Shockingly low

We knew that voter turnout would be low for the recent election to decide on a $50 million state bond and school budgets, along with a few local issues, but we were shocked at how low the turnout actually was.

Fifteen towns drew fewer than 100 voters, including every single one of the 11 towns that are part of Regional School Unit 3. It's not surprising that the larger towns posted higher numbers of voters, with Belfast at the top with 544, followed by Winterport with 462 and Stockton Springs with 371.

Other numbers aren't as encouraging: An equal number of voters, 130, weighed in on Northport's single school as turned out in Searsport to support the RSU 20 budget. Landing at the bottom of the heap, however, is Waldo. Just 20 people voted on the RSU 3 school budget in that town. Tied at 35 for next-lowest turnouts were Freedom and Jackson.

Yes, there was a public meeting to approve each budget beforehand and the election serves as a confirmation of that vote. But as we recently pointed out in another editorial, those meetings are not well-attended either. Nor do they accurately predict how voters will act at the polls, as RSU 22 (Winterport, Frankfort, Hampden and Newburgh) discovered when that district's budget was rejected last week.

The RSU 22 superintendent told The Journal that residents at the public budget meeting increased funding for teaching positions and cut funding for administration, yet the budget was rejected at the ballot box, leaving school officials in a quandary: Was the budget was too high? Or too low? The only town in that district to approve the budget was Frankfort, with just 44 voters, but we can't imagine tiny little Frankfort had enough residents present at the public budget meeting to outweigh residents from the district's three larger towns.

Rejecting a school budget at the polls can send a message, but as we learned from RSU 22, the message is not always clear.

We often hear Waldo County taxpayers urging municipal officials to reign in school spending — most cannot, because the school districts operate independently of the municipality — but those same taxpayers typically do not attend school budget meetings. Those meetings are the venue for suggesting changes, not the polls, as having another vote costs money.

It's understandable that some people can't attend the final budget meeting. But what about getting involved before then? School boards typically begin the budget process early in the year and those meetings also are open to the public. No doubt board members would appreciate feedback on the budget early in the process rather than at the last minute at the final approval meeting and vote.

Moreover, technology available today allows a variety of ways to keep in touch with school board members, and school district websites can offer updated information. You don't have to be physically present at a meeting to let a board member know how you feel — make a phone call, send an email, write a letter.

We're not alone

Dismal voter turnout is not unique to Waldo County, of course. Statewide, the apparent disinterest June 13 has left the outcome of a $50 million bond issue uncertain.

The sole question on the state ballot called for the Maine Technology Institute to distribute $45 million in grants for upgrades in aquaculture, marine technology, forestry and agriculture. The Small Enterprise Growth Fund would direct the remaining $5 million to qualifying small businesses in such fields as marine sciences, biotechnology and manufacturing. Maine voters generally favor such bond issues.

In the referendum, the question drew strong support in large cities, although voter turnout was only 2 percent to 8 percent in those municipalities. Waldo County towns mostly supported the bond, though Swanville and Thorndike voters were evenly split on the issue and Brooks voters defeated the question by five votes.

Municipalities were to submit their tallies to the secretary of state by June 16, and the state has until July 3 to arrive at a final tabulation.