YORK, Maine — A terse Board of Selectmen Monday night expressed frustration and disappointment with the School Committee over its recent decision to put a warrant article on the May ballot to reinstate a school budget town meeting. But the committee held firm, saying they were acting responsibly.
The committee voted Feb. 13 to include the article, which would have the effect of taking the school budget out of the purview of the Budget Committee. That vote came just days after town, Budget Committee and even some school officials first learned that the matter was to come back before voters.
According to a 2008 state law, if the school department is operating under the budget validation referendum, or school town meeting, process, voters have a chance every three years to put it back under the authority of the town charter, which gives responsibility for the budget to the Budget Committee.
However, the reverse is not true. Once voters decide to return to town charter governance, like they did in 2016, there is no requirement to return to the school town meeting format. School Committee members did not know that, they have said. Further, they did not know the only way to return to a school town meeting would be for the committee to vote to put it on the ballot or for a petition to be submitted.
At its Feb. 13 meeting and again Monday night, School Committee Chair Brenda Alexander said they voted to put the issue to voters in May, even after learning they were not obliged to do so, because parents told them they expected to see it on the ballot automatically this year, the third year since 2016.
“We looked at the history of the voting,” said Alexander. In 2010, voters narrowly supported the school town meeting; in 2013, voters 3-1 decided to stay with it. In 2016, voters narrowly supported returning to the town charter. “Our understanding is that people expected this to come forward. We couldn’t defend it not coming forward,” she told selectmen.
Now that the School Committee has voted, selectmen are obliged to put the matter on the warrant. And while they agree that is the process under the law, none were happy that they had to do it. Their issues came down to transparency and Budget Committee review of a $35 million budget.
“My concern is that the schools take up two-thirds of the budget, and the budget hasn’t been decimated by returning it to home rule charter,” said Dawn Sevigny-Watson to Alexander. “Would you agree?”
“Yes,” said Alexander.
“Last time, only 50 people turned up to your town meeting,” said Mike Estes. “Why would you do this? Why would you want to put yourself in a divisive position when there’s no need to do that?”
Alexander asked rhetorically what she would say to people who expect to see it on the ballot. Estes replied, “I guess I am hearing from people who say, ‘Why is this back?’”
Selectmen’s Chair Todd Frederick said he was concerned about transparency. The other warrant articles on the ballot have gone through a rigorous public process with numerous hearings and public testimony.
“A long process plays out to get something on the ballot. We work to help educate voters,” he said. “That didn’t happen here. There was no communication. This process failed.”
At the very least, selectmen insisted there be a statement of fact with the article, something school officials would prefer not to see, as the wording could sway voters one way or the other. Selectmen said the town manager and school superintendent could work together to come up with language.
The board also made clear they wanted to take a preference vote, something both the School Committee and Budget Committee agreed they should not do because it could sway voters.
Alexander pulled no punches. “It’s upsetting to hear from a collegial board the words divisive,” she said, adding that she will not take a preference vote. “You will not hear from me yes or no.”