Bangor made itself an outlier Tuesday when voters chose to give up their direct say in setting the city’s annual school budget.
In a close, 352-347 vote, the Bangor residents who showed up at the polls opted out of an annual referendum that, since 2008, has asked them to approve or reject school spending plans for the next academic year that the city’s school committee and council have already OK’d.
The question of whether to continue the referendum comes up every three years.
On the same day and by large margins, voters in Portland, Lewiston, Auburn, Augusta, Westbrook, and other towns large and small favored keeping their annual school budget referendums in place for the next three years.
Voters there will continue to participate in a process that became a statewide requirement in 2008 as a way to give voters more of a say in setting school budgets, said Jim Rier, a former education commissioner, state education finance director and Maine State Board of Education member who was instrumental in implementing the law.
But starting next year, Bangor voters will have no direct say in setting their school budget. The budget instead will be subject to approval by the Bangor School Committee followed by the Bangor City Council.
There’s no statewide record of all the school districts that have dispensed with annual validation votes, according to Kelli Deveaux, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Education. But the handful that have eliminated the vote have tended to be small, municipal schools where voters retain a direct say in setting spending levels at annual town meetings, Rier said. Some examples include Easton, Beals and Coplin Plantation.
Those school systems “will argue that it is unnecessary because the budget meeting is adequate to gain the resident approval,” Rier said.
Bangor is the largest school system yet to give up on the referendum. But it didn’t opt out of it by a decisive margin. Tuesday’s turnout of about 700 voters amounted to 3.1 percent of Bangor’s nearly 23,000 registered voters.
“That’s not an overwhelming endorsement of not doing it,” Rier said of the 352-347 vote. “With that close a vote I wouldn’t be surprised if its gets some attention to come back, but it may not.”
Bangor’s referendum could come back after at least three years if at least 10 percent of voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election force a vote to reconsider opting out of the referendum. Under state law, a majority vote of the Bangor School Committee could also force that question before voters after three or more years.
In the years following the introduction of the school budget validation referendum, there was wide support for continuing the annual votes, Rier said.
“This was a balanced way,” he said. “It was seen as a way of having the broader public at least have the opportunity to weigh in on the amount of the budget even though they’re not voting on any part of it, just the total.”
While Bangor City Councilor Ben Sprague said Tuesday night that the vote to discontinue the referendum showed that Bangor voters had faith in the city’s school superintendent, school committee and City Council, School Committee member John Hiatt expressed concerns over the close vote.
“They started this validation process so that voters could be more involved in the schools,” he said. “I think it’s important for democracy”
Hiatt said he was concerned that the 352 people who chose to eliminate the annual are a small subset of the city’s voters.
“The fact that such a small percentage of people voted and it was such a small margin worries me,” he said. “They’re looking to take away people’s right to vote for the next three years.”