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

As Maine students start returning to classes next week, their schools will be operating with less money than they had last year.

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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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Drastic budget cuts across the state have led to scores of layoffs of teachers, the elimination of some middle school sports programs and sharp reductions in arts and language offerings.

According to more than a dozen superintendents who were interviewed, the picture is grim in many school districts.

All districts face new costs for teachers' pensions, as the state reduced its share of the cost in the two-year budget that took effect July 1. And officials in the cities and towns the districts serve must make up for reduced state revenue sharing.

Voters in several communities rejected 2013-14 budgets proposed by school boards, approving them only after more cuts were made.

Beyond the statewide financial pressures, some districts faced their own pressures, from construction projects to planned raises for school employees.

School boards have tried to preserve core academics and limit budget cuts' impact on the classroom. With declining enrollment in many schools, some staff positions that opened up were left unfilled.

"There's nothing that was spared," said Brian Carpenter, superintendent of Regional School Unit 20 in the Belfast area.

RSU 20 has cut all middle school sports teams – soccer teams, football, cross country and field hockey – unless they get volunteer coaches. So far, no one has volunteered, Carpenter said.

The district has eliminated foreign language instruction in middle schools, eliminated middle school art and cut 18 positions overall.

Carpenter said the only thing left to do, if the district faces budget cuts in future years, is close schools.

"It's a process everybody has to go through," he said. "You see the balancing act between the taxpayer and the students. We're cutting everything but the essentials."

Portland schools cut 36 teachers and 5½ central office staff positions. It was able to make only small changes to its curriculum and sports programs, said Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk.

Middle school athletic directors and coaches made changes to save the seventh-grade basketball, soccer and field hockey teams. Budget cuts were going to eliminate the interscholastic teams, which serve about 250 students, but the athletic directors agreed to volunteer their time to coach or reallocate their existing coaching funds to preserve the teams.

King Middle School Athletic Director Duke Madsen said he planned to handle the sixth-grade intramural program himself and use the money for that position to pay coaches for the seventh-grade teams.

Last year, 60 sixth-graders played intramural sports at King Middle School, with 15 students on each of four teams, he said.

At Lincoln Middle School, Athletic Director Lee Freeman said his seventh- and eighth-grade coaches agreed to a pay cut to preserve the seventh-grade teams. The school already uses volunteers to coach sixth-graders, he said.

Freeman said the sports programs "were on the chopping block, but that would be an awful lot of kids not doing something." About 75 students play seventh-grade sports at Lincoln, he said.

"I feel great about this," he said. "Eighth-grade coaches will take a little less, but it's all about the kids."

While it's understandable that sports programming, rather than academics, is frequently one of the first places school officials look to save money, sports benefit students, a school and a community in many ways, said Dick Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals' Association.

"In the big picture, sometimes those sports can be the key factor in keeping a kid out of trouble or even keeping them in school," he said.

Some high schools are cutting the number of teams they have, he said. For example, if a school has varsity, junior varsity and freshman football teams, it may cut the freshman team.

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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