Dan Musser, 38, of Gorham, stands outside the Gorham Municipal Center on Wednesday after visiting the library with his daughters Charlotte, 8, left, Violette, 4, and Madeline, 9. Musser said he voted against school budget referendum on Tuesday because the budget was too low and would have cut too many positions and programs in the district. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In June, the majority of the 1,616 Gorham residents who showed up to vote on the proposed $51.5 million school budget rejected it amid concerns that the tax impact would be too much for many people in town to handle.

More than twice as many voters – 3,785 – went to the polls Tuesday for a second vote, this time rejecting a $49 million spending plan that made significant cuts in positions and programs.

As town officials prepare for a third vote on a budget year that’s already begun, the takeaway is likely different.

“It was too drastic,” resident Bill Couch said Wednesday outside the Gorham library.

The reduced spending plan would have eliminated 20 administrative and teaching positions, cut after-school and sports programs, and ultimately harmed students, the superintendent has said. The school district encouraged people to vote against it.

Couch said that it would have taken a decade to get back on track from the type of cuts the $49 million budget would have required.


The debate about how much to spend on schools has spilled out of town meetings and onto social media, where posts about the topic in town groups regularly generate hundreds of comments. In heated exchanges, residents debate how to balance the needs of educators and students with the reality that many residents – particularly those on fixed incomes – might struggle with higher taxes after a recent revaluation already caused their tax bills to increase.

“There needs to be some sort of compromise,” said Lydia Hews, who rents her home in Gorham.

She recognizes that tax increases may be a significant burden for some town residents, but believes it’s important to invest in public education. She voted against the second spending plan because she felt the Town Council “decimated the budget.”

Gorham, with a population of about 18,000, has a median household income of more than $90,000, significantly higher than the statewide median of about $63,000. The median value of owner-occupied housing units is $314,000, according to the most recent Census data available.

“I really do think there’s a belief in Gorham that people have a lot of money to spend, and that’s not the case,” Priscila Wheatley, 75, said before the vote. She believes many in town cannot afford an increase to the overall tax rate, which is currently $12.85 for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

When voters rejected the initial proposal in June, it was the first time Gorham residents had voted against a school budget since the 1980s. Gorham was the only town in southern Maine to reject a school budget this year.


Multiple school budget rejections are not unprecedented, however. And school leaders not only hoped this plan would fail, they expected it to.

Superintendent Heather Perry has said it often takes three attempts to get a budget approved after it has been rejected by a town. That’s exactly what happened in Scarborough in 2017 when it took three tries before voters there approved a budget following a long and divisive debate.

Lydia Hews of Gorham stands outside Baxter Memorial Library on Wednesday. Hews said she recognizes tax increases may be a significant burden for some taxpayers but believes it’s important to invest in public education. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Because Gorham failed to approve a school budget before the start of the fiscal year on July 1, state law says the district must operate on the most recent budget submitted by the school committee — in this case, the one rejected by voters — until a final budget is approved.


Gorham’s initial $51.5 million proposal would have amounted to a more than $5 million, or 11%, increase over this year’s $46.4 million budget. It would have added $1.31 per $1,000 valuation to the town’s total tax rate, adding about $524 to the annual tax bill on a home valued at $400,000. 

After the vote, the budget was lowered by $909,000 because of a salary miscalculation.


Then in July, the Town Council cut $2 million to bring the spending plan to $48.6 million. On an average home assessed at $400,000, the school portion of the annual tax bill would have increased by about $122, from $3,344 to $3,467.

Brenna Chalifour, a private school teacher whose daughter attends elementary school in Gorham, thinks too much money has been cut from the school budget. Many of the people who have moved to Gorham in recent years have children and the town is going to keep running into budget issues, she said.

Brenna Chalifour, of Gorham, stands outside Baxter Memorial Library on Wednesday. Chalifour said many people who have moved to town have children, and they will keep running into budget issues. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“This is not something that is going to go away,” Chalifour said.

The reduced budget included getting rid of middle school athletics (saving an estimated $50,000) and switching high school sports to “pay-to-play” by requiring fees for participation (saving $100,000). High school and middle school non-athletic co-curricular activities would be eliminated to save a combined $118,000.

The budget also would have eliminated the assistant superintendent, and 19 other positions, including an education technician, health teacher, Mandarin language teacher and a technology teacher. Several administrative assistants and secretary positions also would have been cut.

The changes lowered funding for athletic supplies, a late bus, science textbooks, summer curriculum and supply lines. The district would have reduced the part-time crossing guard position at Village Elementary School and would have looked to coordinate volunteers for the role.



Dan Musser, who has three daughters, said he voted on a school budget referendum for the first time Tuesday. He voted against the proposal because he doesn’t think it sends a good message. Cutting extracurricular activities and making high school sports pay-to-play is not the right thing to do and isn’t equitable for all students, he said.

“I’m willing to pay more taxes so we have these things in our schools,” he said. “That’s the point of taxes.”

Couch, the resident who was outside the library on Wednesday, believes some people are mad their tax bills are up because of the revaluation, while others are pushing for school spending cuts because of their political views on issues like banning books. As someone on a fixed income, he understands the concerns about higher tax bills, but “I deal with it,” he said.

“I don’t say, ‘My kids aren’t going to school anymore, why should I pay for it?’ That’s nonsense,” he said.

With the second budget vote over, the school committee has started the process of creating another proposal to send to the Town Council.


“It is now the job of the school committee to create a third proposed budget that acknowledges all the important community voices we have heard to date and to send this third proposal to the Town Council,” the school committee said in a statement late Tuesday. “This third budget will strive to find that all-important balance our community seeks between meeting the needs of our children and the needs of our taxpayers in this incredible community.

The school committee met Wednesday night to begin developing another budget and plans to vote on the budget Aug. 2 with a public hearing and Town Council vote tentatively scheduled for Aug. 8.

If that timeline is followed, a third town vote on the budget will take place on Aug. 15, about two weeks before classes are set to resume.

This story was updated at 12:00 p.m. Thursday to correct the state law on school budgets. 

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