Portland spends $15,000 for less than 3 percent of voters to approve the school budget

Portland Public Schools central offices on Cumberland Avenue. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Portland Public Schools central offices on Cumberland Avenue. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Every May, Portland opens up polling places across the city so voters can weigh in on the school budget.

The thing is, voters don’t really show up.

On Tuesday, the majority of the 1,478 voters who turned out approved the proposed $103.6 million Portland Public Schools budget.

(It was 921-558 in favor, in case you missed the results.)

The citywide vote has become something of a formality, passing easily every year with a tiny percentage of voters weighing in.

That turnout, which represents about 2.7 percent of the nearly 55,000 registered voters in Portland, is actually a big step up from the 970 (about 1.8 percent) who voted on the school budget last year, and a sliver down from the 1,492 who turned out in 2014. For comparison, roughly 18,000 people turned out for the municipal election last year, where voters chose a new mayor, among other positions.

The reason I’m bothering to go through the turnout numbers is that those same voters who approved the budget Tuesday also approved this process through which the school budget requires an annual referendum.

A second question on the ballot asked voters if they wanted to continue putting the school budget on citywide ballots every year. Of course, being the very voters who bothered to turn out, and therefore presumably find value in having a say, they answered “Yes.”

So what does this process cost taxpayers?

Opening up and staffing the polling places and tabulating the results costs the city about $15,000, according to Portland city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin.

That’s not a huge number in an annual budget greater than $200 million. But it is three times as much as the schools spent last year to transport homeless students to classes, for instance. And it’s about as much as the schools spend every year on pest control services.

To be clear, $15,000 isn’t even really an extraordinary amount to allocate for a day of voting. It’s just that so few people take advantage of it, it begs the question of “Why bother?”

After all, Portlanders are not strangers to handing budgetary decisions over to elected officials.

The municipal budget is decided every year by the City Council, and for many years, the Portland school board took care of its spending decisions without a citywide vote as well. It wasn’t until 2007 that Gov. John Baldacci began requiring the school budget referendums as part of his statewide consolidation plan.

If voters disagree with how their elected officials are spending their tax dollars, they can always choose different elected officials in the fall.

Portland voters could save $15,000 every year by doing so, and that could buy a lot of textbooks.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.