AUBURN — The City Council voted unanimously Monday night to approve next year’s trimmed $43.69 million school budget amid continued public scrutiny of proficiency-based learning and its impact on the budget.

The spending plan must still be approved by Auburn voters, who head to the polls June 12.

Monday’s council vote came days after a nearly $1 million assessing error at City Hall left city and school officials scrambling to find ways to make it up in their proposed budgets. For the School Committee, that meant roughly $380,000 in cuts to arrive at a zero percent tax increase. 

During the special meeting Monday night, councilors thanked school officials for trimming the budget, but questions continued to swirl over proficiency-based learning and what percentage of the budget is being used to support the system. 

Resident Laura Ross Garcia was the only member of the public to speak on the budget. In recent months, Garcia has been a leading voice in questioning the rollout of proficiency-based learning in Auburn.

In front of a large audience at Auburn Hall that included school administrators and School Committee members, she said the School Department has not been forthcoming with information on where the money is going. She said while the school budget has remained relatively flat, the cost to support proficiency-based learning has increased, meaning other positions are being snuffed out. 

“Where are we investing our monies?” she asked. “We need to be considering the evidence on the return on investment. If it’s not working, why are we putting all this money into this?”

A School Department task force created to review proficiency-based learning and its effectiveness in Auburn is holding its first meeting Tuesday. 

School Committee Chairman Tom Kendall defended the School Department’s recent approach to the criticism, saying they are avoiding “knee-jerk reactions” to concerns and listening to both sides. He said there have also been students and teachers expressing support for the system. 

“We’re not blind to it,” he said, referring to the recent criticism, adding that the department will use the task force to “respond in a responsible manner.” 

“We re-evaluate all the time,” he said. 

Next year’s school budget, at $43.69 million, represents a 4.6 percent increase from this year. However, it will have no impact to the property tax rate. 

The new costs include five new classroom teachers and four new school buses. The cost of the buses will be reimbursed by the state in fiscal 2019-20. 

On the council, many said they were growing impatient with seeing the school budget increase without significant results from proficiency-based learning. 

Councilor Andrew Titus suggested that council passage of the budget be contingent on receiving a breakdown from school officials on how money is being spent toward the learning system. 

He also said Auburn should consider delaying the use of the 1-4 grading system, like other districts have done in response to parent and student concerns.

“Everybody is grasping at the same problem,” he said. “The system might fix itself over time, but parents sometimes seem in the dark.”

Mayor Jason Levesque, who since the start of the budget season has pressed the School Department on the issue, told the audience Monday that he took his daughter out of Edward Little High School and sent her to private school during her junior year due to struggles with “mass customized learning.” 

“Thankfully, I had those means,” he said. “Add me to the list of dozens of people with concerns.” 

Levesque told school officials that the city motto is “no steps back,” not “you don’t have to stop. We can pause and take a deep breath.” 

He suggested that going forward, the school and city field a joint finance committee to begin looking at budgets earlier in the spring.

Councilor Alfreda Fournier, who is the council’s representative to the School Committee, said she is looking forward to the task force, but she echoed other councilors in telling the School Department to provide data on test scores.

“Everyone wants to see the data,” she said. 

The City Council also continued its budget reviews Monday, with a first reading on next year’s budget scheduled for June 4.

City departments may be asked to cut expenses to make up the $900,000 shortfall caused by the assessing error. The cuts made by the School Department only accounted for 40 percent of what is needed. 

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