Auburn School Committee endorses $34.1 million budget

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AUBURN — Moments before they approved a $34.1 million budget, the Auburn School Committee listened to a warning.

“Maybe we’re too efficient,” Superintendent Tom Morrill said.

He cited numbers that place Auburn schools among the state’s bottom spenders on a per-pupil basis, listing the department as 251 among 279 school systems.

“Is that all we want?” Morrill asked. “Absolutely not. It’s all we can do at this particular time.”

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School Committee members unanimously endorsed the proposal, which would spend $30,000 less than the current budget and avoid a hike in the city’s tax levy.

The proposal will go to the City Council for its recommendation before a citywide referendum scheduled for May 11.

The City Council and the School Committee are scheduled to meet in a workshop at 5:30 p.m. Monday at Auburn Hall.

The current budget is precariously small and can’t take any losses, committee member Thomas Kendall warned Wednesday.

“We’re at a tipping point,” Kendall said. The loss of even a single dollar would damage Auburn’s education system, he said. “We are that close to not being able to deliver.”

To meet a promise not to ask the city for more money, Morrill’s proposal called for the elimination of six positions — three administrators and three teachers — all by attrition.

The School Department also made use of good fortune.

Auburn is one of 12 communities getting more money this year in state aid to education. The department will receive $380,000 more because the city’s valuation went down 5 percent, while statewide property values went up 3 percent.

The budget includes a $350,000 deposit into the school’s fund balance, a kind of savings account. Morrill hopes the money can offset a new budget crunch expected to hit in 2011, when a two-year stimulus boost dries up.

“We are working on a very, very thin margin to make sure our kids are successful,” Morrill said.

If school funding doesn’t increase, he worries that the school system may be less able to hire and keep good teachers.

“I think we have to be very cautious about our pay scale,” he said.

He apologized to the committee for the budget’s sacrifices.

“I don’t want you to apologize for anything,” said Bonnie Hayes, City Council representative on the School Committee. “You’ve done a great job with what you have.”

dhartill@sunjournal.com

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