LEWISTON — After hearing an overview of the proposed Lewiston school budget Monday night, Lewiston City Councilors showed little reaction to the increased spending or how local property taxes would go up about 6 percent so the city will qualify for a 17.4 percent increase in state funding.

The proposed $83.2 million budget means taxes on a property valued at $150,000 would increase about $85.

The significant increase in state funding is happening because lawmakers last summer boosted how much the state spends on education in a year. It also did not implement a voter-passed referendum to raise taxes for education on those whose annual income exceeds $200,000.

This year, Lewiston is receiving about $9.1 million more from the state, a total of $61.7 million, which includes $3.3 million for the new elementary school now under construction.

To get all of the state money, local taxpayers have to spend a minimum local share for education, which this year is collectively $1.2 million more. If the higher amount by local taxpayers is not spent, Lewiston will lose about $3 state dollars for every $1 the city under-spends, Webster explained.

City Administrator Ed Barrett asked if the proposed school budget – which would add 67 positions in two years – is passed, would it be sustainable in future years when money from the state only covers inflation?

“Or will we have overextended ourselves?” Barrett asked.

“I believe what we have in this budget is sustainable,” Webster answered. “Lewiston will likely continue to get, however small, an increase in the state pie because even though our student enrollment growth is leveling off, the rest of the state is losing population.”

Webster said he does not expect the type of increases “we’ve had the last couple of years, because that would not be sustainable.”

Next year there won’t be a big expense for building the new school, which is covered by the state increase. There’s talk about the performing arts building at the high school, “but that’s not going to be here a year from now.”

Local taxes would not go up as much next year in order to get all the state money. 

But there will be continued pressure with reducing class sizes and students showing up “needier than ever before” who struggle to have success in school. There did not used to be social workers in schools, Webster said. Also the trend of more special ed students will continue, Webster predicted. In this year’s budget, 38 of the new positions are special ed.

But while those pressures will not go away, Webster expects future school budget proposals will continue to represent the minimum local spending required by the state.

Parent Shanna Cox, the only member of the public to attend in the audience of two, expressed concern that the public never gets to decide on anything beyond the minimum local spending.

She would like to see more done for Lewiston students which would help local economic development, Cox said. To get better student success “versus the minimum,” she asked how much it would take.

Webster said school principals’ spending requests exceeded $2.5 million more than the budget, which would increase positions by about 100 instead of 67.

As a taxpayer Cox said she’d be happy to pay more taxes “if it means my kids have a brighter future.”

Webster agreed his budget does not meet all needs, but he balances the needs of students with the community’s ability to pay.

In his eight years of building school budgets, the message he has received from the City Council and taxpayers is keep spending in check, Webster said. During the annual referendum when the public votes on the school budget, a nonbinding question asks whether the budget is too high or too low.

“Invariably there are more ‘too high’ answers than ‘too low,'” Webster said. If he noticed more voters indicating the budget is too low, Webster said he would consider a larger budget.

The school budget referendum, when the public has the final say, is May 8.

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Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster, center, answers questions during the budget presentation with the City Council Monday evening. To Webster’s right is School Committee Chairman Francis Gagnon and City Councilor Kristen Cloutier. To Webster’s left is School Committee member Tanya Estabrook. (Bonnie Washuk/Sun Journal)

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