Portland sets May school budget referendum

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PORTLAND — The City Council Monday night scheduled a special school budget referendum for May 11, even though recent special elections have attracted only a few thousand voters.

Under state law, municipalities are required to send annual school budgets to the voters for approval. Since the law took effect in 2008, a total of about 5,700 people have voted in Portland – 3,542 in 2008 and 2,170 in 2009. Both years the budget passed easily. The city has 46,000 registered voters, according to City Clerk Linda Cohen.

Critics say the special May election wastes money and is a strain on election workers, who must sit at the polls all day. It costs about $19,000 to run a special election.

At Monday’s council meeting, Councilor John Anton proposed an amendment that would have set the school vote for June 8, to coincide with gubernatorial primaries. Anton proposed a similar amendment last March, during a debate about the fiscal responsibility of holding the special election.

Under state law, if voters reject the school budget the city must continue to hold special elections with revised budgets until voters approve.

School officials said Monday that if the vote occurred in June and voters rejected it, they would not have enough time to pull together another budget proposal and schedule an election before July 1. Under state law, if a budget for the next year is not passed by July 1, the schools must operate on the previous year’s budget until a new one is passed.

Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr. said the School Department is contractually obligated to give employees 90 days notice of a layoff. The school also has to pay administrators and teachers on a per-diem basis if they are not notified in time. Contracts begin July 1 and Sept. 1.

Councilors voted 6-3 against Anton’s amendment. Mayor Nick Mavodones said the current economy could lead to a different vote on the school budget than in the past two years.

“I’m not ready to predict what the electorate will do based on the last two years,” he said.

This may be the last year councilors have to debate when to send the school budget to voters. This year, in addition to asking voters whether they approve of the budget, municipalities must also ask voters if they want to continue to vote on the school budget.

Cohen said that if voters say no, then Portland will no longer have to put its school budget out to vote. If they say yes, voters will decide on the school budget for the next three years and then be asked again if they want to continue.

Absentee ballots will be available for the special election beginning April 12, but cannot be returned to the clerk’s office until May 4.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net