Our nation is founded on checks and balances and a separation of powers. But how many checks are too many?
That’s a question up for debate in Bangor as the city council considers whether it should have authority to raise or lower spending in individual categories of the Bangor schools budget. On Monday, the Bangor City Council will vote on advancing to the next step of a process — a public hearing — that could result in a November ballot question on whether to give the council that additional power.
As it stands now, the council votes on the budget amount as a whole — and then Bangor voters have their say at the ballot box. But Councilor Pauline Civiello is suggesting a language change in the city charter to allow the council additional authority over the schools’ portion of the total city budget. The school department accounts for $43.3 million of the city’s current $92.1 million total budget.
“This is not to say they’re doing a poor job. It isn’t,” Civiello said of the city’s school department. Rather, she said, it’s an effort to spark a broader conversation about school spending in the city. “Is this charter language a barrier to having the conversation we need to have when the mill rate has gone up so much?”
The question of changing Bangor’s city charter to grant the city council additional authority over the school budget has come up before, and the council has decided against the change. We don’t see a reason this time, either, to grant the council that additional, line-item veto authority.
The members of the Bangor School Committee are elected to their positions just as members of the Bangor City Council are elected to theirs. The city charter delegates specific powers to each body.
As the school committee works with administrators on its sphere of influence, the school budget, there are checks on its power built into the process: The final budget has to pass muster with the city council and then with Bangor’s voters, who have approved every school budget proposal that has gone before them since budget validation referendums began in 2008.
Along the way, city councilors have the chance to meet with school committee members and administrators to tell them what spending levels they would like to see. There’s a chance for Bangor residents to be involved. Come election time, Bangor voters can vote in school committee members who share their views on school spending and educational quality and vote out the members with whom they disagree or whom they find unresponsive to their concerns.
The city council has direct authority over the budgets of every other city department, but no department other than the city’s schools has its own elected board, and no other section of the city budget is subject to a referendum vote.
Just because we don’t see cause to change the balance of power between the Bangor School Committee and the Bangor City Council doesn’t mean the concerns voiced by Civiello and others about school department spending and about the availability of school budget information are invalid.
Certainly the city council and school committee need to be able to have open and substantive conversations about the direction of the school budget. That can likely be accomplished without a major charter change but, rather, with more frequent meetings between the two bodies early in the school budget process.
There are ways for residents and councilors to influence the school department budget through a change in practice rather than a change in the rules.