AUGUSTA — No school district in the state provided local funding as far below the state’s funding expectations than Augusta over the last two years, school officials seeking support for a proposed $27.56 million school budget told city councilors Thursday.

Interim Superintendent James Anastasio, in a presentation to city councilors, cited data which showed Augusta, in the 2011-2012 school year, provided local funding 9 percent lower than the state’s controversial Essential Programs and Services indicates would be the minimum amount to provide for a basic education. And, Anastasio said, in school year 2012-2013, 7 percent less. In both those years, he said, no other school district in Maine, of any size, was lower than Augusta in terms of that Essential Programs and Services funding level.

The proposed budget for this year would require about $12 million from local taxpayers, which is about $242,000 less than the state’s Essential Programs and Services indicates should be raised from local taxes.

“Essential means absolutely necessary,” Anastasio said. “We think we have a budget that makes sense, is in the best interests of students, and is fiscally responsible.”

The proposed $27.56 million budget would increase property taxes by about 5 percent

Together with the city’s share of the combined $52.6 million city and school budget, local property owners would see their taxes increase by an estimated 6.6 percent.

Councilors have the final say on the combined municipal and school budget spending. The school budget must also be approved by voters in a budget validation referendum in June.

City councilors said they want to fund education adequately and were sympathetic to the school board, but expressed frustration at trying to provide an education when the state is reducing funding for education when it is already not paying the full share of education costs as it is required to by state law.

Councilor Patrick Paradis noted the state Legislature is considering a proposal to borrow $100 million  to upgrade the state prison.

“We’re considering increasing funding for prisons, at the same time we’re providing less for education,” Paradis said. “Does that tell you the priorities are wrong? Education should be the priority.”

Councilors said they need to balance the need to educate students with residents’ ability to pay their taxes.

“I wish we had a giant pile of money to give to schools, to address all students’ needs,” said Councilor Daniel Emery. “But when people’s wallets are tightening, it becomes a very sensitive subject. Particularly to those who can’t afford any more.”

Some councilors said they’d heard from constituents who suggested reducing or cutting funding for sports and replacing the approximately $456,000 the budget allocates for extra-curricular activities with a pay-to-play system in which parents would pay fees for their children to play sports.

However no councilors spoke in favor of doing so. And two — councilors David Rollins and Jeffrey Bilodeau — spoke against it. Bilodeau, referring to data Anastasio had shown earlier, said Augusta is a relatively poor area and some students wouldn’t be able to play sports if their parents had to pay a fee.

“You’re excluding a lot of kids if you do that,” Bilodeau said.

The municipal share of the budget, at $23.6 million, is up $432,000, or 2 percent.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
[email protected]

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