Students board the bus after the first day of school at Vine Street School in Bangor in September 2014. Credit: BDN file photo

The Bangor School Department expects its budget to grow by about 1.3 percent for the upcoming school year, as it attempts to avoid an increase that could require local taxpayers to chip in more.

The special education budget will account for most of the increase, said Interim Superintendent Kathy Harris-Smedberg, as the school department will have to add a special education classroom and hire a teacher and three educational technicians to serve the incoming kindergarten class.

While the total increase to the budget is expected to amount to about $677,000, the special education budget will rise by almost $500,000, she said. Meanwhile, the city is expecting a boost of more than $750,000 from the state as part of Gov. Janet Mills’ proposal for a new two-year budget. That boost, which will bring Bangor’s state education aid to nearly $21 million, is enough to cover the overall increase administrators are proposing for the school department budget.

Harris-Smedberg is presenting the latest budget proposal after hearing from Bangor parents who have lost their jobs or had their hours cut over the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic. It would not be fair to families in those situations to propose a budget with large increases, the superintendent said. The school department’s budget accounts for the single biggest piece of Bangor’s overall city budget.

“Times are really challenging for people now,” Harris-Smedberg said. “I’m hoping that we won’t have to have any mill rate increases because of the school district. I’m trying to be fiscally responsible.”

For the past three years, special education has accounted for the largest increase in Bangor’s school budget. However, the 5 percent increase to the special education budget proposed for the 2021-22 budget is smaller than the percentage increase in special education spending from the last two budgets.

The school department over the past year has saved some money on personnel costs and also spent less on extracurricular activities, which helped offset the special education increase, Harris-Smedberg said.

“Finding the balance between being a responsible steward of the finances before me and providing everything that people within the educational realm want can sometimes be difficult,” she said. “I’d love to have 10 more social workers and class sizes of 10, but that’s just very unrealistic.”

A flat budget would not be possible year after year, Harris-Smedberg said, but the school department this year was in a position to limit spending increases and still offer academic and student support programs.

She presented the first draft of the budget to the Bangor School Committee on Wednesday. After the committee weighs in on the budget and approves a spending plan, it will go to the City Council for approval.

In 2019, Bangor voters chose to give up their say on school budgets for three years, which means the final approval of the school budget will not go to a vote this year.