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.
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.”