Most Lewiston city councilors oppose $101 million school budget

Apr. 11—LEWISTON — The majority of city councilors said they will not support the $101 million school budget approved by the School Committee in a split vote last week.

In a presentation to the City Council on Tuesday night, Superintendent Jake Langlais said rising costs and state obligations mean the school district must pay more for less. Roughly 30% of the school budget is funded locally.

The budget proposal includes 61 staff cuts largely from special education, of which 21 are currently filled. Staff in these positions will likely be able to remain employed by the district due to anticipated turnover at the end of the school year, Langlais said.

It also includes some items previously proposed to be cut, including funding for The Store Next Door, out-of-district special education tuition, one school nurse and two elementary social emotional learning positions.

Ward 4 Councilor Rick LaChapelle said he cannot support this budget with "(social emotional learning) and (diversity, equity and inclusion) taking the front seat over our schools," emphasizing the importance of traditional academics.

"Looking at our bottom-of-the-barrel proficiency numbers shows us that while our schools might be doing well confusing and indoctrinating children and letting them raise hell ... they are not succeeding at their job which is providing measurable, successful educational outcomes."

He said that he has heard from many older adults with significant concerns about the proposed tax increase. He would support a $1 tax impact, but not a $1.70, he said.

Langlais has previously said the district's social emotional learning program is critical for students' well-being.

Ward 6 Councilor Lee Clement said he shared many of the same concerns as LaChapelle and would not vote for the current proposal.

"My theory has always been government should exist, No. 1, for public safety," Clement said, stating that the council hasn't yet discussed the specifics of the proposed city budget. "In that case here, it's police and fire protection. The No. 2 step should be education. But that's No. 2."

Lewiston police officer Joe Philippon pushed back against the comment.

"Funding Lewiston Public Schools is funding public safety!" he wrote on Facebook.

In a conversation during recess, Ward 5 Councilor Laurier Pease and Ward 2 Councilor Robert McCarthy both said they would not support it. McCarthy said he would also like to see a tax impact closer to $1.

Residents paid a school tax rate of $10.97, or $2,194 for a property valued at $200,000 this year. The proposed $101 million budget would result in a tax rate increase of $1.70, or $340 more for a property of the same value.

Councilor Linda Scott said she would support a $1.34 tax impact, but would not back deeper cuts. Scott, the City Council representative to the School Committee, was one of three committee members to vote against the $101 million budget.

The 36-cent difference in tax impact roughly correlates to $800,000 added to the budget in anticipation of an emergency rule change at the state level that would require school districts to pay out-of-district special education programs for every day instruction is provided, not just the days students attend as is the current practice.

Scott said it was important to hear from more residents before the council makes a decision.

Ward 3 Councilor Scott Harriman was the only member who said he would support the budget in its current form. Ward 7 Councilor Stephanie Gelinas said she needed more information before taking a position.

Mayor Carl Sheline, who is not a voting member of the council, expressed concern that cutting the budget beyond the current proposal could harm students.

"The $1.70 is for sure a little tough, but if that's where you're telling us we need to be at before cutting into bone, I'm OK with that," he said.

Scott and Gelinas said it was difficult to evaluate the school's proposal without knowing when the state plans to make a decision on the emergency ruling. The state withdrew its proposed emergency rule change less than a week after it was announced, but many superintendents believe it will be reintroduced and approved with small modifications to the language.

Last week, city councilors proposed eliminating the city's diversity, equity and inclusion position and creating a joint role between the school and city. Ayesha Hall, the social emotional learning & equity resource coordinator for Lewiston schools, is leaving the district.

Langlais told the council he believes the two positions are fundamentally different.

The city's position, which is held by Melissa Hue, seems to be more of a human resource-like role, he said. In contrast, Hall's position is about teaching students "emotional intelligence and how to be your best self, and what to do when you're not," he said.