AUGUSTA — School officials plan to stand behind their recommended budget even though most city councilors have said they won’t support the combined city and school spending plan because it would increases taxes by 6 percent.

Asked by city councilors to find ways to cut the $27.56 million school share of the total budget, Board of Education members said the schools have already been slashed to the bone in recent years.

The only remaining options school board members have — if they’re forced to cut $500,000 to $600,000 — appear drastic.

Interim Superintendent James Anastasio on Tuesday presented three options to school board members: cut 18 to 22 teachers and other staff members, eliminate funding for sports and other after-school activities or close Hussey Elementary School.

“The board didn’t want to discuss any of those in detail, because they’re all not reasonable solutions,” Anastasio said Wednesday. “Their position is the budget they submitted is reasonable and necessary to accomplish the school board goals, provide adequate programming for all students, and help negotiate contracts with the three bargaining units.

“The board is not resubmitting their budget. They’re just making the City Council aware the budget should be supported and appealing to councilors to let voters make the decision.”

Once approved by councilors, the school share of the budget is scheduled to go to voters in a citywide referendum question on Tuesday, June 11.

The school budget has been cut or flat-funded for several years and 65 staff positions have been eliminated. Board members said staff morale is low partly because teachers and other members of three employee bargaining units are working without contracts and have gone years without meaningful raises, and no additional cuts can be made without an impact on students.

They said they understand tax increases are hard, but property taxes in Augusta haven’t increased substantially in several years.

“We try to teach our kids that the most important decisions we make are also the toughest,” said Amanda Bartlett, an at-large school member. “There are times we have to find the courage within ourselves to fight for what is right. We’re at a place where we can’t cut any more from schools. There is nothing left. The right thing to do is fund schools appropriately. I feel this is a community decision. And we should move the budget forward to voters and let the community decide.”

Councilors hope to wrap up the total, $52.6 million combined school and city budget over the next two weeks. They meet tonight to try to begin doing that.

Susan Campbell, chairwoman of the school board, said the school system has cut all programming beyond the minimum required to get students through high school.

“We do the things we need to do to get kids through school, but that shouldn’t be our only goal,” Campbell said. “We need to provide them with the tool set they need to move on after high school. We need to help make them contributing members of society.”

Anastasio said school officials have identified two areas where Augusta may be able to save about $150,000.

Part of Gov. Paul LePage’s state budget would shift some of the responsibility for paying teacher retirement costs from the state to local school systems. Anastasio included $452,000 in the budget to pay those costs should the governor’s proposal pass as part of the state budget. However, state officials have said that estimate is high, and have suggested Augusta’s share of teacher retirement costs would be closer to $360,000.

Also, the cost of insurance came in lower than budgeted, with costs increasing 3 percent, instead of the 10 percent increase in the budget.

Together, about $150,000 in savings could result in those adjustments.

But Anastasio said board members are hoping to keep that $150,000 in the budget, because if it ends up not being needed the funding could be used to help negotiate contracts with employees working without contracts.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
[email protected]

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