Gorham OKs $38.9M school budget

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A sign on Ball Park Road in Gorham Tuesday advocates a yes vote on the school budget.

GORHAM — After a divisive lead-up to the validation vote, a standing-room-only crowd at a Town Council meeting on it and a social media stir, residents on Tuesday ratified a $38.9 million school budget.

The budget easily passed 2,431-1,664. In a sweep, Gorham voters approved the budget in Ward 1-1, Ward 1-2, Ward 2 and Central. There was a 31 percent voter turnout, according to the town clerk.

Darryl Wright, School Committee chairman, on Wednesday thanked the voters. “The community of Gorham has always been very supportive of the schools and I am very pleased that the budget was approved by our voters,” Wright said in an email to the American Journal.

Before sending it to voters, the Town Council last week cut $346,000 from the School Committee’s $39.3 million request.

The budget that went to the polls raises the town’s tax rate to support schools an estimated $1.06, representing a 9.6 percent increase. School taxes on a home with an assessed value of $300,000, for example, now increase $318.

Jim Means of Beatrice Drive, an organizer of the Concerned Taxpayers of Gorham, led a fight opposing the budget. Means was disappointed Wednesday it passed, but noted that a larger percentage of people opposed the budget than in recent years.

“We moved the needle,” Means said.

A resident’s call during last week’s packed Town Council meeting for school budget supporters to stand in a show of solidarity drew a backlash the following day.

“I was stunned,” David Alexander of Wilson Road, said June 6 in an email to the American Journal. “That was completely out of order and unfair to the attendees and council.”

Alexander said it was an attempt to influence the Town Council before its deliberations. He also said it made those who remained seated appear as the “bad guys.”

The Concerned Taxpayers of Gorham has a Facebook page where opponents and supporters posted comments and arguments.

A full-page, paid advertisement in another newspaper about the Gorham school budget added more fuel to the online fight. “Gorham Schools paid for a full page ad with your (taxpayers) money,” the taxpayers group said in a posting.

Superintendent Heather Perry said in an email Tuesday that public schools are required to “announce factual information” on the budget to taxpayers. The district chose the newspaper advertisement among alternatives.

The advertisement cost $345 and was paid for by the school district, Perry said.

The taxpayers’ group posting argued that the ad was “not all accurate,” challenging the cost of adding a projected 77 new students.

A subsequent Facebook message called out the taxpayers group. “Please attend budget meetings in the future to become fully educated on all the costs of properly educating all of our students,” a posting said.

Means this week vowed not to give up. He said the battle next year will include targeting plans for a multi-million expansion/renovation of the high school to be shouldered entirely by Gorham taxpayers, as the state is unlikely to provide any funding. “We’re facing a historic, huge referendum with the high school fix,” Means said.

Voter approval  Tuesday of the budget averts another referendum within 30 days. A second referendum would have cost $7,500-$8,500, Town Clerk Laurie Nordfors said Tuesday.

One of the voters approving the budget,  John Ennis of Academy Street, said he had “no problem” supporting it. “I understand most of it is fixed costs and some for maintenance. It’s an important institution in the town,” he said at Ward 2.

Robert Lowell can be reached at 854-2577 or rlowell@keepmecurrent.com.