Schools use publicly funded phone-call system to influence elections


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.


  1. What else is new… the pro school budget signs are still polluting the roads of Brunswick. Take them down please… I removed my political signs!

  2. What? The Brewer School system used the automated system to support their budget?  News to me to hear of this. I was told that the school system was not calling folks for their opposition to the Charter proposal issue here in Brewer, to require the new superintendent of schools to reside in this city. Realizing this is off the immediate topic, I’m now wondering if this is all true. I do know that at least one resident was making calls to kill the measure. By the way, it passed! Even as the school board unanimously opposed it publicly at two meetings.

  3. Interesting to note that after the Newport School System was caught using public property and public employees to advance the last homosexual marraige proposal, that this activity would still be taking place so openly. 

    One would think that administrators, department heads and IT departments would be alert to the risks of being caught undertaking this sort of illegal activity.  The communications and support systems in schools are only for the use of the educational pursuits not biased electioneering.  Another prime example of the taxpayer dollars being used by the public sector unions against the  best interests of those paying the bills.

    Is their an investiagitve agency of Maine government that handles these alleged violations?  If so,  they should be alerted to this activity because this falls elections and ballot issues are apt to bring out all the liberal dirty tricks that we have seen in past and then some. 

  4. Yikes! Another display to students that you should “beat the system” in any way possible. I bet they remember that lesson more than any other. ET

  5. An interesting story, but I notice several missing pieces of information: 
    1. Reference to the law that prohibits GOTV phone calls by public entities.
    2. Reference to “employees of other districts” making statements which can not be verified in any way, shape or manner.
    3. Examples of other times the SchoolMessenger system was used and any reaction from the naysayers about those. 

    And then there’s the…
    1. 90% as “just a guess” by someone with no name or credentials
    2. Quotes by Trevor Bragdon (“political campaign veteran”) which appear to make him a non-partisan expert on elections. Please.
    3. Failure to understand that the SchoolMessenger (and similar) system would (and should) ONLY have parents’ phone numbers.  [If it were otherwise, you’d cry foul on that, too.]

  6. I live in Sidney and was involved with the Robo calls to defeat the budget. It is alledged that Smith had a surplus which was hidden from us and that a huge grant was received that was logged in as a loss instead of gain. Budget request went up, they cut nothinbg, laid nobody off. the average household income in Sidney is less than $ 57,000 yet some employees of RSU 18 earn upward of $ 100,000. Give us a break. Oh yeah, this is all happening while school enrollments are dropping. We are getting less for more. Mardens they are not.

  7. Unions have long used school ‘communication’s for ‘official union business….which covers opposing many initiatives. I’ve been told they pay for use of the Duplicating machines and phones but never have seen the reimbursement. 

    Taxpayer and other groups are denied access to this lobbying machinery; ever wonder why school budgets and bond issues are passed so easily? Now you know how it is done…Then there are the ‘take homes’ and the parent notification e’mail network. Public scrutiny? transparency? 

  8.  Sure, Nancy.  The little darlings are never given anything to take home and give to their parents.

    And then I’m reminded of the neighbor kid coming by a few years back to sell me an athletic booster card for $10.  I asked how come they were doing this.  Answer: “the school says the town is giving us less and less money every year.”  Since I keep budget history records, I knew for a fact that the budget was growing every year, as were our tax bills.

    I politely corrected the student and told her they were being mis-informed, and gave the supporting data to her parents.

  9. I inquired of our school superintendent Dr. Dan Lee about Brewer’s involvement in this issue. As you can see here, our folks didn’t push for a particular issue in either issue on the ballot. That makes me feel better. I have further inquired about the cost of this effort, and also, if it is a precedent. Again, we had two such issues on the ballot. So, I await Dr. Lee’s response.

    “” Dear Larry,Yes, we sent out the following message on June 7th, “The Brewer School Committee
    reminds Brewer citizens to please vote next Tuesday, June 12.  Polls at
    the Brewer Auditorium are open from 8:00 AM until 8:00 PM.”  Thank you”   We also posted a similar reminder on our electronic signs.  At
    the behest of Chairman Bost and Vice Chairman Austin I sought the
    opinion of attorney Richard Spencer on the matter.  He offered that
    there was no legal problem using our system to provide factual
    information to voters concerning the budget; to inform voters of the
    date, place and time of the budget referendum; or to  urge citizens to
    vote.  After consideration of Mr. Spencer’s advice it was decided to
    limit the notice to simply the date, place and time of the vote.

    The notification system is new with the capability to communicate
    beyond an emergency.  For example, it can be used to remind the public
    of an event or activity at the school.  Feel free to call if you have
    any other questions.


  10. The cost of these political phone calls should be reimbursed to where ever the monies came from to pay for this abusive use of taxpayer funds.

  11. The local union contract obligates the taxpayer to pay for official union business which can include lobbying, political organizing, and parent contacts.  

    “B. “Representatives of the Association shall be permitted to transact official business of the Association on school property at non-teaching times provided such use does not interfere with the normal school operation. Association communications, including but not limited to bimonthly newsletter, may be distributed through use of the courier system, district e-mail system, and employee mailboxes, provided that no additional responsibilities are place on non-association employees, and further provided that the communicatiions shall be consisten with any valid school board rules or policies.”

    In reading over other details; one wonders whether all the stipends, subsidies and time off, i.e. 17 days a contract year of 185 days is ‘sick leave’ and can be collected at the end of their employment are there because they favor and support women in what has become an almost entire feminine industry. 

  12. I wish they’d spend less time sending this sort of call and more time posting information on the website. Example- Board minutes are never posted in a timely fashion.


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