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Schools use publicly funded phone-call system to influence elections

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By Maine standards, last Tuesday’s election drew anemic participation. The few people who did turn out to vote, around just 13 percent of Maine’s registered voters, were mainly focused on the high-profile Senate primaries, but those top-of-the-ticket races weren’t the only issues of importance on the June 2012 ballot.

In at least one Regional School Unit (RSU), the annual budget validation process has caused some controversy, exposing what turns out to be a fairly common practice of using school resources for “get out the vote” efforts for the annual school budget vote.

The controversy over the school budget vote in RSU 18, a district in Central Maine, includes an automated phone call from a member of a select board, advocating a “No” vote on the budget, and another automated call to “get out the vote” from the RSU itself.

While the calls from the member of the select board went to a cross section of voters in each town, the automated calls from RSU 18 were made only to the employees of the school district and to parents of students who attend school in RSU 18.

Taxpayers without children in the schools did not get the calls.

Getting the school budget approved is a yearly process for each district, which includes budget meetings that are open to the public. The next step is to put the question out to voters, allowing them to “validate” the budget—or reject it, in which case it goes back to the planning and budget meeting phase.

The majority of school budgets are validated. It’s nearly automatic that they get approved. This year there were only a handful of rejections by local voters, including SAD 13, which includes Bingham and Moscow, and RSU 23, a district embroiled in some turmoil that includes Saco. Also rejecting their proposed budget were voters in RSU 18.

Voters in RSU 18, which is made up of the towns of Belgrade, China, Oakland, Sidney and Rome, narrowly voted down next year’s proposed school budget of $33.1 million. The amount represented a $1.1 million increase in the school budget. The increase would have resulted in a jump in property taxes, with the heaviest hit to taxpayers in Oakland. Voters in Oakland resoundingly rejected the budget, with 57 percent of voters saying “No.”

In the run-up to the vote, citizens witnessed the kind of election intrigue that isn’t often seen on the local level.

Just before the public vote on the school budget, automated calls were made from a Sidney selectwoman, Kelly Couture, asking residents to vote “No” on the proposed RSU 18 budget. The town of Sidney, like four of the other five towns in the district, would pay more in property taxes as a result of the $1.1 million budget increase.

Ultimately, the proposed budget failed by just 38 votes, with 1,209 rejecting it and 1,171 in favor.

The call rankled Superintendent Gary Smith, who believed it had an impact on the vote. He said in an email to Couture the day after the vote: “Kelly, you have been successful and the RSU 18 budget vote was defeated. I just want to say that your form in approaching your dissatisfaction with the RSU 18 budget is totally unprofessional and below board. You have sunk to a new low in my book.”

Smith copied several employees and members from RSU 18 on the email.

But after Smith’s email was sent, it was revealed that RSU 18 had used its own “auto call” to turn out voters. And, as it turns out, this may be par for the course with school districts around Maine.

Several residents of the towns in RSU 18 reported receiving automated phone calls from the district’s “SchoolMessenger” system, reminding them to vote on June 12. Smith said the system is used to “inform of events and key dates,” and that the practice of using it to notify of budget meetings and votes has been in place since before he became superintendent three years ago.

But some residents of RSU 18 are concerned that the calls are made from the school’s publicly funded notification system and that the calls are made only to employees of the school system and parents of children in the school district. Residents who don’t have children in the schools, but whose taxes are affected by the school budget, don’t get the selective “get out the vote” calls.

Some RSU 18 residents say these calls specifically alert the people who would most like to see the budget passed: school employees and parents in the district.

“I can see how people could think that,” Superintendent Smith said. “That’s why we work hard to have a neutral message,” he said.

Still, despite the “neutral message,” recipients of the call are a select group of people—a group that, more often than not, would like to see the budget passed.

An employee of another school district, who wished to remain anonymous, estimated that the percentage of parents and school staff who vote “Yes” for any given school budget is probably about 90 percent. “Just a guess, but they are usually good for a ‘Yes’ vote,” the employee said.

The same employee also confirmed that their school system uses the district-wide automated call system to alert parents and staff about the budget vote. That school system also sends out fliers to everyone in the district, but the schools also use the calls because, “obviously, you want your people to turn out.”

Selective “auto calling” can have a tremendous impact, especially in a low-turnout election, according to political campaign veteran Trevor Bragdon, who recently worked on Rick Bennett’s campaign for Senate.

“In a budget election not held on a typical voting day, just one auto call can make a huge difference,” Bragdon said. “Even if the call doesn’t explicitly say vote yes or no, it can target voters who are identified as likely voting one way or the other and can easily tip the scales in a low turnout election.”

Several districts confirmed the practice of using their school district’s automated system to alert parents and staff about upcoming budget votes, including Auburn, Freeport (RSU 5) and Brewer. Cape Elizabeth, Augusta and Gardiner school staff said they do not employ their notification system as a “get out the vote” tool.

Calls to two of Maine’s largest school districts, Bangor and Portland, were not returned.

After voters refused to pass the school-budget increase, RSU 18 must return to the drawing board to come up with a new budget that will have to be approved in a public meeting, then sent again to voters.

This time, they know the only thing that is automatic about the budget vote may be the “get out the vote” phone calls.

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently the executive producer of the Kirk Minihane Show. Follow him on Twitter @BigSteve207.

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