AUGUSTA — City officials heard what the school department had planned for spending for next year and applauded them for crafting a 2021-2022 budget that included no tax increase.

School Board Chairperson Amanda Olson said the budget, approved unanimously by the board in March, is the “smoothest” she has seen in her time on the school board. Councilors did not recommend any cuts to the $33.43 million budget, a 0.35% increase in spending from the current fiscal year.

“The budget in front of you meets all of the needs of students, faculty and staff,” Augusta Superintendent James Anastasio said. “It maintains resources, completes a three year budget plan and brings a budget that does not anticipate a tax increase.”

The budget for K-12 education is $30,076,055, a 0.07% increase, but becomes $33,427,615 after adding the cost of adult education and Capital Area Technical School.

City council members asked questions of Olson, Anastasio and Business Manager Kathy Casparious, mainly about the return to school for in-person learning five days a week and whether it would be possible anytime soon. The schools have been operating in a hybrid learning model since the start of the year in September.

Anastasio credited the early rounds of coronavirus relief funding for allowing the city schools to fund and meet the six framework steps required for a safe return to school from Maine Department of Education guidelines. The six steps were symptom screening, physical distancing, masks and facial coverings, hand hygiene, personal protective equipment and staying in isolation once becoming sick.

“I’m hearing a lot about students returning to school,” said Anastasio. “We all want students to return in Maine, but in Maine, they are one of the few states where students have been going to school.

“When you hear the national rhetoric about having students return to school, Maine is ahead of the curve,” he added, “and part of that was having the funds to do what we needed to do.”

Since the beginning of the school year, Maine only required 3 feet of spacing between desks and students, while the national guidance was 6 feet. Both Olson and Anastasio agreed that spacing between students and having enough room in a classroom to ensure proper distancing would be the issue with getting students back to in-person learning five days a week.

Augusta Mayor David Rollins asked if there were any complaints from parents wanting their children in school more, and the pair said they haven’t received many.

“Every educator I know wants more kids in front of them, but wants to follow guidelines and do it safely,” Anastasio said.

He shared some of the projects and items on which Augusta schools were able to spend coronavirus relief funds.

Anastasio said personal protective equipment was the main purchase, but ventilation systems in all of the schools were updated. Chromebooks had to be purchased, along with wireless internet hot spots to accommodate remote learning, and a small van to transport food to students on remote days.

“All of those things we have done are to make the building safer and to make it even safer in the long run,” Anastasio said. “We can’t use anything (with COVID money) that will be involved in our regular budget, or local budget. It’s very specific in what we spend it on… we are being cautious with it.”

Any new positions will be through a contract so the district can keep an eye on the money, according to Anastasio, so it “won’t create a cliff.”

“This is a strange moment in history,” City Councilor Eric Lind said. “I think you have a real opportunity to provide an education and leadership to kids. Following these rules, I applaud that, the spells of integrity.”

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