Auburn School Committee told to rethink extra money

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AUBURN — Let’s try that again.

When the School Committee learned last month it received an additional $488,404 from the state budget, the solution seemed reasonably easy. The committee would use $200,000 to restore programs that had been cut and save the rest to offset next year’s taxes.

Then a letter came from Tom Desjardins, Maine’s acting education commissioner, and those ideas went out the window. Instead of resolving the matter of the extra money in short order, the School Committee is now looking at presenting its budget all over again at a referendum in the fall.

The letter from Desjardins was presented to committee at a workshop Wednesday night.

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“With the recent passage of the biennial budget, many school districts in Maine saw an increase in the amount of subsidy that they will receive from the state,” the letter begins. “We thought this would be a good time to explain some of the laws regarding how these additional funds can be used.

“While state law does allow school districts to use the additional funds to reduce the local property tax burden,” the letter continues, “keep in mind these funds were requested and allocated for the benefit of your local schools, not for some other purpose.

“Also,” the letter goes on, “while the law allows school districts to place these funds in a reserve account for use next year, this was not the use intended by the Legislature when it allocated additional funds for each of the next two years in the current biennial budget cycle.”

The letter sums up the issue now facing the School Committee: “If your school district intends to expend any of these funds in the coming school year, state law requires that a revised budget be drafted and then voted on in a local referendum in order to validate the new spending plan. Expending any of these funds without authorization through referendum is prohibited by state statute . . .”

Desjardins’ pronouncement was greeted with dismay and frustration at the Wednesday night workshop. Although it was agreed that the statue is open to interpretation in some areas, the School Committee is unlikely to challenge Desjardins’ decision in court. Convincing a court to rule against an education commissioner, even one serving in an acting capacity, is unlikely to be successful, Superintendent Katy Grondin said.

“His or her word,” Grondin told the others, “is going to have a lot of weight.”

The committee plans to address the matter further at their next meeting. A referendum would likely take place in November, during the regular election, unless a special election is called.

Meanwhile, the School Committee’s plans for the extra funds remain on hold. Previous plans had called for the restoration or partial restoration of several programs, including a K-12 instructional coach to help implement technology and customized learning ($64,000); an aspiration specialist to help more students get internships with area businesses and organizations, community service projects and early college experiences ($64,000); building budgets ($22,668); a program to help suspended students work with police personnel and stay focused on school ($22,826); and early college programs ($20,000).

Grondin said the School Committee will keep residents informed of the situation. Local taxes are not expected to be affected.

mlaflamme@sunjournal.com

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