AUBURN — Mayor Jason Levesque used a close straw vote on Monday to direct the School Committee to reduce its proposed fiscal 2018-19 budget. 

The decision came during a budget workshop between city and school officials in which City Manager Peter Crichton and Superintendent of Schools Katy Grondin presented their respective budgets. 

A number of councilors said they would not support the proposed school budget.

Councilor Belinda Gerry said she would not support the municipal budget as it stands. 

As a result, Levesque used a 3-2-2 straw vote to direct the School Committee to come back to the City Council with a budget that has a zero percent impact to the property tax rate. The School Department’s proposed budget represents a 1.89 percent increase. 

However, Grondin said after the meeting that the vote represented a mixed message from the council, and that school officials would work to find a compromise budget. 

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Councilors in favor, as well as Levesque, said the School Committee should have used unexpected savings in health insurance costs to lower the impact to taxpayers rather than propose new positions.  

The difference would be about $400,000, the mayor said. 

“If you want council support, we’re going to hold you to a default status of (a) zero increase,” Levesque said.

He said has been “a myriad of questions” from the public concerning the School Department’s handling of proficiency based learning, instructional coaches and more. However, the council was split on what direction to give.

Councilors Gerry, Leroy Walker and Andrew Titus voted in favor on the straw vote, while Councilors Holly Lasagna and Bob Hayes were opposed. Councilors Alfreda Fournier and David Young abstained.

The combined municipal and school budget proposed for fiscal 2018-19 is $87.4 million, or a tax increase of 3.49 percent. 

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For a home valued at $150,000, the proposed budget would add roughly $117 to next year’s tax bill. For a home valued at $200,000, it would add $156. 

“When you get a windfall like that, you need to put that toward savings,” Titus said. 

Positions added to the budget for next year include one new teacher each at Sherwood Heights, Park Avenue, Fairview and Auburn Middle and Edward Little High schools. The total is $383,420.

There is also roughly $300,000 for two part-time guidance counselors, two interventionists and one instructional coach. 

Levesque, Walker and Gerry said they had recently received calls from multiple constituents with concerns about budget increases, as well as any positions that would support proficiency-based learning. The system has come under increased scrutiny in Auburn, as well as other Maine districts.

“Personally, in listening to taxpayers, I can’t support this budget. I personally want to see a zero impact,” Walker said.

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School officials, including Grondin, said the added positions are going directly to support students, and would reduce class sizes. 

Councilor Fournier said constituents have told her they can’t keep up with high taxes, but said in her experience, the class sizes proposed with the new positions,  about 20 students per teacher, “are excellent numbers.”

Hayes argued that the School Department plays an important role in attracting young families to a city, and compared the city’s proposed impact on the tax rate to the School Department’s. 

“It is relative,” he said. The city’s proposed tax increase is 4.3 percent. 

Grondin told councilors that the School Department did not receive any direction from the council during its first joint budget meeting. 

School Committee Chairman Tom Kendall said the committee’s ultimate interest is students. Rebutting a previous comment from Levesque about a lack of planning, he said the committee came to the city with a plan to add positions to help students. 

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“To say we don’t have plan is absolutely inaccurate,” he said.

Broken down, the proposed municipal budget is $43.4 million, an increase of $1.5 million, while the school budget is $43.99 million, an increase of $2.2 million from this year. 

However, the School Department is expecting a $1.9 million increase in state subsidy, offsetting much of the increase. 

The majority of the School Department’s expenses – $32.9 million – are for salaries and benefits. 

In his presentation materials, Crichton said his goal was to “strike a careful balance between the needs of the departments with the importance of having as minimal an impact on the taxpayer as possible.” 

He said, “All of us involved, from department heads to myself, we’re all trying to balance it. We understand it, and we try to strike that balance, which isn’t always an easy thing to do. 

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Much of the increased expenses on the city side, Crichton said, come from salaries and benefits. He said the city’s health insurance rates went up 16 percent, meaning the city will focus on wellness programs. He said drafting a new strategic plan, which has already begun, will help spur economic development.

In next year’s budget there is also $25,000 for a compensation study, which Crichton originally proposed last year after employees from Auburn Public Services picketed outside Auburn Hall. 

Crichton also announced two organizational changes. The departments of Recreation, the Norway Savings Bank Arena and the Ingersoll Turf Facility will be one department known as the Recreation and Sports Facility Department, and the Auburn Police Activities League Center will become part of the Recreation Department. 

The budget includes $9.9 million in capital spending, the majority going toward Public Services equipment and paving projects, economic and community development projects and school maintenance. 

A joint resolution urging the city manager and superintendent of schools to collaborate to find savings in the budget received unanimous support from the City Council on April 10. A resolution has no binding impact, but is meant as an official statement of policy. 

The language of the resolution directs city and school staff “to consider, and when appropriate, develop a plan to collaborate in order to achieve savings and (or) improved services that are consistent with Maine law.”

The first reading on the fiscal 2018-19 budget is Monday, June 4, with a final reading on June 18. 

The City Council and School Committee will hold another joint meeting May 14, when the City Council is set to vote on the school budget.

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