Auburn budget represents a compromise, according to school officials

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AUBURN — School officials wouldn’t get everything they want in a proposed 2011-12 budget going to voters Tuesday — but some new programs would survive budget cuts.

Tom Morrill, Auburn school superintendent, said the proposed $34.7 million education budget fully funds both a program to get middle school students out of the classroom and into the community and a summer school program to help seniors graduate.

But a controversial plan to provide iPads to kindergarten students would go forward as well. Morrill insists that program is not a part of the proposed budget.

“I’ve said before that we are paying for the iPads with grants — special education grants and regular education grants,” Morrill said. “It’s not in the 2012 budget. It’s from money dedicated for other certain things.”

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Auburn Hall is the sole polling place for Tuesday’s school budget referendum. The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Voters will face two questions on Tuesday’s ballot. The first question asks if they approve the school budget as set by the City Council at the May 9 meeting.

If they vote no, a second question asks if they want the school budget to be increased or decreased.

If voters approve, the school budget will be set at $34.7 million for the 2011-12 fiscal year, with $19.8 million coming from the state and $14.5 million from local Auburn property taxes.

That’s a net decrease in property taxes devoted to the schools — $181,484 less than the current budget.

City Councilors are still working on their budget. As it stands now, spending for city services like police and planning would increase $636,452 next year compared to the current budget. But with less state aid for city services — about $474,000 less — total property taxes would increase about $732,619 in the coming year. That works out to an increase of 54 cents per $1,000 of property value and about $77 more for an average $143,465 home.

But Morrill points out that the school department doesn’t share in any property tax increase. In fact, local property taxes devoted to schools decrease $2.87 for the average Auburn home.

“It’s the third year we’ve had no tax increase. That has certainly been the message we’ve received for several years,” Morrill said. “Taxes are very important for everyone, and I think the school department has done its due diligence in that respect.”

School officials initially proposed a tax and budget increase, calling for an additional 5 percent in spending and $1.9 million more in property taxes.

Councilors balked at that, saying they wanted $2.5 million in cuts from that proposed budget — negating the proposed $1.9 million increase and taking another $600,000. That would have triggered cuts in state spending, eliminating several teaching positions and ending some high school freshman sports programs.

Councilors finally settled on the current plan last week.

“It is workable, but it does not provide everything that we wanted,” Morrill said.”But it is a compromise, and it does allow the system to continue the tradition of addressing student literacy and numeracy.”

The middle school  expeditionary learning program is part of that. It would take classrooms out to study local subjects.

“I imagine the Androscoggin River would provide multiple opportunities for learning, right there,” Morrill said.

The summer school program would let seniors, a few credits shy of graduating, complete their work.

“When you are 18 and a few credits short, a fifth year may not be very interesting to you,” Morrill said. “But if we can help them over the summer, we may be helping them greatly.”

But some programs did get cut. Adult education was reduced, one of the two teaching positions at the Auburn Land Lab were eliminated, a program with L/A Arts bringing artists to the classrooms was cut and a plan to hire a dedicated elementary school nurse was put off as well.

Morrill said the iPad program has started already in five kindergarten classrooms. It will continue this year and will be reviewed at a School Committee meeting on June 15.

The full pilot program is scheduled to begin next fall, with all students in all 16 kindergarten classes getting access to iPads.

“It’s part of an overall, integrated and balanced program,” Morrill said. “They won’t be spending all day on the iPads. It’s just one part of the curriculum.”

staylor@sunjournal.com

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