Island residents taxed for school budget they said ‘no’ to

Posted Sept. 24, 2011, at 1:39 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 24, 2011, at 6:36 p.m.

VINALHAVEN, Maine — Vinalhaven can’t pass a school budget and it’s hard to pinpoint why. The school is now operating with taxpayer money, but without a majority of residents voting “yes” on a ballot to the budget. Three school districts this year have this issue, according to the Maine Department of Education.

The school budget validation process goes like this: A superintendent makes a budget, the school board gives it a thumbs up, the district has a town-hall-style meeting where people have a discussion and go through the budget and vote on specific items, then — at a different date — the budget goes to a ballot in all the towns and residents either approve or reject the budget.

It’s the last part, the ballot vote, that Vinalhaven and a couple other Maine schools are struggling with. In the island town, which is its own one-school district, about 40 people show up to the town-hall-style meetings and overwhelmingly approve the budgets. Then at the ballot, about 150 show up and vote the budgets down.

“Why the budgets are getting turned down? Without exit polls you just don’t know,” said Maine School Administrative District 8 Superintendent Lew Collins. “There is no way to read the tea leaves.”

Some reasons he has heard from townspeople include the budget being too high across the board, not using enough of last year’s surplus funds to reduce the tax burden and dissatisfaction with the school’s decision to start a pre-kindergarten program.

Maine Department of Education deputy commissioner Jim Rier helped sculpt the 2008 law that requires voters to say yes twice to the school budget. Before 2008, each school district could pass its budget however it wanted.

“It’s a challenge. Every year there is two or three [districts] who don’t get validation passed and have to do it over. Now there are three,” Reir said. The three are: Vinalhaven, Regional School District 16 in Poland and School Union 106 near Calais, according to Reir.

That makes three school districts of about 145 that have not yet passed a budget.

In November, Vinalhaven will take its third stab at passing a budget. It will again go through the school board and then through two resident votes.

At the town-hall-style meetings people can speak publicly about what they like in the budget and what they hate. Then they can modify those items if the majority of voters agree. On the island, the meeting turnout stays around 40 people. At that meeting, the residents vote 3-1 in support of the budget. On the ballot, people check a box and leave — and a little more than half of those voters say no to the budget. Without input, the school board isn’t sure how to adjust the budget to satisfy those voters.

The catch is, so far, the votes of the 120 or so people who keep turning the budget down on the ballot haven’t mattered yet. Because school needs to run, the Maine Department of Education told Vinalhaven it would be OK for the school district to go on its last town-meeting-style approved budget. So the 34 people who showed up to the longer, more in-depth discussion and voted have chosen how the Vinalhaven School will run, for now.

“The law allows them to operate on the one most recently approved at the district meeting,” said Maine Department of Education deputy commissioner Jim Rier. “It allows them to not have to shut down on July 1. This allows them to operate until the budget is finally approved and then validated at referendum. It also allows the town to commit taxes based on the most recently approved one.”

The people of Vinalhaven have been taxed $2.4 million to pay for their school. That’s a bit up from last year, so a person with a house worth $200,000 will pay about $24 more this year than last year under the budget the district is working with.

In November, Vinalhaven will try again. The school district must keep modifying the budget and keeping it to a public meeting with a vote and then to the ballot box until a budget passes both votes. This time, the superintendent hopes for more input from the 143 people who voted the budget down at the last ballot vote. His principal, who grew up on the island, is personally calling people he knows don’t like the budget and sitting them down to ask why. The board will host public input meetings about the budget on Oct. 6, 12 and 19. It will then host the public meeting and vote on Nov. 2 and the ballot vote on Nov. 8.

“The [school] board hopes to hear from its budget workshops about more specifics. We’re hearing generalities. We’re hearing concerns about spending money generally,” superintendent Collins said. “In our third time, we’ll listen to people’s concerns and try to craft a budget that garners people’s support.”

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