AUBURN — Councilors and school officials foreshadowed an emotional showdown Monday night, sparring over the school department's proposed 5.2 percent budget increase.
"I want to do what's right for the kids and I believe in their education, but my hands are tied," said Auburn City Councilor Belinda Gerry. "I wish you had come to us with a lower budget that made changes gradually, in stages because we cannot give you what you request."
The evening included a presentation by school officials explaining how they hope to modernize Auburn's education system. Three councilors left the meeting, one at a time — first Ward 1's Mike Farrell, then Ward 3's Dan Herrick and finally Ward 5's Ray Berube.
Herrick said he saw little value in the district's presentation, and he wanted to discuss numbers and not philosophy. And Berube said the three watched the presentation via the council chamber's closed circuit television in a back office.
"We didn't miss a thing," Berube said.
That didn't stop school officials and their supporters from criticizing the three.
"I'm very upset that these three people didn't give us the decency of just listening," said School Committee Member Francois Bussiere.
Aho presented his draft budget to councilors last week. The municipal side calls for a $983,004 increase in spending combined with a $475,768 reduction in non-property tax revenues. Combined, the city-side of the proposed budget would need an additional $1.5 million from property taxes.
Monday, councilors reviewed the school-side of the budget. School officials have requested a $1.8 million increase in costs combined with a $165,999 reduction in non-property tax revenue. Combined, the schools would need an additional $1.9 million from property taxes.
The two increases — and a $33,209 increase in Androscoggin County's share of Auburn property taxes — call for $3.2 million more from property taxes. That amounts to an increase of $1.78 per $1,000 of value increase in property taxes. That's an increase of about $258 for a $145,000 home.
For the schools, proposed spending increases include adding 16.5 positions district-wide — including a Somali school liaison, a school nurse and four reading teachers — to staff a summer school program. It also includes $90,000 each at Auburn Middle School and Edward Little High School to update technology, curriculum and improve learning.
School Superintendent Tom Morrill said the budget is necessary to transform Auburn's education system into a modern one using 21st century technology and using 21st century ideas. The department has hired a coordinator to direct a "multiple path learning project" at the high school. That would let the school offer curriculum that is specific to each student.
But Councilor Herrick said he wanted to focus on the budget numbers and the proposed budget increase and complained that school officials had not provided a printed version of the budget — even though it has been available online.
"Without a printed version, I won't support any school budget," Herrick said.
And Herrick said he would not support the budget as it stands now.
"I'll tell you what I want to do," Herrick said. "I want to give a reduction to the Auburn school system by $2.5 million."
Councilors also discuss proposed budgets for Public Works, engineering and Parks and Recreation.
Budget discussions are scheduled to continue at 5:30 p.m. March 28 with a review of Planning and Permitting, Human Resources and the city's salary and fringe benefit spending.