Proposed Lewiston school budget would hike taxes 8.4 percent

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Learning in Lewiston. Sarah Cummings works with 8-year-old Nafisa Tasnia during a third-grade writing lesson at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston on Tuesday. Lewiston's proposed school budget will be unveiled tonight during a Lewiston School Committee meeting at 6:45 p.m. at the Dingley Building.

LEWISTON — A 1930 Lewiston Middle School that's about to undergo major improvements — hiring more teachers, giving teachers raises and continuing programs that have helped more students graduate — is among the items in Superintendent Bill Webster's budget proposal.

Lewiston school budget facts, highlights

Current budget: $54.5 million

Proposed new budget: $58.5 million

Local taxpayer share: Current budget, $16.3 million; proposed taxpayer share, $18.02 million

State share: Current budget, $36.4 million; state share for proposed budget, $38.6 million

Impact on Lewiston property taxes: 8.4 percent increase; annual tax bill for a $150,000 valued home would increase $113 next year.

Big reasons for the higher budget: More teachers, more classrooms to meet growing number of students, major renovation to Lewiston Middle School and raises for teachers

Lewiston elementary classroom sizes average 23. Lewiston spends $8,515 per pupil; state average per pupil is $9,424.

Student enrollment: Expected to grow 150 students in the next year, from 5,139 to 5,323.

What now? Lewiston School Committee budget meeting, 6:45 p.m. March 6, Dingley Building. Other budget meetings: March 11, 13, 18, 20 and 25. Committee scheduled to vote on budget April 8; City Council, on May 7; voters in referendum, on May 21.

For more information: www.lewiston.k12.me.us/~lewschdept/

So is a hefty increase to property taxpayers.

The budget will be unveiled Wednesday during the Lewiston School Committee's first budget meeting.

Webster is proposing a $58.5 million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, an increase from the current $54.5 million budget.

That would hike property taxes 8.4 percent. For someone with a home valued at $150,000, that would mean an annual tax increase of about $113. Of that, about $60 would be earmarked to pay for the improved middle school. Those increases aren't counting the city side of the budget.

That kind of tax increase is significant, especially for Lewiston, where officials often pass budgets that don't hike property taxes. Webster acknowledged that his proposal “will raise eyebrows.” He expects there'll be cuts.

“The city of Lewiston has some decisions to make,” Webster said. “We have a series of budget meetings coming up. I encourage public participation. We've got to decide what we're going to continue doing to meet our mission of our schools, what we're going to cut in order to have a program we can afford.”

Part of the problem, Webster said, is for five years, Lewiston's property taxes for the schools have been the same. “We're at a point it's time to pay the piper,” Webster said.

Meanwhile, changes in state funding means less money to schools.

For the first time, districts will have to pay for contributions toward teachers' retirements, something the state has done, which means a bill of $259,000. Add to that an estimated $400,000 in new costs, because the state has shifted Medicaid expenses for special ed students, Webster said.

Still, while many districts are getting less from the state, Lewiston is getting more because the city's property values fell and student population grew. Out of the $54.5 million budget last year, Lewiston received $36.5 million in state aid. This year, it's projected to be $38.6 million.

Raises, improved middle school, hiring more teachers

Webster's budget pays for teachers' raises, as recently approved by the teachers union and school committee. The three-year contract gives teachers raises of anywhere from 2 to 8 percent, which could cost $1 million next year if no teachers retire. Based on historic numbers of retiring teachers, the contract costs could end up at $600,000, Webster said.

Raises were needed, he said. "Last year, Lewiston lost 15 good teachers to other districts" because of pay, Webster said. The contract is not competitive with the Portland area, but it is with the Auburn-Lisbon area, Webster said.

He's also proposing spending some $777,000 to add 18 new positions to the budget, most of which are teachers or ed techs.

To reduce elementary classes from 23 to 22 students, Webster would install a portable classroom at Martel and hire a new teacher. He'd hire two new teachers at McMahon, a math teacher at the middle school and a technology assistant and a fourth music teacher for the elementary schools.

McMahon would get more custodial and secretarial help to help handle a new school wing that will open this fall.

In special education, which is also seeing enrollment growth, he'd add five new positions. He'd also add a life skills teacher and two life skills ed techs at Farwell, along with a resource room teacher and an ed tech at McMahon.

Longley Elementary's three-year federal turnaround grant will expire next year. Two positions, an ed tech and a guidance counselor, would be covered by the school budget.

Work on a major $9.1 million renovation to the Lewiston Middle School, as approved by referendum last July, will begin this summer. That project is being paid entirely by local taxpayers, since state construction money was not available.

The first year of the 20-year loan will be $740,000, higher than expected because of the way the city is borrowing money. Initially, the city planned to borrow $4 million for one phase, and $5 million for another. After determining interest rates were favorable, the city borrowed all $9.1 million in one bond, which means the first year's payment will be $740,000 instead of $350,000. The annual payment will go down as the loan matures, Webster said.

Overall, if the proposed budget is too high for taxpayers, Webster has identified cuts.

“We could eliminate some of these new teaching positions, and in so doing, increase class sizes,” Webster said. One million dollars could be saved by increasing class sizes to 30. “I would not recommend it.”

A more realistic cut may be $40,000 by changing the time when one elementary school begins the day, from 8:45 a.m. to 8 a.m. That would allow one bus to be eliminated.

That isn't a big savings, Webster acknowledged. “I think it's going to be a lot of things like that.”

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Comments

Joe Morin's picture

Quick Question

If passed and the renovations are made to the middle school, will the budget & property taxes decrease next year or the year after when improvements are finished??? P.S. I'm now paying $2.25 at the the temporary toll in Gray.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

The City of Lewiston is a

The City of Lewiston is a great example of why the School Budget should no longer be funded on the backs of property owners.
The school population continues to increase dramatically as it has been doing for the past several years. It is no secret that immigrants are likely a major cause of this increase. It is fairly safe to assume that the majority of households in the immigrant community do not own the properties in which they reside, thereby contributing little or nothing to the tax structure that supports the School Department's budget. Add to these the non-immigrant families who rent their domiciles rather than own, thereby paying no property taxes, but may be sending as many as four or five children to school on a given day, and it isn't very hard to see that the School Budget wagon is being pulled by far fewer people than there are riding it.
On the other side of the coin, many of the property owners who pay the taxes which support this School Budget have no children or have had none in school for several years, but are required to continue supporting the School Dept., anyway. Many of these folks are retired and on fixed incomes, and cannot afford to have their taxes increased in order to support a commodity from which they derive very little benefit.
Ironically, nowhere in the article is there any mention of cutting back on some of the school athletic programs in order to keep the budget manageable. Again, many of the people paying the taxes to support this school budget have no kids in school nor any participating in any of the sports activities.
There has to be a better way of funding the School Dept. by doing it solely on the backs of property owners. The people need to tell the School Dept. how much money they're going to get; not a few bureaucrats at City Hall.

Joe Morin's picture

True story Paul

I would like to add that said homeowners that are on fixed incomes are coming off of a season where home heating oil was at an all time high. If I were to apply a home heating surcharge or even perhaps a tax increase surcharge to my tenants I would be a tyrant! That doesn't even speak of the increased costs to maintain my personal home. I am not retired, but too am on a fixed income, it's called a salary. I get paid the same amount every two weeks. I don't receive an automatic cola raise but for those that do, it's not keeping up with the increase of federal & municipal taxes, Oil, food...

GARY SAVARD's picture

Very well stated, Paul.

Very well stated, Paul.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

Thank you, Gary.

Thank you, Gary.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

18 new teachers and ed techs?

18 new teachers and ed techs? Looks like Mr. Webster could use a refresher course in Economics 101. The part about how to properly manage other people's money might be of particular interest to him.

Wilma Turcotte's picture

Tax Hike

Where is all the lottery money that was suppose to go for education? Kids don't learn more cause they have carpet and all the latest thing going. We had oiled floors, no gym and none of the latest things going. We had kids that didn't learn as fast as others and somehow they were given the help they needed and did well. Until recently we didn't have to pay interpreters in the schools, libraries, hospitals, doctors offices and everywhere in between. Some how those that immigrated to this country took it upon themselves to learn the ways here and the language. There was no red carpet and it seemed to have worked out just fine. If you want to learn you can but as long as everything is handed to you on a silver platter that won't and isn't happening.

Joe Morin's picture

Valid point Wilma

Necessity is the mother of all invention. Because much like water, humans follow the path of least resistance.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

Excellent post, Wilma. Well

Excellent post, Wilma. Well stated.

GARY SAVARD's picture

With so many people barely

With so many people barely getting by, such as seniors faced with the ever shrinking buying power of their retirement checks and working families faced with higher grocery and utility costs, this increase will be devastating. Lewiston has a constantly expanding student population, yet a basically stagnant overall population, which means that cost increases aren't being spread evenly, but instead are being piled on to the same or even a lower number of taxpayers. Maybe the School Department should look into adult education classes that focus on the cost of raising a child to adulthood. Then again, when taxpayers foot the bill, who really cares?

Steven Chartier's picture

Budget Hike

The picture tells it all.

JOHN PAINTER's picture

Please explain what the picture says

It's not clear what you're trying to say, what exactly does the picture tell?

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

It does, indeed.

It does, indeed.

Zack Lenhert's picture

Care to expand on that

Care to expand on that thought? What "story" is this picture telling?... I believe I hear a dog whistle.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

Sure, you do. If you truly

Sure, you do. If you truly did not know what story the picture is telling, would you be asking that question?

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