August 24, 2013

Maine schools struggling with cuts

Districts across Maine are trying to preserve core academics and get creative with athletic programs, but many jobs and programs are lost.

By Noel K. Gallagher
Staff Writer

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Paul Keef, foreground, and Jason Rousseau, background, of Clean-O-Rama, buff the gymnasium floor at King Middle School Wednesday, August 21, 2013, in preparation for the start of the upcoming school year.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

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More often, schools are looking to change their game schedules to be more efficient, perhaps by having the girls' and boys' teams travel together to compete, instead of having two buses going to different places.

Another money saver: several schools working together if there is a multi-team match for a relatively small team like tennis or golf. In those cases, Durost said, Team A picks up Team B and everyone plays at Team C's site.

"There's a lot of work to find unique ways to save as many programs as they can," Durost said.

Sports generally account for about 2 to 3 percent of a school district's budget, said Durost.

"It is quite a small part of the overall budget, considering the good it accomplishes for the students, the teachers and the community pride," he said.

The Lewiston School District, Maine's second-largest district, is one of the handful with growing enrollments and was able to avoid any curriculum or staff cuts for this year. Still, the school board did have to find some savings. It did so by increasing the average class size and putting off some minor facility renovations and upgrades.

In Auburn, Superintendent Katy Grondin said she went through the budget, line by line, to make strategic changes that would have minimal impact on students. Among them were eliminating a teacher evaluator position, with those duties being picked up by administrators; reducing secretary positions at the central office and at a middle school; reclassifying three teacher positions to ed tech positions; and reducing an elementary librarian position to an ed tech.

All told, she made $800,000 in cuts, including $540,000 in salaries alone.

"What scares me is ... I'm not sure where we go from here," Grondin said.

She said she had more cuts "on the list" that she avoided, for now, including reducing the kindergarten program to half-day and closing all of the school libraries.

Small districts have made strategic cuts, too. In the Central Lincoln County School System, which includes Damariscotta and Nobleboro, art, music and physical education teachers were cut back from full-time to part-time. The district's enrichment courses, which build on the program for gifted and talented students, were cut from twice a week to once a week.

"The trend I see is having to reduce to the core of what we can provide, while at the same time trying to meet the needs of students in all areas," said Superintendent Steven Bailey. "We're stretching our resources thin, and we're not wanting to water it down to the point where it has no substance."

Several school administrators said they understand and respect that taxpayers generally want their taxes held to a bare minimum, but noted that they have made deep cuts and there's little relief in sight in the upcoming years.

"It's a very tough conversation," said Bailey. "Sometimes people don't even want to know."

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: 

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