AUGUSTA — The school board’s reluctance to make significant budget cuts could put it at odds once again with city councilors over how much of a tax increase is appropriate to support school programming.
School board members have expressed support for programs and projects that would raise the spending by hundreds of thousands of dollars, even while anticipating that City Council may not be receptive to the total.
“This is not a sustainable condition that we find ourselves in,” at-large school board member Laura Hamilton said. “We really have to increase the school budget. We have to.”
Last year, City Council balked at the tax impact of the budget the school board sent them, which in combination with the municipal budget would have required a tax increase of 6.1 percent. Councilors rejected that budget in favor of one that raised taxes by 3.4 percent, pushing the school board to cut additional staff and pull more than they wanted from the school district’s reserves.
City Manager William Bridgeo hasn’t presented a municipal budget to City Council yet, but like the school district, city government is also looking at increased expenses and decreased income for next year.
“The mayor and City Council would like nothing more than to support all of the initiatives that the school board would like to underwrite,” Bridgeo said. “It’s all going to come down to that delicate balance between what we want for our children and what we can afford.”
Though the $27.6 million budget Superintendent James Anastasio proposed to the school board included only a modest increase in spending, it would require an additional $575,000 from local taxes because of expected decreases in revenue from other sources. That equates roughly to a 2 percent tax increase.
Anastasio’s proposal included $728,000 in reductions, a mix of cuts in existing spending and the denial of new requests from administrators, but school board members asked last week for several of those things to be added back in.
Administrators are still working on a new proposal for the school board to discuss at a workshop on Wednesday, so figures are not yet available, but the items that board members requested to be restored add up to at least $300,000.
About $250,000 in additional spending translates to a 1 percent tax increase, Bridgeo said.
The school board voted on the items in a series of straw polls after a packed 90-minute public input session during which students, parents and other city residents pleaded with the board not to eliminate Latin at Cony High School or band in the city’s elementary schools.
The school board unanimously supported adding those programs back into the budget. They also said they wanted to fund the drafting program at Capital Area Technical Center, a package of buildings and grounds projects, laptop purchases, education technicians to keep the elementary school libraries staffed every day and more education technicians to support elementary teachers with large classes.
Augusta takes in more than $700,000 in tuition payments for students who attend Cony from other communities, and at-large school board member Larry Ringrose said the district not only needs to keep classes like Latin but also add even more electives to make sure Cony attracts tuition-paying students and also provides a full education to Augusta students.
Some board members noted that the $728,000 in reductions that Anastasio had proposed was not far off from the total of two new continuing costs: $500,000 in raises from the employee contracts the board ratified last year and $300,000 in retirement contributions that the state paid until last year.
“It’s the raises and the retirement costs, that’s what we’re looking at right here,” Towle said. “So we should be asking for them. That’s the cost of living.”
Board members said they did not regret approving the raises to bring pay in Augusta more into line with area districts.
The school board is scheduled to vote on a budget on March 12. It will go to city councilors, who will then vote on a spending total to send to voters.
City Council sets the tax rate, determining the bottom line for the amount of money the school district and municipal government can raise through property taxes.
It’s up to the school board to decide how to spend the money available. If councilors set a tax rate that provides less revenue than the school board requested, the board must balance the budget by cutting programs and projects or tapping deeper into the district’s reserve funds.
Some people who spoke in favor of Latin and band at the school board workshop last week said they are willing to pay more in taxes to keep maintain those programs. School officials hope they will take that message to City Council.
“Our City Council advocates for education. It’s something they want to be proud of,” Anastasio told the board. “But at the same time, they’re worried about taxes. When they have their public meetings, they have people coming in too, but they’re not coming in to tell them to raise taxes. They’re coming in telling them to cut taxes or not increase them.”
Staci Fortunato, a city resident who spoke at the school board workshop, said she’ll continue advocating for the school budget, and her fourth grade son wants to, as well.
“Education, and especially public education, is really important to us,” she said. “Definitely, we would support paying more to keep programs in our school.”
Mayor William Stokes said city councilors are likely to have difficult decisions to make as they consider the school and municipal budgets.
“There are a lot of needs that the city has, not just on the school side but throughout the city,” he said.
Bridgeo said the city government is facing its own increased costs, like a pension obligation bond that goes up every year and a 2 percent raise for employees.
Despite passage of a law preventing further cuts to revenue sharing for municipalities, Augusta will receive about $100,000 less than it did for this year.
Bridgeo said he thinks residents’ tolerance for a tax increase will depend in part on their perception of the efforts the school board and councilors made to control costs, and he doesn’t know where they’ll draw the line.
“I’ve certainly heard council members say that 5 and 6 percent property tax increases are not something they feel they can support,” he said.