AUGUSTA — School officials presenting a $27.9 million school budget for city councilors’ approval said the city’s schools are efficient and spend much less per pupil than comparable Maine school systems.

However, both school and city officials said they’re concerned that the budget is propped up by $2 million from a fund balance that isn’t likely to be there to offset the effect on taxpayers in future years.

Superintendent James Anastasio said Augusta’s per-pupil costs of $6,253 at the elementary level and $7,840 at the high school level are significantly less, overall, than per-pupil costs at 14 comparable Maine school systems, including those of Bangor, Lewiston, Gardiner-based Regional School Unit 11, and Winslow.

The average per-pupil costs in the 14 comparable schools are $7,350 at the elementary level and $8,873 at the high school level.

“Augusta, quite frankly, does a really, really good job educating students with the money we have to work with,” Anastasio said.

The school budget would require about $800,000 more in property taxes, which would cause a 2.7 percent increase in the property tax rate.

The effect on taxpayers would be greater if school board members hadn’t agreed to use $2 million from the fund balance account, which generally consists of funds unspent in previous years.

Anastasio said that fund has about $3.4 million in it, an amount that is higher than normal, he said, partly because in the two years before the current year, the school budget was frozen mid-way through the school year to save money.

Anastasio had recommended $1.6 million be taken from the fund, but board members said they increased it to $2 million to avoid making school program cuts that would affect students’ education.

“We’d heard, in the past from the City Council and public, our fund balance was too high,” said Kimberly Martin, school board chairwoman, who noted the schools have cut about 60 positions in the last 10 years. “We were adamant we were not going to make cuts that hurt our students or teachers this year. That left for options asking more from taxation or use more fund balance. So (taking more from fund balance) was where we went this year.”

At-large Councilor Cecil Munson warned it can be dangerous to rely too heavily on fund balance, because those funds won’t necessarily be available in future years.

The city’s tax rate is $18.67 for every $1,000 of property value. If both the school and city budgets remain as proposed, together totaling $55.1 million, the tax rate would increase to $19.67 next year, a 5.4 percent increase. Of that $19.67 potential new tax rate, $9.91 would be to fund the municipal budget, and $8.78 would fund schools, according to City Manager William Bridgeo.

For the owner of an average single-family home in Augusta, valued at $117,500, a tax rate of $19.67 would result in a tax bill of $2,311, an increase of $117.50.

However, city councilors, who vote on whether to approve the school budget as part of the total city budget, are reviewing it department by department. They could, and most years do, direct the school board to make cuts to spending in the school budget the board approved March 25. They also often make changes to the city budget, originally proposed by Bridgeo. By the time the total budget is approved, likely in late May, the bottom line could be different.

Councilors did not indicate Thursday whether they will ask the board to make cuts, but they did praise the work of the school system and noted that education is an important factor in the overall quality and desirability of the community.

Munson said the quality of the school systems was the biggest factor in why he moved to Augusta.

He said the community needs to support that quality education.

“At some point the community has to decide if that’s what they’re going to do, support it or not,” Munson said.

The school system sustained a cut in state revenue of $1 million-plus more than officials expected based on initial information from the state, in part because of changes in state funding and in part because of reduced programming, and thus reduced reimbursement, for programs at Capital Area Technical Center, the regional technical education school run by Augusta.

Mayor David Rollins said that’s another example of what he said has been a tax shift from the state to municipalities.

“Since the LePage administration has been in control of the state, there has been an incredible shift of the taxation burden down to the local level, and that has all been beared by the property tax,” Rollins said.

Once approved by the council, the school budget would likely go to voters for approval in a June 9 referendum question.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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