Apathy wins in Portland school budget votes

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PORTLAND — Fewer than 1,000 people turned out to vote for the May 12 school budget referendum, but it turns out that number is hardly shocking.

Instead, it is just the latest in a continuing decline in voter participation in the spring referendum.

School Board Chairwoman Sarah Thompson said the numbers are “a pretty telling story,” but said she hopes they reflect that the public is pleased with the work the School Board and School Department are doing, since voters approved the budget.

“Portland is pretty vocal when they’re unhappy,” Thompson said.

The number of registered voters who participate in these elections has, by and large, declined. In 2008, more than 3,500 people voted. While that is still a relatively poor turnout, it is nearly four times more than the number who turned out this May.

Thompson said the 2008 turnout, while still small compared to the city’s population, made sense because it was a new process and followed a turbulent time in the School Department’s  history. In 2007, the schools had a nearly $2 million deficit, which ultimately led to the resignation of Superintendent of Schools Mary Jo O’Connor.

The budget referendum turnout in 2008 was the largest by a wide margin. The following year, fewer than 2,200 people voted; 2010 saw a slight uptick to nearly 2,400, before it plummeted to about 1,600 the next year.

In 2012 the number fell again, to just over 1,500; 2013 saw a significant jump to 2,265. But by 2014 the turnout was back below 1,500. And this year, just 970 voters went to the polls.

Ron Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine, said these types of elections always have low support. He said presidential election years always get people out to the polls. And while he said school budget votes can have high participation at times “because it directly affects the lives of people,” he said publicity could well have been the issue.

“There wasn’t enough effort to get out the vote … and that that kept what could have been a rise in participation from happening,” Schmidt said. He added the votes tend to be driven by a sense of need, and if more people had known about the vote and details of the budget, participation likely would have been higher.

Schmidt said the declining trend in voter turnout could also reflect the “percent of the population with children in the schools.” He added that unlike congressional and senate races, there’s no political party involvement with school budget votes.

“You’d expect (school) officials to drive up participation,” Schmidt said. “So you might be looking at a lack of resources there.”

Every three years, under state law, voters must also decide whether to continue the annual school budget referendum. The last time, in 2013, the measure passed 1,319 to 1,032.

Thompson said the practice will continue as long as voters keep approving it. However, she said voters should look at the $25,000 cost of running the referendum and weigh that against the cost of other unfunded projects.

“To me … that’s a lot of money,” Thompson said. “I’d rather see us purchase an ed tech or a van for transporting students with special needs.”

Thompson added there are things on the municipal side that need funding, too.

“When people vote to continue this, they need to consider that could be a worker, or could be a portion of a (police) cruiser,” Thompson said. “It doesn’t mean people don’t value education, it just means we need to look at how we spend money. This may be money not well spent.”

Primary and general elections have historically garnered significantly higher public interest than the May school budget referendums.

Last November, more than 30,000 Portland residents turned out for the general election. The primary in June brought out nearly 9,600. The 2012 November election saw more than 36,000 residents turn out.

As of December 2014, there were more than 54,600 registered voters in Portland.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.