January 28

Administrators propose 0.5 percent increase in Augusta school budget

More details of the 2014-15 draft budget will be presented at workshops next week.

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — The development of Augusta’s school budget has reached the school board, with administrators proposing a budget that would increase spending by 0.5 percent but could raise taxes by a larger amount.

Leaders of the city’s four elementary schools presented their proposals to the school board and took questions at a budget workshop Monday, the first of three scheduled for such presentations.

Board members will hear about buildings and grounds, special education, technology, adult education and district-wide expenses at a workshop on Monday and about the budgets for Cony and the Capital Area Technical Center on Wednesday, Feb. 5. Both of those workshops are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. in the City Council chamber at City Center.

A meeting for public input on the budget is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 26, and the board is due to vote on the budget on Wednesday, March 5, after which it would go to City Council and then a public referendum.

Superintendent James Anastasio said administrators reduced their original requests by about $720,000 to reach a proposed budget of $27.5 million. That’s $140,901, or 0.5 percent, higher than this year’s budget.

The administrators’ plan projects that local property tax revenue would have to increase by 4.4 percent to support the spending budget.

That number isn’t certain, though, because it assumes that Augusta’s state aid will remain unchanged. Local school districts won’t know how much state subsidy they’ll receive until the state releases that information later this winter or spring.

The increase in taxes would make up for an anticipated loss of $110,000 in tuition payments to the school district and a reduction of nearly $300,000 in transfers from the school nutrition fund and the school district’s fund balance, its reserve funds.

This year’s budget was balanced using $1.3 million from those two funds. Several school board members objected to depleting the fund balance by so much, but City Council included the transfer in the budget sent to voters in order to limit the tax increase for property owners.

The school administrators’ budget proposal calls for another large transfer from the fund balance — $1 million this time.

Farrington Elementary Principal Lori Smail said she and her fellow principals drew up their budgets with two primary goals: smaller classes and continuing improvement in academic achievements.

Two of the biggest changes in the elementary school budgets presented Monday night include moving students around to equalize class sizes and eliminating band for fifth and sixth graders.

The former proposal would restore sixth grade at Hussey Elementary. Those students had been sent to Farrington, but moving the district’s central office from Hussey to CATC this year will free up space for more classrooms.

To equalize class sizes, some students would have to change elementary schools on each side of the river. On the east side, 40 Farrington students would move to Hussey. On the west side, 15 Lincoln students would move to Gilbert and 11 Gilbert students to Lincoln so that each grade would be about the same size.

Anastasio said the district would start by asking for volunteers but may not be able to find enough families willing to change schools.

Without moving students around, the administration projects class sizes ranging from 15 to 25 next year, even with the addition of three teachers.

If the school district moves students, they would have to hire only one new teacher. Class sizes would be fairly even across the district but large, with 19 to 22 students in each classroom. The school board’s own policy recommends that student-teacher ratios not exceed 18-to-1 in kindergarten through second grade and 22-to-1 in third through fifth grade.

Eliminating elementary band would save about $103,000. All students at the elementary schools would still have music class once a week, but fifth and sixth graders would no longer be pulled from class for instrumental lessons and band practice.

Smail said the principals dislike the idea of discontinuing elementary band, but they proposed it because it would affect a relatively small number of students. Only about 20 Farrington students participate, and the numbers are similar at the other elementary schools.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645 smcmillan@centralmaine.com Twitter: @s_e_mcmillan
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