LEWISTON — Voters passed a school budget Tuesday that will not raise property taxes and, according to educators, will help create programs to foster students' success.
"I'm very pleased and gratified the voters in Lewiston voted to support the school budget for the coming year," Superintendent Bill Webster said Tuesday night. "This is encouraging and will allow us to meet the needs of Lewiston students within the financial resources the city has available."
Webster proposed a $54.5 million budget, up 3.8 percent from this year's $52.5 million. Of the $54.5 million, $38.6 million is from state aid, and $15.9 million is from city taxpayers.
Voter turnout Tuesday was light, as is common in school budget referendums. Lewiston City Clerk Kathy Montejo said voter turnout was even lower than 2011, just 1.5 percent, with 251 of the 348 people who cast their ballots voting yes, while 97 turned the referendum down.
Last year, 1.7 percent of Lewiston voters voted in the school budget referendum, or about 500 out of 24,000 voters. As of 6 p.m., only 300 residents had voted, Montejo said.
Among them was Jackie Pare, who voted yes. “I want the budget to pass. I think it's a fair budget. We need to support our schools.”
Elizabeth Herrick voted no, “because I think they can always sharpen their pencils a little more. I want to see a lower budget, more efficiency. It does not mean I'm anti-education. Education is one of the most important things we do."
Herrick said those who take adult education classes should pay more, excluding those working to complete their high school education. “I don't think taxpayers should be footing the bill for fluffier courses.”
She also took issue with a voter handout that described budget cost centers, specifically lines that described as “other.” Under instruction, “we've got regular education, vocational, special ed and adult education, then $766,308 for 'other.' What's 'other'? That's a lot of money.”
The budget will not increase property taxes because the city is receiving more money from the state for education, in part because of Lewiston's growing enrollment.
Webster said the city's increase in valuations this past year also helped both the city and the schools, while keeping taxes for existing properties the same for residents because the tax rate did not change.
"We're fortunate in Lewiston that total city valuation went up," Webster said. "So that increase is able to fund modest and needed increases in both the city side and the school side."
Last month when the School Committee voted for the budget, Chairman Tom Shannon said he was pleased the budget provides more for students, which should boost the number of students who graduate from high school. Lewiston has among the lowest four-year high school completion rates in Maine.
More students will be helped by expanding Lewiston Academy and other alternative high school programs, creating a middle school alternative program and in-house suspension programs at Longley Elementary and the Lewiston Middle School. Instead of kicking students out of school for bad behavior, they'll continue school work in contained classrooms while working on re-entry plans. “We did some good work,” Shannon said.
It's important for this year that the school budget not raise property taxes, Shannon said.
Superintendent Webster said he liked that the budget pilots or expands programs creating more pathways for success for more students. More in-school suspensions, alternative programs and prekindergarten will help meet the needs of students “that we haven't before.”
The budget creates 16 positions, half for new programs, half to support a growing number of students. Enrollment is expected to grow from 5,045 to 5,232 next year, an additional 187 students.