AUBURN — The City Council said it would not support a 5.1 percent increase in the school budget, but the School Committee chairman said Wednesday the committee stands behind its $35.92 million budget.
“We came to a consensus on the budget some time ago,” Chairman David Das said. "(The budget addresses issues) we've been grappling with for a year and a half now. It would pay for solid programs to improve education at all levels. As a committee, we saw this as the way to improve education and make progress.”
It's too early to propose a smaller school budget, Das said. “There's still a number of steps” in the budget process. One is listening to what the public says during the April 4 public hearing at Auburn Hall.
If the School Committee and council are unable to agree on spending, it's the council that has the final say.
According to state law, the budget amount decided by voters May 10 will be set by the council, said Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin.
On Monday night, the School Committee presented the budget to the City Council. Three councilors opposed to the increase, Mike Farrell of Ward 1, Dan Herrick of Ward 3 and Raymond Berube of Ward 5, didn't like what they were hearing and walked out.
Councilor Belinda Gerry said she was opposed to the higher budget. On Wednesday, a fifth councilor, David Young, said he would not approve a budget with a 5 percent hike. That's too high, he said, especially for people on fixed incomes. “We need to be mindful of that.”
Young, the mayor's representative on the School Committee, said it would be irresponsible of the council to pass the budget, knowing it would likely be rejected by voters.
Das said Wednesday it was unfortunate that three councilors walked out of the presentation.
“I can't speak to their motives," he said. During the presentation, most councilors didn't say much, Das said. Gerry and Eric Samson asked some questions. “We responded,” but there wasn't substantive discussion, he said.
Das said he thought the committee "presented a good budget. It wasn't just a list of numbers, but reasons why we wanted the budget.” The committee sought to show how education would be improved through changes in how literacy is taught to elementary students; an expeditionary (more relevant, community-based) learning program at the middle school; and new ways of teaching using technology at the high school.
“What we're emphasizing is what really matters most as far as education,” Auburn Superintendent Tom Morrill said Wednesday. Auburn schools were “designed for a different era. We need to seriously reconsider the delivery of instruction.”
Early estimates showed the budget would raise property taxes by between $55 and $147 a year on an average Auburn house valued at $160,000.
Councilors also were unhappy that they were not given hard copies of the budget document, which is available online.
The School Department was trying to do the right thing environmentally and financially by not printing paper versions, Das said. “We thought that was the best way to go,” he said, adding that all School Committee members work with the budget online.
Morrill said councilors would be given an 11-page summary, which will appear on the School Department's Web page.