Auburn school budget add-backs force council to recess overnight

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AUBURN — Another last minute change to the proposed school budget forced councilors to leave their chambers Monday night without finishing their meeting.

Councilors are scheduled to meet at council chambers again at 10 a.m. Tuesday morning to vote on a proposed $34.7 million school budget and send it out for public referendum next week.

Councilors Monday were poised to amend the budget they approved last week. The May 2 decision called for $1.6 million in cuts from the school committee’s proposed budget.

But Monday, councilors moved to add back $370,251 to the school’s overall spending plan, directing school officials to spend it from their rainy day fund balance.

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Councilor Eric Samson, author of the amendment, said he wanted to add back some of the things removed from the budget after the councilor’s $1.6 million cut.

“I don’t get a say in how the final budget gets spent — that’s the School Committee’s decision,” Samson said. “But I can recommend how it gets spent. What I wanted to do was give them some of the money back they had cut from classroom and student things and still give them a zero percent increase on the property taxes.”

But councilors were scheduled to also the adopt full budget resolution, which includes spending for 11 school line items. City Clerk Roberta Fogg said those 11 items will be posted around the polling places for the May 17 vote and told councilors they could not end Monday’s meeting until school officials gave her a copy of those items that contained the new budget numbers.

That’s the responsibility of School Business Director Jude Cyr, who was in a bicycle accident Monday afternoon and was unable to attend Monday’s meeting.

School Superintendent Tom Morrill said he did not have the file but would try to make the changes quickly. He didn’t know how long it would take, however.

“I’ll work on it all night, if I have to,” Morrill said. “I just don’t have all the pieces in front of me right now.”

Rather than wait out the night, councilors opted to table the matter and take an extended recess.

It was another twist in a complicated budget process. School officials presented a plan in February calling for 5.2 percent spending increase, including $926,000 more from property taxes.

School officials then presented a plan to provide iPads for the system’s kindergarten students.

City Councilors and residents balked, saying it was wrong for the school to ask for higher taxes during a down economy, when most of Maine is trimming budgets.

Councilors initially favored a $2.5 million cut in local funding that would have triggered a $1.3 million cut in state aid, before agreeing after midnight on May 2 to adopt the $1.6 million cut.

School officials met Wednesday to decide how the $1.6 million in cuts would be made. They reluctantly settled on a plan that would have cut some freshman sports at Edward Little High School, eliminated seven teaching positions across the school system, cut multiple educational techs and other positions and put off purchasing two buses.

The budget also cut funding for six other teachers — two technology teachers, a special education speech specialist, an alternative school teacher, a guidance teacher and special education teacher. It also would retire two high school teachers and an elementary school librarian without replacing them.

Councilors will consider adding some of those cuts back Tuesday morning, under Samson’s proposal.

But councilors continued their criticism of the school department.

Councilor Ray Berube accused school officials of targeting popular programs to elicit sympathy from voters.

“I was on the School Committee before and I know what they do,” Berube said. “It’s the same story, ever since the 1980s. They go after the things people love to get people to come out.”

Councilor Dan Herrick said he didn’t want to see the schools make cuts that would affect education, and said school officials could easily make their budget by shedding some of their administrators.

“Why are we doing everything possible to hurt programs, programs and sports but we never touch the real source?” Herrick said. “That’s the employees this city pays.”

Herrick said he knows some schools in rural Maine share principals.

“Why do we have a single principal at every single school?” he asked. “And there are entire levels of assistants.”

Councilors also continued debating their own $31 million municipal budget and the city’s budget process. Herrick called attention to a line item in the Public Works budget to purchase 500 traffic cones, noting that that item has been in year after year.

“I don’t see any reason we need to buy that many cones,” Herrick said.

But City Manager Glenn Aho said the city may not need to purchase all 500 but needs to set the money aside in case. He compared it to budgeting for road salt and sand. In mild winters, the city budgets to purchase much more than it needs.

“But we don’t have to spend it,” Aho said. “That money was goes back into the general fund.”

Herrick said that made little sense, and the city should aim to budget exactly what it intends to spend — not more.

“You can’t expect us to make a ringer each time,” Aho said. “We have a $31 million budget, and last year we were within 1.5 percent. I think that’s pretty close. If we had surplus of 10, 20 percent, I’d be right there with you. But I think less than 2 percent is pretty good.”

staylor@sunjournal.com

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