AUBURN — City councilors listened to a school budget presentation Wednesday without complaining about iPads or rising property taxes, in sharp contrast to last year.
In fact, Josh Shea, new to the council this year, complained that taxpayers aren't spending enough compared to other districts.
Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin agreed, saying Auburn spends $1.7 million below what the state recommends as the minimum. “We're not meeting the basic model,” she said.
“Why didn't you come to us?” Shea asked, which provoked chuckles from School Board members who fought with councilors last year for more money.
“Where were you?” Grondin said, to more laughter.
In a budget workshop with the Auburn School Committee, several councilors asked about programs that would provide more help for students.
Mayor Jonathan Labonte asked how the school budget would help advanced students. Councilor Mary Lafontaine said she'd like to see prekindergarten classes expanded.
More pre-K classes and other needs, such as more summer school and a cultural broker for immigrant students, didn't make it in the budget, Grondin said. She's recommending what she calls a maintenance budget, which would increase property taxes about 8 percent.
If passed, the school budget would increase property taxes by $97.50 on a home valued at $150,000.
The proposed budget would go from the current $34.7 million to $36.3 million, a $1.6 million increase. A major part of that increase, $1.3 million, would cover unavoidable costs such as higher negotiated salaries, health care and energy costs, Grondin said.
The remaining $300,000 would cover two new buses, a speech teacher at Walton, updating surveillance security cameras at schools, an ed tech for Auburn's English language learner immigrant students and iPad tablet computers for kindergarten students.
The only program that would be expanded would be $108,985 for iPads, which would mean next year both kindergarten and first-grade students would have them. That's part of Auburn's effort to individualize learning to the needs of every child.
Shea was surprised by numbers that showed Auburn spent less on education than the state average and Lewiston, Augusta, Sanford, Biddeford, Brunswick and South Portland. In 2010-11, the average amount school districts spent per pupil was $9,623, compared to Auburn's $8,050.
Shea said if he lived in another city or state and reviewed those numbers, “I'd think, 'My God, they do not care about education in Auburn! There's no way I'd move my family there!'”
At some point, Shea said, Auburn has to “say 'We're done toeing this no-new-taxes line. It's time to step up for the kids.'”
Councilor Belinda Gerry cautioned it's not known how much can be given to schools. She wasn't happy with cutting the school budget last year, Gerry said, but called it necessary “to make all the pieces fit so that homeowners can afford to live here.” Passing a budget is “a balancing act,” she said.
Other districts that spend more have test scores “that aren't nearly as good as ours. It's not how much money you throw at education. It's how education is taught,” she said.
In answer to Shea's question as to whether other districts have better schools because they spend more, Grondin said she doesn't know how they spend their dollars. “We are very committed to spending our dollars on people. Could we use more people? Yes.”
Holding the line year after year has meant larger class sizes, Grondin said. Because of unavoidable increases, if her proposed budget is cut $500,000, “it's going to be higher class sizes again.”
A public hearing on Auburn's proposed school budget will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 4, at Auburn Hall.
The School Committee and City Council will vote on the budget April 11 and 12. The budget is scheduled to go before voters in a public referendum May 8.