AUGUSTA — School board members stood firm Wednesday, voting unanimously to stick with the budget they approved in March despite anticipation that city councilors, who are scheduled to vote on the combined city and school budget Thursday, will direct them to cut $300,000 or more from the school budget.

Board members said if they’re required to reduce the impact of the school budget on property taxpayers by councilors, their choice would be to come up with the $300,000 some councilors indicated last week they want cut from school funding, by taking $300,000 from the schools’ fund balance, or surplus account, rather than cut programs, teachers, or anything else from the budget board members approved in late March.

Chairman Edward Hastings reminded board members that last year Augusta got $796,135 in additional state funding for education when the state budget was passed, which came after last year’s school budget had been approved. The schools got half that money, the city applied some of it to help offset taxes this year, and about $267,000 was set aside, by the city council, to be used for education if needed and if the school board asked for the funds. The board has not asked for the funds. So now, unless it is applied to the proposed budget for next year, the $267,000 would go into the schools’ fund balance account, a surplus-like account made up of funds unspent in previous years.

Hasting said using that $267,000 would nearly accomplish the goal of reducing the impact of next year’s budget on property taxpayers, without requiring staff, programs or purchases to be cut from the school budget.

Jason Bersani, at-large board member, said if the $267,000 is allowed to go into fund balance, it would likely increase the fund balance to beyond the 3 percent of the budget allowed under state school financing rules.

So he and other board members favored using it to offset the impact on property taxes of the currently proposed school budget, rather than cut expenses from that budget.

City councilors, Hasting said, wanted “to reduce the ask from taxation, and this money was sitting there, so it seemed like a no brainer to offer it up. I was surprised it wasn’t well-received.”

Board members approved a $30.8 million school budget in late March. But city councilors, as they have done often in the past, have since directed the school board to reduce the budget’s impact on city property taxpayers.

City councilors, last week, said they wanted $300,000 cut from the school budget, to help limit the impact on taxpayers of the combined, approximately $62.7 million city and school budget. The proposed cut was part of a series of proposed changes to City Manager William Bridgeo’s initial, $63 million budget proposal, and would bring the tax increased required to fund the budget down from the previous 6.6 percent to a just under 3 percent increase.

In Augusta, city councilors approve the total city and school budget, and determine how much tax dollars the schools receive, but don’t have authority, beyond setting the total amount, to change how the school budget is spent.

That authority belongs to the school board.

The school budget must also be approved by voters citywide, in a June 12 budget validation referendum.

Some city councilors said last week they wanted the school board to cut expenses in the school budget, not take more money from fund balance. Others, however, said they would support whatever the school board favors.

Superintendent James Anastasio said if a majority of councilors agree to leave expenditures in the school budget as proposed, and use fund balance to reduce taxes, the school board won’t have to do anything more.

If councilors order cuts to expenses in the school board, some councilors suggested eliminating the planned purchase of air conditioning for the three city elementary schools that have second floors, meant to address concerns about high ambient classroom temperatures near the end of the school year, at a cost of about $70,000 per school, and looking into getting social work services from the state rather than adding two social workers for elementary schools.

Anastasio said in a memo to board members if the schools are forced to cut expenses, he’d recommend keeping all existing and proposed personnel in the budget, and cutting the air conditioning.

The budget approved by the school board in March, in a 4-2 vote, was largely unchanged from the budget proposed to them by Anastasio and other administrators in February. It is up by about 6 percent over the current year’s budget, and would, without the additional $267,000 being taken from fund balance, require about $1 million more from local taxpayers, an 8 percent increase from the current year.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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