AUGUSTA — The Board of Education approved a $27.4 million budget in a split vote Wednesday.

The budget next needs to win approval from the City Council and, after that, from voters in a citywide referendum.

The proposed school budget would require $1.3 million more in local funding than property taxpayers paid last year, or a 5 percent increase in taxes.

Late Monday night, following a public input session, board members added nearly $700,000 to the $26.7 million budget that Interim Superintendent James Anastasio had proposed previously after making cuts from his initial $27.1 million budget.

Board members said Wednesday they added the money to bring the budget up to the amount the state’s Essential Programs and Services funding model had indicated that Augusta should spend on its schools. They said it’s time for the city to make a commitment to fund education adequately, after many years of cuts to staff, programs and schools.

“Us operating $1.3 million under what the state says is the floor is unacceptable,” board member Amanda Bartlett said. “We need to send a strong message, that we value education.”

Board members Larry Ringrose and Nicole Desjardins voted against the budget in a series of 6-2 votes on various pieces of the budget, and the total budget itself.

They both expressed concerns that much of the additional money isn’t earmarked for specific programs or other expenditures.

“I think it’s irresponsible to pass a budget through when we don’t know what the line items are,” Ringrose said. “Our job is not to say ‘Here’s $20 million. Do what you want with it.’ There is a lot of money sitting around in this budget that is discretionary.”

Board Chairwoman Susan Campbell said spending the money not yet earmarked for specific programs would come back before the board for approval. She said it would be irresponsible for the board to bring a budget that doesn’t fund education adequately to the council and voters.

“All we’re asking for is the bare minimum the state says we need to spend,” Campbell said. “If you guys can’t step up and do what’s right for this education system, then go find something better to do.”

The budget must be delivered to the council by April 1, a requirement of the City Charter. City Manager William Bridgeo is finalizing his proposed city budget, which also must be delivered to councilors by April 1.

Anastasio said additions to the budget include $100,000, on top of $50,000 already budgeted, to study and begin the relocation of the the superintendent’s office by the fall of 2014, because the space it occupies now at Hussey Elementary School will be needed for classroom space by then; $227,000 to account for possible changes in state funding related to a state proposal to shift more of the costs of teacher retirement costs to local districts; $165,000 in educational funds that could be used for programming, teachers or other teaching-related expenses; and $187,000 to reduce the amount of funds to be used from the fund balance from $987,000 to $800,000.

The budget also includes $452,000 to accommodate possible cost shifts from the state, including Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to shift more of teacher retirement costs onto local districts.

Anastasio said the state estimates those costs, for Augusta schools, at $360,000. With only estimates to work with, Anastasio said the amount needed may be less than the $452,000 in contingency and, if so, the funds not needed could either be used for other educational needs or be removed from the budget.

Some board members suggested some of the money in the budget should be spent on the staff. Three employee units — teachers, janitors and support staff — are working without contracts, and negotiations with teachers are under way.

“I met with some of our members today. … Staff is cautiously optimistic,” said Jeff DeJongh, president of the Augusta Education Association, the local union. “The board has made a commitment to invest in education, and staff is wholeheartedly in favor of investing in education. I hope this is the beginning of a new chapter, where divisions between staff and the board and administration and the community are gone, and we find common ground.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
[email protected]

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