Validation process flawed

On Tuesday, July 12, Ellsworth voters will answer an important question: “Do you favor approving the City of Ellsworth School budget for the upcoming school year that was adopted at the latest Ellsworth City Council meeting for that purpose?” An equally important question is: How many residents will turn up to cast ballots?

The budget validation process (required by law unless voters opt out) is a final chance for public input on one of the largest costs borne by local taxpayers — education. For the current fiscal year, 43.65 percent of an Ellsworth property owner’s tax bill was earmarked for the schools.

The $25 million budget for the coming school year has already been approved by two elected boards — the School Board and the City Council. A delay in council approval meant the validation vote could not be held as previously planned during the June primaries. Absentee ballots that had already been cast for a June vote on the budget were moot. The special July election is an added expense for the city. The timing and lack of other ballot issues are a challenge for getting out the vote. In many communities that continue with the budget validation process, district budget meetings and validation votes are sparsely attended. Last year, just 166 city voters, a 2.5 percent turnout, cast ballots.

The statutorily required language of the ballot question does not give voters a lot to go on if they do not do their homework beforehand. A dollar figure is not listed, nor is an explanation of what happens if the budget is shot down. In that case, because the vote is after July 1, the School Department will operate under the last approved budget until a final budget is approved. The budget validation process will restart with the school board and councilors weighing in on a new spending plan before sending it to voters again. Rinse and repeat until the budget passes.

Given the enormous expense of running local schools, any taxpayer would be forgiven for wondering if there were a way to get the job done cheaper. Councilor Michelle Kaplan, whose “nay” vote on the budget prevented it from going to voters in June, mused at a budget meeting, “I just think that we can do a little bit better on the cost to the taxpayers.” She did not identify anything specific she thought should be eliminated or curtailed. School officials obviously did not think there was fat to cut. When they returned to the council, the budget was just $7,275 lower — the cost of some custodial supplies. That budget was approved and is what voters will consider next week.

Given the importance and complexity of the school budget, it is imperative that those voters who do turn out for the validation referendum have the information they need. The city has done a good job of providing polling place information and a sample ballot on its website and voter alerts on social media. It would be helpful if current budget documents were easily accessible online on the city and School Department sites. Voters, of course, could have attended recent council or school board meetings or followed news coverage to learn more.

It is worth remembering that members of two elected bodies have already spent hours reviewing the budget and ultimately approved it. They pay taxes, too. A “yes” vote recognizes their work and the need to adequately fund local schools. And when voters are next asked whether they want to continue the validation referendum process, they should consider whether that process fulfills its intended purpose or if it just allows a small fraction of the electorate disproportionate sway.

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