Task for Auburn schools now to fit into city budget

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AUBURN — A last-minute City Council decision on the school budget Monday was a step in the right direction, school officials said Tuesday, but they still have their work cut out for them.

School Superintendent Tom Morrill said school officials now need to figure out how to spend the $34.3 million approved by the City Council.

“We now need to go back to the drawing board to see what cuts can be made and what programs can be preserved,” Morrill said Tuesday. “That will be the School Committee’s job, to see if they can preserve some degree of quality education.”

Councilors voted to approve a $34.3 million budget for the schools at the end of a long meeting Monday night.

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School officials will meet at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Auburn Hall to discuss how that budget will be distributed among the schools.

They’ll give those details to the city clerk by Thursday, enough time to get them to councilors over the weekend and on their agenda Monday.

Councilors are scheduled to have at least one more vote on the school budget at that meeting before the matter goes to voters for a May 17 referendum.

The school budget has been a long time coming this year. School officials initially presented a plan calling for 5.2 percent spending increase, including $926,000 more from property taxes.

Councilors balked, saying it was wrong for the school to ask for higher taxes during a down economy, when most of Maine is trimming budgets. Two days later, school officials unveiled plans to spend $200,000 to give iPad 2 tablet computers to all incoming kindergarten students next year.

It led to a backlash and criticisms from councilors and parents, culminating in a council directive on April 25 to trim $2.5 million from their proposed budget.

Morrill said that budget would have reduced property taxes to $13.1 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year, a $1.6 million property cut compared to the current budget. Those reduced property taxes also would have triggered a $1.3 million state funding penalty, meaning school officials needed to trim $3.8 million from the proposed budget.

“Cuts that deep would have meant serious reductions in athletics, in co-curricular activities,” Morrill said. Sports, music and other programs would have to be considered.

School officials offered a compromise before Monday’s council meeting, proposing a $181,000 reduction in property taxes.

“We thought that’s what councilors wanted, ” Morrill said. “We offered a plan with zero impact on the tax rate. We thought it was a reasonable proposal.”

But problems between councilors and school officials could be deeper than just financial. At Monday’s meeting, Councilor Ray Berube referred to conflicts he’s had with school officials going back 30 years. And Councilor Mike Farrell told Morrill and School Committee Chairman David Das he would recommend approving the school’s original 5.2 percent increase and $900,000 property tax increase if it came with letters of resignation from Morrill, Das and every member of the School Committee.

“You have no credibility with me, and I don’t want you to have credibility with me,” he said. “Honestly, it’s such a damaged relationship and I want to get past it. That’s why I need your resignation, because we need change. My change comes in November, because I’m not running again.”

The controversial iPad program has been downscaled slightly, but not abandoned. A smaller pilot program begins in the next few weeks, with the tablet computers being made available to five classrooms. School officials will look at that program to see if it’s worth continuing.

The pilot will cost the School Department $50,000.

“Right now, we really want to get these things into the hands of some kindergartners and look at the apps and see their engagement,” Morrill said. “It won’t be all they do. They’ll still do all the things students do, working on their fine and gross motor skills. But we will be very anxious to see the results here.”

staylor@sunjournal.com

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