LEWISTON — After more than 90 minutes of discussion, the City Council narrowly approved next year’s $93 million school budget with a 4-3 vote Tuesday.
The vote came less than a week after the School Committee shuffled its budget figures in order to reduce the local tax impact, and highlighted a fractured relationship between members of the City Council and School Committee.
Councilors were at odds over the spending plan, with some arguing that year-over-year increases to the school budget have led to stagnation for municipal services, while others said students need the support now more than ever.
Councilor Zack Pettengill, who voted against the budget, said, “I never thought I’d see the day when the community doesn’t support the schools, but I’m not hearing from anyone who supports it.”
He argued that while the School Committee addressed the tax impact, no cuts were made to the budget.
The School Committee was forced to amend its budget during a special meeting last week after the City Council voted it down, postponing the annual school budget validation referendum. The referendum will take place May 25.
Members of the City Council set a goal for next year’s budget not to exceed a property tax rate of $30 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, hoping for a maximum increase of $1 to the tax rate. However, the plan has led to a continued debate between elected officials over how Lewiston properties are assessed.
The School Committee shaved 40 cents off the projected property tax increase by using $801,000 from other means, including an additional $480,000 in carryover funds, $281,000 in COVID-19 relief funding, and $40,000 from the Adult Education fund balance to make up the difference.
Superintendent Jake Langlais said that while school officials have attempted to use COVID-19 relief funds for items that are not recurring, there are new positions and other items that will have to be vetted once the relief funds run dry.
Several councilors said they’re concerned for a coming “cliff” for the school budget when that happens.
The relief funds are slated to be used for everything from summer school to books, social emotional learning staff, a first grade teacher, remediation and more. Langlais said school officials will have to “measure results” from the positions once the funds are used.
“I’m concerned that the community will be asked to cover a lot of this in future years,” said Councilor Luke Jensen, who also voted against the budget. “I’m hoping the committee can come up with a plan to alleviate a potential cliff over the next two years.”
Councilors voting against the budget said “tough conversations” need to start happening now.
School Committee member Ron Potvin, who called into the meeting, said the school district’s Finance Committee is already discussing ways to address the so-called “cliff.”
Jensen responded that he’s “happy you’re moving in that direction, but it should have been done (earlier). Saying it now is not enough to make me comfortable to vote for the budget.”
The $50.1 million municipal budget will add 39 cents to the tax rate, with the School Committee instructed to cap its increase at 60 cents.
Last week, Langlais said that of the 60-cent tax increase goal set by the City Council, 40 cents will go toward debt payments on the voter-approved expansion at Lewiston High School.
“That leaves 20 cents for a $90 million organization,” he said. “It’s simply not enough.”
But, he told councilors Tuesday that he was “not going to make empty promises,” and would “get after the fiscal responsibility of our institution.”
Those in favor of the budget said students need the support now, and that Lewiston schools are not where they should be.
Sarah Gillespie, a parent of a preschooler who is planning to send her kids to Lewiston schools, said she wants to be proud of the schools, but continues to watch friends send their kids to charter schools or other districts.
“I want our city to prioritize education,” she said, adding that it is a long-term solution to some of the city’s problems, like poverty. “We’re never going to get to the place we want to be without investing in schools.”
Councilor Safiya Khalid said students need the support now after more than a year of COVID-19.
“For us to try to cut that now is unacceptable,” she said.
Ward 3 Councilor Alicia Rea, who supported the budget, criticized other officials for prioritizing an “arbitrary” tax rate goal over the needs of students, echoing previous comments from School Committee members.
Lewiston has not conducted a full revaluation since 1988, and the city now values homes at about 76% of their full market value. City finance staff told officials last week that if Lewiston properties were assessed at “full value,” the tax rate would be about $24.35.
Rea, who also received some criticism from councilors over her role as representative to the School Committee, said she’d “never seen this much disjointedness” between officials. She also questioned whether councilors planned to stay under the $30 tax rate mark for five more years, the point at which a citywide revaluation is set to take effect.
Jensen responded that the city has long cut funding for a revaluation and other needs in order to “make up for the school system.”
“With sacrifices on the city side to help schools, the losses have been devastating for the city,” he said. “A lot of the work we need to do at the city level, we don’t have the money to do it.”
Some said communication needs to be better between the two bodies following the events of the last few weeks.
Rea asked the council to move forward with the budget despite the friction between elected officials, “for our students, above the swipes that have been taken by us all.”
Earlier in the meeting, Pettengill and other councilors said they had faith in Superintendent Langlais, but said the School Committee ultimately makes the final decisions.
“The superintendent is between a rock and hard place, and a dumpster fire,” Pettengill said.