Auburn School Committee supports budget increase

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AUBURN – Property taxes are headed up in Auburn, based on a Wednesday night School Committee vote. But it’s too early to know how much higher taxes will go.

The committee voted to recommend a school budget of $33.55 million, up $2 million – or 6.4 percent – higher than last year’s spending.

After the cost of debt service for the city’s new school is taken out, a cost covered by the state, the higher spending that would directly impact Auburn taxpayers would be 3.4 percent, said committee Chairwoman Kathy Constantine.

The impact on property taxes is not yet known because property revaluation is under way. Until property values are fixed finally, the formula used to determine the tax rate is incomplete.

Reasons for the higher spending include 3.9 percent raises for teachers, raising the starting teacher pay from $25,000 to $27,000, a 6.3 percent increase for health care costs, and program improvements. Among the program improvements are two new foreign language teachers at the Auburn Middle School.

Overall there is a “sticker shock” to the larger budget, committee member David Das acknowledged. It seems that spending just goes up and up, he said. But the percentage of education costs in the city’s total budget is still around 50 percent, the same percentage it’s been for decades, he said.

Das said he researched former budgets. School budgets from 1961, 1991 and 2005 show the school percentage of Auburn spending was around 50 percent. While the bottom line is larger, the percentage shows “there is stability,” that spending isn’t out of control, he said.

It’s true that in the past decade enrollment has dropped in Auburn, but demand on staff skyrocketed, Das said. “Schools are expensive to run. They are labor intensive.”

Committee member Justin Leary said he hoped to keep the increase local taxpayers would feel to no more than 3 percent. He could support a 3.4 percent increase, he said. Salaries are going to go up. “That’s fair and appropriate,” he said. He called the budget recommendation “fiscally responsible.”

Committee member Ross Leavitt said he is sympathetic to the plight of taxpayers facing higher bills. But it’s important to support teachers, he said.

Ted Belitsos said in view of tougher state graduation requirements in 2010, Auburn needs to hire two foreign language teachers for seventh-graders. “We are approaching a deadline,” he said. If Auburn doesn’t have enough foreign language teachers, students will not be able to meet the new standards, he said.

Constantine was the only member to vote against the budget. She opposed it because there isn’t enough money to improve teachers salaries and hire two foreign language teachers in the same year, she said.

In February, Gov. John Baldacci announced that the state was giving $79 million more to Maine schools to help relieve property taxes. Auburn received $1.64 million more. Districts getting more should return some to property taxpayers, Baldacci said.

That’s not happening in Auburn, Constantine said, because the state increase did not keep pace with the needs of higher salaries, benefits and energy costs. Plus, while the state increased in some areas, it cut in other areas, she said.

“It’s a great move politically” to say the state is increasing money, Constantine said. “But they’re not disclosing the full picture. We’re getting far less for special education.”

The recommended school budget now heads to the City Council. Details of the school spending plan will be delivered to councilors this month.

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