Proposed education cuts in Cape Elizabeth have led parents and teachers to ask the School Board to fight to overturn a spending cap imposed by the Town Council last year.

A group of about 30 parents and teachers gathered at the School Board workshop Tuesday night where the superintendent revealed his 2006-2007 school budget. The parents and teachers were there in opposition to the upcoming budget cuts, which they blame on the 3.4 percent spending cap.

Last year, the Town Council pledged to tie spending increases for all town budgets to the annual inflation rate.

Superintendent Alan Hawkins presented his budget, which met the imposed spending cap increase of $596,843, but included staff, supply, furniture replacement, and professional development cuts.

What prompted anger and frustration from the teachers and parents was that Cape Elizabeth will receive an additional $488,639 in state aid for the upcoming year, but the schools won’t receive that money. Instead it will be placed into the general fund for property tax relief.

Teachers and parents railed against the cuts, saying the spending cap unnecessarily threatened the welfare of their school system when there is additional money coming in from the state. The School Board agreed the spending cap endangered the school systems.

“In another two years, this will affect student learning,” said School Board Chair Elaine Maloney.

The proposed budget eliminates several positions at the middle school: a half-time social studies teacher, a full-time ed-tech, a coach and two activities advisors. The activities advisor positions are unfilled this year. “We’re under such tight constraints with the spending cap,” he said.

One special education teacher from the high school and two ed-tech positions from Pond Cove were cut from the proposed budget. These cuts were easy, said Hawkins, because demand for those services is shrinking.

Elaine Brassard and Karen Cronin, special education teachers at the high school, asked the board to reconsider the cuts. “In special ed, it’s not about the numbers, it’s not about how many students a teacher has,” said Kronin.

Hawkins also cut the substitute teacher account by almost $11,500. This is a budget line that is always used up and usually is overspent, he said.

In all, the proposed staff cuts in the budget represent a savings of almost $219,000.

Hawkins and the School Board are planning on asking the Town Council for more money based on student population and energy cost increases. Hawkins is hoping that the student population increase will convince the council to give the schools more money. The system has seen an increase of 40 students in two years. Councilors said last year that they would consider increase spending above the cap for population increases.

Hawkins estimates that after accounting for next year’s projected decrease in enrollment, the student increase would average out to about 20. If the council increased spending, it would most likely be by the per pupil cost of about $9,000 per student, said Hawkins. “We don’t know if they’ll ever do that, but that was part of the agreement,” said Hawkins.

Councilor Cynthia Dill said that though she was not a part of the spending cap resolution made by the council, she understands the reasoning behind it. However, she said she would be open to increase spending. “There was no way to anticipate the energy cost increases,” she said.

Hawkins said that any extra money could greatly effect the budget on both the staffing and equipment lines.

Pond Cove fourth grade teacher Ingrid Stressenger angrily questioned why the spending cap wasn’t put to a town-wide vote. “I’m appalled that the Town Council would impose the cap without the directive from the voters,” she said.

She challenged the Town Council to send the spending cap to a voter referendum. She addressed Council Chairman David Backer, the only councilor who attended the workshop, saying the spending cap is not within the council’s jurisdiction. “That is going beyond what you have the right to do,” she said, “There has been no vote…put it out to a vote.”

Backer argued that in a perfect world, he could find $1 million to post to the school budget. He reminded the crowd that they are not alone in shouldering restricted spending. “The municipal budget is just as lean as the school budget,” he said.

Members of the audience disagreed. “I can’t come up with $1 million, but I can come up with $488,639,” said high school English teacher Hannah Jones. Jones considers this ” a manufactured crisis,” something that could be avoided if the town would give the schools some of the extra state money.

The budget stands at just over $18 million with $2,657,225 of it coming from state money. Other cuts in the proposed budget included money for replacement contracts for the seventh and eighth grade laptop program, for a decrease of $30,381. One-third of the total professional development budget was cut.

Curriculum Director Sara Simmonds said she wasn’t pleased with the cuts to the professional development budget. She contends that professional development opportunities, like conferences and workshops, are major staff retention tools. She describes professional development as “teacher learning in service of student learning.”

Pond Cove teacher Lynn Spadinger is in her second year in Cape. Professional development opportunities partly convinced her to choose Cape’s schools. “I took a pay cut…part of the draw was the professional development opportunities that were ahead,” she said.

In the proposed budget, Hawkins eliminated a $12,000 membership fee in the Casco Bay Educational Alliance, an organization dedicated to increasing professional development opportunities to enhance student learning. Only six school districts in the state are members. This would have been Cape’s second year as a member.

“I couldn’t keep that in and think about all the other cuts I had to make,” he said.

Teachers warned that once programs and services are deleted from the budget they don’t reappear. Susan Welch, fourth grade teacher, has taught in the Cape school district for 37 years. “It’s a dangerous bridge we’re on,” she said, “I know that when things are cut, they don’t come back.”

Welch remembers when teachers could attend graduate school full-time while still receiving half-time pay. “We’re not even hearing that mentioned these days,” she said.

Hawkins’ proposed budget does add a few positions.

State mandates require a new part-time position for a health teacher at Pond Cove. In addition, a full-time health teacher is necessary in order to incorporate a state required substance abuse education component for the middle and high school. Pond Cove and the Middle School are now sharing a full-time health teacher.

Also cut was the furniture replacement budget. Three years ago, Cape was replacing desks and chairs for three classrooms in each school every year. That budget has decreased incrementally over the past three years. Now said Hawkins, they won’t replace any. “Last year it changed to one, this year it changed to none,” said Hawkins.

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