AUGUSTA — Superintendent James Anastasio presented a budget to the school board Monday that is about $740,000 less than the current year’s budget but would require about $600,000 more from local taxpayers.
Last year’s $29.6 million school budget used $3.5 million from the district’s fund balance account to lessen the budget’s effect on taxpayers. The account had reached more than $5 million and is generally made up of money unspent in prior years.
Anastasio’s proposed budget for next school year uses $2.1 million from that account, which essentially would use up the remaining money, leaving little to help offset the effect of the following year’s budget on local taxpayers. In recent years, school officials have warned the district was nearing a financial “cliff,” meaning most of the fund balance would be gone, leaving schools with only two realistic options — increase revenue, including local property taxes; or decrease expenses, such as by cutting programs or employees.
“The cliff that has been predicted is here,” Anastasio said. “We’ll face the cliff this year, and next year we’ll face a much bigger cliff. There will be some difficult decisions that have to be made this year.”
The proposed budget of $28.9 million is down about 2.5 percent from the current year’s budget. But with less money coming from fund balance, it would require about $600,000 more from local property taxpayers.
One area where spending is up is English language learning, for students from other countries for whom English is not their native language.
Anastasio said Augusta started the year with about 90 students needing help learning English, but that number has increased since then to 136. He said many of the newer students “are at the lowest level in terms of their knowledge of English. It’s a language they don’t speak. So it can take a lot of time … for them to make the gains they need to be productive students in our school district.”
New spending in the budget proposal includes $95,000 to hire two new English language learner teachers, $97,000 to hire four new English language learner education technicians, and $24,000 to hire an interpreter.
Proposed cuts in the budget include three elementary school, teachers as the district plans to adjust which school students attend, to balance class sizes better, saving about $110,000; elimination of one of two nursing positions at Cony High School, saving $71,000; elimination of Project Pride at Farrington and Gilbert elementary schools, which both also have dean of students positions, saving about $82,000; eliminating a computer laboratory technician’s job, saving $53,000; and cutting one of two security guard positions at Cony, saving $27,000.
The school budget is in the school board’s hands now, and members will review it over the next several weeks.
The school budget, according to the Augusta City Charter, is subject to approval first by the school board, and then sent to the City Council, which includes it with the overall city and school budget, by April 1. City councilors can, and often do, ask that changes by made to the budget. And they must approve the school budget as part of the total budget. Finally, the school budget goes to city voters in a referendum to be validated, usually in June.
Anastasio said the revenue in the budget, such as state school funding, are only estimates, and it is difficult to put together a budget because there are so many unknowns. He said Gov. Paul LePage is seeking to change some aspects of state funding, with his state budget proposal, and changes can and often are made to state funding levels by the Legislature.
One proposed change to education funding in LePage’s budget, according to Anastasio, would eliminate state funding for school central office functions, such as the superintendent and business manager. He said the state pays $524,000 to help fund Augusta’s central office, so if that proposal remains in the state budget, that could be an additional cut in state funding. For now, however, that’s among the unknowns.
“We start our budget process earlier than any other place I know of, because of the requirement to submit a budget to the city by the end of March,” Anastasio said. “It makes it difficult because we don’t really have the information we need.”
Keith Edwards — 621-5647