To the Voters Who Showed Up Last Night (and Those Who Did Not)

Just when I think there’s nothing left for me to write about the local school budget, another budget meeting happens and proves me completely wrong. At last night’s meeting, the Yes side had a slightly smaller than usual turnout. I can understand why. At every other meeting we’ve had to vote on the budget, the Yes side has overwhelmed the No side with numbers. 30 or 40 No voters to 120 to 130 Yes voters. And so many Yes voters, likely tired of sitting through such contentious meetings, just didn’t have the heart to do it anymore. They didn’t come, confident the budget would still be passed as it always has been.

Except well over 200 No voters showed up. 6 or 7 times the usual amount. And many of them might have been completely clueless about how the process worked (judging by the conversations around me), but they knew how to read a sign. And the No organizers had brought bright yellow “YES” and “NO” signs. So they just had to hold them up to make sure their supporters voted the right way.

And then when things looked like they were going to take too long, the No voters (who have traditionally been outraged when the Yes voters wanted to push the agenda through as quickly as possible) took a page from the Yes voters and pushed the agenda through as fast as they could. (Note: I don’t begrudge them this. I wanted to do the same thing. The budget meetings are far too long, and I would love to see them permanently changed to a simple vote in favor or against the proposed budget. Or, in the case of last night, for or against flat lining the budget. As long as there’s an easy, clear approach people want to vote for, that should be an option in my book.)

In any case, the vote happened, and the school budget was flat funded for the year. Almost $900,000 less than the budget proposed by the school board. That’s the new budget that will now be voted on by the towns next week.

I understand the logic. “It was enough money for last year. It should be enough for this year.” It’s a powerful, simple argument.

It’s also wrong.

As much as we might wish it were different, costs do go up from year to year. And one area that costs are skyrocketing is special education. The special education budget’s needs are dictated by federal and state law. And it was set to go up by more than $500,000. It accounted for the bulk of the increase of the school budget over last year. (An increase that was still set to lower local taxes, due to changes in state funding, might I add.)

Flat funding the special education budget does not magically make the federal and state requirements go away. So that $500,000+ will have to be found elsewhere in the budget. In other words, flat funding special education meant slashing budgets from the other areas, plain and simple. That was explained in detail in the meeting. It didn’t matter. Bright yellow signs held by a few were about the only thing the majority of people in that audience were paying attention to.

The fact is, both sides believe the other side is lying. The Yes voters believe the No voters are manipulating the facts and figures to try and make it appear that the district is being wasteful. The No voters believe the Yes voters are being lied to by the superintendent, and that there really are plenty of simple cuts to be made. When both sides believe the other side is just plain wrong, there is nothing that can be done but to let the majority decide. You can’t have discussion. You can’t have debate. That requires trust, which no longer exists.

The No voters pointed to neighboring districts that have flat funded education or cut the budget from year to year. Skowhegan was held up as an example. How did Skowhegan do it?

But the costs will not come without some cuts — teachers, supplies, equipment, textbooks, field trips and extracurricular activities.

And that is what will be cut with this new budget, if it’s approved. Teacher positions will be cut. Field trips. Sports. Music. Arts. It’s almost $900,000 in cuts, and that’s not money you find when you check your pockets for loose change.

I have tried writing posts that talk about the facts. That one post has been read over 500 times. And I could do it again. I could go through and look for facts and figures and present them one more time. But as I said before, I don’t think actual debate or discussion is worth the paper or breath it takes to try it. Not anymore. At this point, one of two things will happen. Either this reduced budget will be passed, or it will fail. If it fails, it will be because parents in the district hear what’s happening and finally show up to the polls in force to vote it down. At that point, they will then show up in force to the next budget meeting to restore the budget to the amount they are willing to support.

I personally do not believe that will happen. There’s not enough time to turn this around, and there’s not enough time to get out the message of just what will be cut. (The school board doesn’t even know at this point.) In the past, the board has called for help, telling its supporters that the effects will be drastic if the help doesn’t materialize. But the budget was cut last year, and the general public didn’t see anything drastic as a result. I don’t believe the general public will be swayed this time around. They just don’t care enough to engage.

Maybe I’ll be proven wrong. I certainly will be voting against the budget this time, and I encourage everyone else to do the same. But I’ve been on this ride before, and I know where it ends up.

So there’s the other option. The reduced budget passes. And when that happens, the school board will have to make cuts. And when those cuts come down, we will see firsthand what the effects are. Perhaps the No voters will be proven right. Or perhaps the community just won’t care enough to do anything about it next time. Either way, we’ll know. Either there will be a sea of concerned parents in the room when next year’s budgets are set, or we’ll have more of the same.

We won’t be basing our votes on lies anymore if that’s the case (regardless of which side is lying). We’ll be basing them on actual experience.

Democracy is decided by those who show up. It doesn’t matter in the end if they show up because a little yellow sign told them to or because they did extensive research into a subject. Their votes count the same, either way. And either way, we will have a school budget that the majority of voters in our community support. The question really becomes “Who cares more?”

Right now, that answer is clear. I’ll be watching the polls next Tuesday (September 12th) to see which path we’re heading down.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. We live in a democracy, and that means abiding by the will of the majority. You can try to sway more people to your cause, but if you fail, you live with the result. I’d like to think the worst that will happen in this case is that we have one year of a very lean budget, and that next year the pendulum swings the other way.

It all depends on who keeps showing up.

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