AUBURN — A last-minute change of heart by Councilor Mike Farrell convinced councilors to swap a deep $2.5 million cut in the school budget for more modest cuts that would preserve state aid.
Councilors set the school budget at $34.3 million and asked school officials to make up the difference with cuts or by using their fund balance.
Farrell proposed giving the School Department a $34.3 million budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year. His proposal would have used $1.25 million of the School Department's $1.8 million rainy day fund balance to reduce property taxes. That meant the schools would have been unable to stay open if state aid is interrupted, according to city Finance Director Tracy Roy.
That doomed the plan, and it failed by a 3-4 vote. Councilors Belinda Gerry, Dan Herrick, Ray Berube and Eric Samson voted against the decision to rescind the vote. Samson said he was concerned about using the school's fund balances.
The next proposal preserved the $34.3 million budget, but removed the fund balance cuts. School officials will have to either cut that balance themselves or trim department budgets.
That's the number that will go to councilors for a formal vote on May 9. If councilors approve it at that meeting, it will go to a public referendum on May 17.
Councilors voted last week to have the School Department cut $2.5 million from its proposed budget. School officials said those cuts would trigger cuts in state aid leading to a 5.94 percent budget decrease for school operations compared to the current budget.
Monday's final vote came after midnight, after a long night of pressure on councilors from all sides, urging them to reconsider the $2.5 million cut. Councilors heard testimony from school officials, residents and property tax groups during a workshop and later at an extended public session.
"I was just as frustrated as everyone when the School Committee did not send a smaller budget to the council, especially when it was clear a 5 percent increase would not work," said Melissa Sundell of E. Bates Street. "I was frustrated when they brought out the iPads. But I am really frustrated with a councilor's decision to punish the entire school system."
According to Auburn meeting rules, councilors can only reconsider a previous decision if one of the councilors on the winning side is willing to bring it back — Councilors Belinda Gerry, Farrell, Dan Herrick and Ray Berube.
Herrick, speaking before the first argument had been made, said he was unwilling to change.
"I'd rather see it go to the voters," Herrick said. "Rather than try to influence me tonight, go to the polls on May 17. Give the council some sort of direction they can use."
The did try, however. Ron Potvin, speaking for the Small Property Owners of Auburn, suggested councilors adopt the latest proposal from the School Department.
Under that proposal, the school budget would increase by $717,517, from $34.2 million this year to $34.9 million in the proposed budget. Auburn would get its full share of state education funding — $18.7 million — and the school would use $1.04 million from fund balances. Property taxes would not increase under that proposal.
"The majority of taxpayers we speak for were shocked and dismayed by your budget cuts," Potvin said. "People want something that is reasonable and the $2.5 million in cuts goes beyond reasonable."
Councilors even voted to extend the open session, normally limited to 45 minutes, to let everyone speak. Councilors Gerry, Farrell, Herrick and Berube voted to hold a special discussion on the school budget, calling a Leeds resident, Ron Clarke, to testify. Clarke, who said he has sat on boards of finance in several towns in Connecticut, called the school budget deceitful and accused School Superintendent Tom Morrill of lying to councilors.
Councilor Bob Hayes challenged Clarke's credentials, as did several Auburn residents sitting in the audience. But Councilor Farrell said he felt Clarke made good points about school funding and deserved to be heard.
Councilors sat Clarke at a table in front of the meeting, alongside Morrill, school Business Manager Jude Cyr and School Committee Chairman David Das.
School officials were able to refute Clarke's points, and Hayes criticized him for not suggesting specific numbers that could be cut.
For example, Clarke criticized Auburn for not funding vocational high school classes. Das said that, per state rules, Auburn sends students to the Lewiston Regional Technical Center for vocational classes.
Councilors were not impressed.
"This has been the most ridiculous exercise I think I've ever seen, and I've been involved in a lot of ridiculous things on the City Council," Councilor Eric Samson said. "What this did prove to me was that the school funding formula is very complex. It's not as simple as you make it seem."
Even Farrell said he didn't need to hear any more from Clarke.
"I didn't learn anything," he said.