Former Gorham Town Councilor Ben Hartwell says Superintendent Heather Perry wrongly used the power of her office to “exert undue influence” during the school budget referendum process. He has called for an investigation and the creation of strict guidelines about administrators’ communications on school budgets.

Hartwell, an attorney, asserts in an Opinion column for the American Journal that Perry’s messages to the public, using taxpayer-funded channels, influenced balloting after the first referendum on the budget failed in June.


“Superintendent Perry used her position to exert undue influence over the local budget voting process. She publicly encouraged community members to vote against one budget in favor of another,” Hartwell wrote.

“Any allegations of impropriety, especially from those in positions of power, should be immediately and thoroughly investigated. The community deserves clarity and assurance that their voices aren’t being stifled,” he wrote.

In an interview last week, Hartwell said taxpayer-funded communication channels should not be used to “influence elections.” If they are, he said, then at the very least those with “competing opinions” must be allowed to use those same channels to get their message out.

Perry defends her actions, saying it was her duty to inform the public about the impact of the budget they’d be voting on.


“It is the job of any superintendent of schools to share factual information with the community and to advocate for the needs of the students we serve,” she said in an email response to the American Journal’s request for comment. “It is also the job of any superintendent of schools to understand the connections between budget/finance and the abilities for those dollars to adequately fund essential programs for students in our communities.”

Gorham superintendent Heather Perry


Gorham voters overwhelmingly passed a $50 million budget Aug. 15 after two other proposals were defeated in June and July. After a $51.5 million proposal failed in June, the School Committee came back with a $50.2 million revision, but the Town Council on July 11 ordered that proposal be cut by $2 million for a townwide vote July 25. In a July 12 email sent from her school email account, Perry wrote to parents: “This proposed budget is devastating to programming for the children of Gorham. Because of this, I cannot support it. The next step is the referendum vote scheduled for July 25, 2023. Ultimately, each voter makes their own choices regarding supporting or not supporting this new proposed budget.”

Hartwell said Perry used official school department email and text messaging distribution lists, “funded by taxpayers, to increase voter turnout by those more likely to support higher school spending (those with kids in the school system). Such a method of advocacy is not just inappropriate, but it also breaches the fundamental principles of transparency, fairness and trust we place in our school administrators.”

After a meeting July 18, the Gorham School Committee issued a statement released to the American Journal by Perry urging the public to vote against the $48.2 million budget because it was too low. Defeating it would give the committee the opportunity to work out a compromise with the council, the letter said. It also encouraged voters to tell the council they voted against the budget specifically because it was too low.

“In my professional opinion, the budget approved by the Town Council on July 11 would not have allowed our schools to meet the essential educational needs of the children of Gorham. Therefore, and with the full support of the School Committee, we advocated that an alternate budget be explored,” Perry said last week.

Victoria Wallack, communications director at the Maine Superintendents Association, did not return a request for information about superintendents’ roles in general involving public communications during a budget process. Perry is on the board of the association.


Gorham School Committee Chairperson Sarah Perkins said she supports Perry’s communications to the public. When asked if school district policies specifically address the use of school department equipment, emails and parent contact lists for political communications,  Perkins said she had reviewed policy GCSA and procedure GCSA-R and determined that Perry’s recent budget communications were in line with “policy and procedure.”

In an interview last week, Hartwell castigated the School Committee.

“Considering the volumes of ‘policies’ that the Gorham School Committee hides behind, it is unfathomable that School Committee members can’t do the right thing and recognize that taxpayer-funded resources (such as email and text message distribution lists) should not be utilized by school administrators to influence elections,” he said. “If they are fine with using this taxpayer-funded resource to push one opinion, then they must allow it to be used to share competing opinions.”

Marie South, a former School Committee member, said “communication with the community regarding the budget” comes from the board chairperson or finance chairperson jointly with the superintendent.

“In my opinion and experience, the superintendent should not be suggesting to the public how to vote,” South said.

Town Manager Ephrem Paraschak said policies address the use of equipment by town employees, but none of them are “specific to campaigns.”

Hartwell said “strict guidelines” must be implemented to regulate future communications of school administrators and superintendents about referendums and budgets.

“These should underscore impartiality, avoiding any undue influence,” he said.

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