Westbrook school officials are waiting to find out how much money the City Council will make them cut from their proposed $34 million budget for the next school year. The council voted Monday to reject the proposal.

The council approves the school budget before it goes to a citywide vote each year, but councilors can decide only whether the dollar amount is too high or low. They can’t decide how to change the budget.

Depending on the total the council approves, the reductions for 2014-15 could come from a contingency fund or from proposed spending on athletics, activities, the music program or teacher positions, said school board Chair Jim Violette. “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” he said Tuesday.

The council voted 4-2 Monday to reject the school department’s proposed budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. The proposal would have increased spending by $1.7 million, 5.2 percent, from this fiscal year and would have increased the tax rate by 7 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, adding $14 to the annual tax bill for a $200,000 home.

Superintendent Marc Gousse said Tuesday that he was “surprised and disappointed” by the council’s vote. “This is a very responsible budget,” he said.

Although the budget would increase spending, additional revenue from the state would offset all but about $130,000, Gousse said. Even with the proposed increase, the city’s tax rate would remain flat because of a decrease from the proposed municipal budget.

But City Councilor Michael Foley doesn’t think that justifies an increase in the school department’s expenditures, which he said go up every year. “I feel like we’re on an unsustainable spending path,” he said.

Foley, chair of the council’s Finance Committee, voted against the proposed budget, along with Councilors Paul Emery, John O’Hara and Victor Chau.

The council now must decide how much money it wants cut from the school budget, so the School Committee and the superintendent can decide where to make reductions. “I don’t have a specific figure at this point,” Foley said.

Gousse said the increase in state aid is meant to serve students, not reduce taxes. He said the growing number of students in special education and English language learner programs require more resources from the district, which has 2,552 students in six schools.

An additional teacher and four educational technicians for those programs, along with contracted salary step increases and professional development, account for a proposed increase of $481,000 in instructional costs, Gousse said.

He said the budget also proposed a $289,000 increase in technology, mostly for the replacement of high school students’ laptop computers, which are seven years old.

Another $289,000 was budgeted for potential increases for teachers and the support staff, whose contracts are in negotiation. Other increases in the proposed budget were for building repairs, charter school tuition payments, utility costs, bus upgrades, and equipment for athletics and activities, said Gousse.

Foley said the details of the proposed school budget weren’t provided to the council until its meeting Monday and there’s “concern for continued lack of cooperation from the school department.”

That includes the school board’s decisions last year to staff its own finance department and this year to hire its own human resources personnel – services that had been consolidated with the city. Violette said those decisions were made to reduce expenses. “We were just trying to do what we feel was right for the taxpayer,” he said. “I guess they just didn’t appreciate that.”

Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

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