From left to right, Auburn School Committee members Jenna Scrivner, Bonnie Hayes and Patricia Gautier listen to budget debate Wednesday night before the School Committee passed a budget with a 7-1 vote. Several members said they were treated poorly during “an alledged joint meeting” with the City Council, a meeting they said they weren’t allowed to talk. (Bonnie Washuk/Sun Journal)

AUBURN — The School Committee approved a budget Wednesday that reduces its impact on property taxes.

The vote came two days after three members of the City Council requested that school spending not require an increase to local taxes.

[RELATED COVERAGE: Auburn mayor stands by school budget cut request]

The budget now faces a City Council vote before going to Auburn voters June 12.

Auburn School Committee member Patricia Gautier was angry and “upset” after Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque said the City Council wants a school budget that had a zero impact on property taxes. “That’s draconian,” Gautier said Wednesday night, adding it would hurt students. She and six other School Committee members voted for a smaller school budget, which will be decided by voters on June 12. (Bonnie Washuk/Sun Journal)

The proposed budget, approved by the School Committee in a 7-1 vote, is $43.7 million, or 4.8 percent more than current spending. The only member who opposed was City Councilor Alfreda Fournier, who wanted a budget that raises taxes no more than 1.7 percent.

The budget approved by the School Committee would bring a 2.1 percent increase in property taxes. For a home valued at $150,000, it would mean an annual tax increase of $28.50.

The budget maintains programs, adds four new buses, adds five teachers to reduce class sizes and, as of Wednesday night, adds a half-time guidance counselor to two schools: Franklin, an alternative high school, and Fairview Elementary.

The budget would leave $700,000 in the School Committee’s rainy day fund, or the “fund balance,” to cover unexpected expenses that crop up in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

School Committee Chairman Tom Kendall described it as a “respectful and responsible” budget.

“It meets many of the needs the district has. It doesn’t meet all of the needs,” Kendall said. “But we’ve listened to the City Council. We’ve listened to the citizens. We feel we’ve responded appropriately. We’ve got a good budget.”

After meeting Monday with the City Council, school board members voted Wednesday to take out three positions they added last month: teachers to help with instruction and struggling students. Those positions were added after the School Committee learned that health insurance costs would increase $400,000 less than expected.

While they took out the three positions, several members expressed anger and frustration with what they said was the way they were treated by Mayor Jason Levesque and the city councilors Monday night.

It was supposed to be a joint meeting, but they were not allowed to give input, school committee members said.

Levesque called for a straw vote in which councilors favored a school budget with a zero tax increase. Three councilors — Belinda Gerry, Leroy Walker and Andrew Titus — voted in favor. Councilors Robert Hayes and Holly Lasagna voted no, while David Young and Alfreda Fourner, who also serves on the School Committee, abstained.

Fournier’s abstention drew criticism from School Committee Faith Fontaine, who asked how could she abstain.

“I was confused and shocked by you abstaining,” Fontaine said, looking at Fournier. “You represent the students. How could you not vote?”

Fournier said she was concerned that money for the new positions, funded by insurance savings, might not be in next year’s budget if insurance costs go up.

Fontaine said a budget with a zero impact on taxes “is not realistic” and not good for students.

“I was completely disgusted,” Fontaine said.

School committee members “were ridiculed. … It’s embarrassing and sad for our community.”

Committee member Patricia Gautier agreed, saying a zero impact budget “is draconian” and “an insult.”

“The school department was publicly humiliated (Monday), not necessarily by the vote, but by the way we were spoken to,” she said. “There is another agenda going on and it makes our job 200 percent more difficult.”

Gautier said she is serving “to give a good will effort for the students and community. We were lambasted in public. It is totally counterproductive.”

School Committee member Jenna Scrivner said if the School Committee is not trusted to come up with a budget, “why is there a school committee?”

Mayor Levesque, who was listening to the meeting from his office in back of the room with the door open, said during a break that he is asking questions about the budget out of concern for taxpayers. Asking questions is not disrespect, he said, but “part of the checks and balances.”

Responding to complaints that the city budget is not being held to a zero-based impact, Levesque said: “We don’t know yet. We just started” going over the city’s budget.


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