”


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