Lewiston council mostly quiet on school budget

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LEWISTON — Members of the City Council were relatively mum during a presentation of the proposed $82.9 million school budget Tuesday, as the May 8 budget referendum draws closer. 

However, one councilor — Zachary Pettengill — said he would not be voting in favor of the spending plan when the council takes up the budget May 1, one week before the referendum.

During a workshop Tuesday with school officials, Pettengill said he had “tremendous concerns” about the proposed budget. He said Lewiston appears to be spending a lot of money on students but isn’t seeing results. 

He cited the district’s graduation rates, which this year were considered good news after rising to 75 percent. Pettengill said in Bangor, a similar-sized district, the rate is 87 percent. 

“Across the board, we spend more than other districts,” he said, adding that taxpayers should expect better results when paying more money. 

The School Committee voted to send the budget on to the City Council last week. 

Superintendent Bill Webster defended the budget Tuesday, saying that it was unfair to compare Lewiston to Bangor, given the poverty rate in Lewiston. 

During his presentation to the council, he laid out the biggest budget drivers heading into next year. 

The overall spending plan is up 11.7 percent from this fiscal year, in part because of Connors Elementary School, which is under construction. The state is paying for the school, but the school represents 37 percent of the expense increase next year. Without the new school, the budget increase would be 7.1 percent. 

A taxpayer whose property is valued at $150,000, would pay about $81 more, not including the municipal and Androscoggin County assessments.

Much of the tax increase can be attributed to Lewiston receiving a substantial increase in state aid. But in order to receive the full amount of state funding, the local municipality is required to spend more. 

For each dollar spent locally, Lewiston receives $2.88 from the state. 

Heading into next year, Webster said, special education is adding a significant expense, which the district is legally required to provide. He said expenses have been going up roughly $2 million a year, and 36 of the 62 new positions included in next year’s budget are in special education. 

He said he believes Lewiston attracts families from the wider region based on its special education services. 

Alicia Rea, who serves as the council’s representative on the School Committee, said she supports the proposed budget. She said she “didn’t quite realize the extent of the social and emotional needs of students.” 

Mayor Shane Bouchard remained silent on the budget Tuesday, and City Administrator Ed Barrett said he didn’t expect the council to discuss the school budget further before it takes a vote May 1. 

Also discussed Tuesday was Lewiston’s decision not to join a regional service center with Auburn schools, Regional School Unit 16 in Poland and School Administrative District 52 in Turner. 

The state has been pushing for districts to form service centers as a way to share services, and state law requires schools to enter into service centers or lose state funding. For Lewiston, the decision means a loss of $200,000 this year and $400,000 next year.

Webster said the School Committee will reconsider its vote next week. 

Pettengill told the School Committee members who were present Tuesday not to reconsider. 

“It didn’t benefit our cities (to consolidate),” he said. “I don’t know why we think it would benefit our students.” 

Webster said he has been discussing options with Barrett should the School Committee reconsider. He said it’s possible the revenue received for entering the service center could go toward reducing the local tax rate.

The School Department will host an informational meeting on the budget at Geiger Elementary School on May 3.

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