Education Committee looking to take school budget vote rights away from thousands of Mainers

Education Committee looking to take school budget vote rights away from thousands of Mainers

By Steve Bowen
February 26, 2008

With all the hubbub surrounding LD 1932, which was the first attempt by the legislature to amend the troubled school district reorganization law, very little attention was paid to today’s public hearings on two follow-up bills the Education Committee is developing. Known plainly as Committee Bill “A” and Committee Bill “B”at this point, these two bills contain a number of additional, mostly technical changes to the reorganization law.
While many of the proposed changes are pretty minor, there is cause for concern that both bills propose changes to the budget validation provision of the reorganization law, which gives every citizen in Maine the right to vote on their school budget.
Under current law, if the proposed school budget is to exceed the state-calculated Essential Programs and Services budget limit, voters are to be asked two questions on the ballot. The first question asks voters to approve the budget itself, the second asks voters to confirm that they support the budget even though it exceeds the EPS target. Committee bill “A” would eliminate that second question, essentially removing from the ballot any reference to the EPS target. This proposed change comes only days after a State Planning Office report was released which found that 82% of school districts were over their EPS target.
Committee bill “B” is far worse. It would allow two exceptions to the current mandate that all school districts put their school budgets out to referendum. The first group of towns are those with charters that give “legislative” power to a city council. They would be allowed to use whatever process they have in their charter. The Maine Municipal Association puts the number of towns with this system at only 30, but those 30 are home to about 35% of the state’s population. The other exception would be for those districts whose proposed school budgets are below 5% over EPS, which for 2006-2007 would be more than 80 school units according to the Department of Education. Just like that, the Committee intends take away from hundreds of thousands of Mainers the right to vote on their school budget in the privacy of the voting booth. Unbelievable.
The Education Committee has yet to take any action on these bills, but there is little reason to hope that these disenfranchising provisions will be amended out of the bills. The committee just does not seem to have any interest in having people vote on their school budgets, and that goes for legislators on both sides of the aisle. It is simply, and amazingly, a non-issue for them.
One hopes the full legislature will be more interested in guaranteeing that ALL Maine people retain the right to a school budget referendum vote. It is a right they currently have under law, but perhaps not for long…