Apparent landslide victory for six-town movement fails on technicality

Low voter turnout kills RSU 20 withdrawal bid

2013-14 school district budget rejected by a wide margin
Posted:  Wednesday, June 12, 2013 - 8:45am
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BELFAST - An ambitious bid by six Waldo County towns to secede from Regional School Unit 20 was approved by an overwheming majority of voters in a June 11 referendum. The vote won't count, however, because numbers for overall turnout in most towns failed to meet the statutory minimum.

Voters also rejected the proposed 2013-14 budget for RSU 20 by a wide margin all eight towns.

The total number of voters for the withdrawal to be valid needed to be equal to or more than 50-percent of the number in the last gubernatorial election. Though it would have sailed through on popular vote proportions ranging from slightly under 3-to-1 in in favor in Swanville to 10-to-1 in Searsmont, only one town two towns, Morrill and Searsmont, met the total turnout requirement.

Lackluster turnout was likely due to the timing of the referendum when the only other item on the ballot in most municipalities was the school budget, and probably wasn't helped by rainy weather. 

Supporters of the withdrawal movement knew from very early on that getting the required in a midterm election would be among the toughest challenges. The best hope, many felt, was that the proposed 2013-14 RSU 20 budget, which would have resulted in a major tax hike in most towns, would bring voters to the polls.

Belfast's withdrawal committee bought 300 signs prior to the election bearing the ambigous message "Your School Matters!", which committee member Eric Sanders said were intended as a neutral encouragement to vote. Sanders, who made the successful motion at the district's public budget meeting to add $500,000 to the bottom line, was also open about his hope that the voters would feel strongly enough about the budget — either because of proposed cuts, or the budget's effect on local property tax rates — to come to the polls in sufficient numbers Tuesday.

As of late Tuesday afternoon the writing was apparently on the wall. City Councilor Mike Hurley, who came out in support of the withdrawal in the weeks before the referendum, posted a laconic reference to a book about a daring-but-overreaching, and ultimately doomed, maneuver by Allied forces in the Netherlands during World War II. "A bridge too far," he wrote.

Speaking as the results were coming in, Sanders said the spread of the withdrawal vote coupled with the strong rejection of the budget amounted to a vote of no confidence for the RSU, even as the withdrawal apparently failed. 

"That makes me feel better," he said. "[Voters] got the message. They understood the savings. We just didn't get the turnout."

Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont and Swanville last year approved pursuing withdrawal from the nine-town school district in a move that supporters hoped would effectively allow the towns to undo the 2009 consolidation that merged Belfast-based School Administrative District 34 with neighboring Searsport-based SAD 56.

Collectively the six towns represented the only preconsolidation school district in Maine that was trying turn back the clock. This may have owed something to the quirks of state law, which provides a direct route for consolidation but nothing to reverse the process. After three years, many residents in Belfast and the five surrounding towns had come to regard the consolidation as a failed experiment. The only option, however, was for each town to withdraw independently from the district then attempt to form a new district. 

A city committee in Belfast found that the withdrawal would have saved $1.6 million among the six towns based the 2013-14 draft budget for RSU 20. As that budget took shape, withdrawal supporters began to see a controversial school budget as a way to get voters to the polls. District administrators proposed a series of unpopular staff cuts in a last ditch effort to make up for a drop in state aid and the loss of revenue from Frankfort's impending departure from the district to join MSAD 22 in July.

Residents voted much of that money back into the budget, ostensibly to keep the teacher positions that were on the chopping block, but this pushed up the budget enough that towns were projecting double digit percentage jumps in property taxes next year. 

The budget, however, went down in flames at the polls on Tuesday, failing by a total popular vote of 1894 to 1248. The budget was not approved in any of the eight RSU 20 municipalities, but in the breakdown of Belfast polling sites, the budget did pass by a small margin in Wards 1 and 2.

A statewide vote on continuing the referendum process passed by wide margins in all eight RSU 20 towns. In this school district, that result was significant. If the measure had failed, the budget would be finalized at the public budget meeting. The budget voted down on Tuesday was approved at that meeting, largely on the turnout of Belfast parents and teachers and administrators who would have been affected by the proposed staff cuts.

The rejection of the budget at the polls sends the RSU 20 board of directors back to the drawing board to come up with a more palatable budget. What that would take is not necessarily clear from the results of the referendum, though the reinstatement of funding for many of the teaching positions cut in the controversial draft budget suggests it was the anticipated tax increase that voters objected to.

"Maybe the superintendent can find things on the Internet and paste them into the budget," Sanders said, referring to RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter's unapologetic use of online documents as his own.

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Ethan Andrews can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com