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By Andrew Rice
LEWISTON — School officials voted to reduce the local tax impact from next year’s school budget by 40 cents on Wednesday, despite a barrage of criticism from committee members over how the City Council has handled the budget negotiations.
The School Committee was forced to amend its budget during a special meeting Wednesday after the City Council voted down the proposed $95.7 million school budget Tuesday. The vote caused the school budget validation referendum on May 11 to be postponed.
Several committee members stood by the initial budget Wednesday, slamming city officials for handing down a ultimatum to cut sorely needed funding for a struggling school district.
The 40 cent cut amounts to an $800,000 shift in the proposed fiscal 2022 budget, with the committee voting 8-1 to use 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.
Member Kiernan Majerus-Collins, who has been the most confrontational with the City Council over the budget, voted against the proposal. He said the council’s vote Tuesday amounted to “a slap in the face to students and teachers.”
Majerus-Collins and other members also continued an argument over Lewiston’s property tax rate as it compares to the city’s assessed valuation. Members of the City Council set a goal for next year’s budget not to exceed a tax rate of $30 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, but members criticized city officials Wednesday for failing to update how Lewiston properties are assessed.
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 Tuesday that if Lewiston properties were assessed at “full value,” the tax rate would be about $24.35.
Member Bruce Damon said he was offended by council comments made Tuesday, and that the council’s decision “sets us up for disaster next year.”
He added, “To think we’re using antiquated valuations to set an unrealistic (property tax rate) is just nonsensical,” he said. Until the council steps up, does the revaluation and gets it right, we’re going to be behind. The council aught to be ashamed.”
“It’s mind-boggling to prioritize a phony tax goal over properly funding education,” Majerus-Collins said. “We could drop the tax rate 6 bucks. We’re talking about a penny here, a penny there. Their refusal to do that gives them no credibility to argue about tax rates.”
Superintendent Jake Langlais said the move is “really going to position us in a tough spot for the next two budgets.” He said by adding more relief funding, the district will now be using roughly $4 million in those funds “to keep our classrooms running.”
Langlais said that of the 60 cent tax increase goal set by the City Council, 40 cents is to pay debt payments on the already-voter approved expansion at Lewiston High School.
“That leaves 20 cents for a $90 million organization,” he said. “It’s simply not enough.”
City Councilor Alicia Rea, who serves as the council’s representative on the School Committee, was one of two councilors who voted in favor of the school budget proposal Tuesday.
On Wednesday, she told committee members that she attempted to add funds to the city budget in hopes of completing the citywide revaluation sooner. She said “no one was interested.”
As of now, a revaluation is expected to be fully implemented by fiscal year 2026.
Majerus-Collins initially made a motion that would have reduced the tax impact by roughly 20 cents, but the committee voted it down.
Langlais said operating without an approved budget “is not a place I want to be,” and that he preferred not to get into a negotiation with the City Council.
Allison Lytton, a parent of Lewiston students, called into the meeting to state that the “lack of investment in students from the City Council is disappointing.”
She said she continues to hear that next year’s budget will not meet the needs of Lewiston students, but that “bringing forward a budget that will not meet those needs is unacceptable.”
City councilors on Tuesday criticized the School Committee for ignoring earlier requests for cuts, and said the committee got itself into this situation by increasing the budget in previous years. Mayor Mark Cayer said the committee also decided to continue to pay all staff, including coaches and other personnel, during school closures due to the pandemic, when many other districts utilized furloughs and other measures.
Majerus-Collins urged the City Council to meet Thursday to take action on the amended school budget.
“We’re here the next night,” he said. “If the council doesn’t want to work that hard, it doesn’t surprise me.
SOURCE: Sun Journal