LEWISTON — The City Council and a few taxpayers gave mixed reactions Monday night to a larger proposed school budget.

The majority of councilors said they’d support a larger budget. A few qualified that by saying they’ll first need to be convinced by teachers that it’s necessary.

The current fiscal year budget is $64.7 million.

Superintendent Bill Webster is proposing a $68.8 million spending plan for 2016-17, which would boost local property taxes 2.2 percent. For a home valued at $150,000, the annual increase could be about $33.

Much of the increase is coming from new students, many special education students and English Language Learners. To teach more students, Lewiston needs:

• 45 new special education teachers or educational technicians;

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• eight new regular classroom teachers or ed techs; and

• four new ELL positions.

In the fall, Lewiston received a surge of 250 new students, 150 more than projected. The state will pay more money for more students, but it will take a year or two for that extra money to arrive, Webster said.

After a budget overview, School Committee Chairwoman Linda Scott asked city councilors for their reaction.

Councilors Kristen Cloutier, Isobelle Golden and Jim Lysen indicated support for a bigger budget. A strong school district is critical for a strong community and economic development, Cloutier said.

Lyson said he supports a reasonable budget that meets needs, and he’s tired of complaints about a growing student population. More is a good thing, he said.

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Lewiston is an older community, agewise, and more youth are needed to support baby boomers, Lyson said.

“We should be celebrating a bigger population,” he said. More students from immigrant families add richness to the community. “I welcome the new population.”

Councilor Shane Bouchard said he’s not in love with a tax increase, but he’d support a 2.2 percent increase if he hears from teachers that it’s necessary.

“I have no tolerance for any more,” Bouchard said. “I hope to have a zero percent increase (counting the municipal budget) when it’s all said and done.”

Councilor Michael Lachance expressed concerns that meeting the needs of special needs students is taking away from regular students. He said a 2.2 percent hike on taxes “should be our baseline” but that money must be spent wisely.

“What we do with that matters,” he said.

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Taxes have been going up, year after year.

“That isn’t OK,” Lachance said. He said he hears from people who can’t afford to pay more.

City Councilor Timothy Lajoie opposed the proposed budget.

“When I look at the budget increase, I don’t like it,” Lajoie said. “You have to do better than that. People have only so much money. I expect more work and scrutiny.”

Several residents also expressed their opinions on a bigger budget.

Cynthia Robbins, whose children are grown and her grandchildren don’t attend Lewiston schools, spoke for a smaller budget.

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“There was a surge of new children who moved to our city,” she said. “This was unpredicted. I would like to see that changed. Whoever it is that’s bringing these folks in they have an obligation to let us know, give us a few months heads up.”

Speaking of higher special education costs, Robbins asked, “What happens if we’re bad and say, ‘We’re not paying for this?'” Would the penalty be worse than not paying for services? she asked.

She was told it would be.

If taxes go up, it will hurt the elderly, the middle-aged middle class and young families with children who enroll their children in private schools, Robbins said. Higher taxes means people won’t buy Lewiston homes. “They end up in Sabattus and Lisbon and places like that,” she said.

Tina Hutchinson spoke in favor of a larger budget, saying Lewiston is growing. Young families will not move to Lewiston if schools have class sizes of 25 to 30 students, she said.

To remain attractive to potential residents and businesses, the city needs many pieces of the puzzle to come together — from hospital and banking to municipal services and good schools, Hutchinson said.

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“At some point, Lewiston must address the increasing costs of special ed costs,” Hutchinson said. “Your call councilors. Step up or pass the buck.”

She added, “It’s tough to build a better school system for Lewiston when our only tool is scissors.”

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What’s next?

The Lewiston School Committee will vote on a budget recommendation in April, followed by a City Council vote.

The public will vote on the school budget at Longley Elementary School on May 10.

The budget takes effect July 1.


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