The Baxter Academy for Technology and Science school board is grappling with how best to trim the school budget because of anticipated cuts in state revenue, and with pushback from teachers, students and parents frustrated with plans to cut teaching positions.

The $4.3 million budget, down 9 percent from the current $4.7 million budget and 10 percent from the version proposed before the coronavirus pandemic, was approved by the board May 19.

But after the board received dozens of emails from students, parents and alumni, the school decided to hold a special meeting Tuesday to get community feedback. The board also voted 5-0 to enter into collective bargaining negotiations on decisions to eliminate teaching positions in French, Spanish, health and alternative education.

The cuts are being driven by a Maine Charter School Commission recommendation that charter schools reduce their budgets in anticipation of state funding shortfalls in 2020-2021 – though whether funding will be reduced, and by how much, is unknown.

Unlike traditional school districts that raise much of their money from local property taxes, charter schools are funded almost completely by the state, and their students often come from several communities – 54 currently in Baxter’s case. The Maine Charter School Commission has recommended the schools consider reductions of 10 to 20 percent in their 2020-2021 budgets.

Bob Kautz, executive director of the charter commission, said Tuesday that projected state funding reductions are an “educated guess,” but that it would be prudent for schools to reduce budgets now rather than being forced to cut after finding next year that they’re getting less money.

“It’s not something we know from any sources at the state level as to what in fact will be the reductions if there are reductions,” Kautz said. “That’s not assured. But I don’t know who among us would say, ‘I’ll put a $100 bet (that it) will be fully funded.’ I wouldn’t.”

Overall revenue projections for pandemic impacts on funding will not likely be available until August, according to Maine Department of Education spokeswoman Kelli Deveaux, who said that while there are state and nationwide revenue shortfalls, the department is encouraged by a stable bond rating for the state, released Friday, and state leadership’s handling of the crisis.

“The Department of Education has not currently offered any formal guidance on a looming curtailment, as this would be premature, however we have advised our (school districts) to do as we all are doing and continue to monitor our state and local economic health and forecasts,” Deveaux said in an email Tuesday.

The roughly $448,000 in approved cuts at Baxter Academy have drawn concern and pushback from the community and teacher’s union, which said it was left out of conversations about teaching position cuts.

“I’m pleased that the board announced at the meeting that they’ve decided to negotiate cuts with the union after initially claiming they needed to terminate four teachers and make programmatic cuts, and that we look forward to being at the table as these decisions are made,” said Breanne Lucy, an English teacher and president of the Baxter Educators’ Association.

The budget approved May 19 calls for four of 35 teaching positions to be eliminated and four of 12 administrative positions, to come from attrition if possible. Lucy said, however, that the four teachers were notified without notice on May 27 their contracts would not be renewed.

Kelli Pryor, the school’s executive director, said in an email Tuesday that there were multiple opportunities for input during public meetings and ongoing contract negotiations with the teacher’s union.

“The Baxter board has endeavored to be as transparent and inclusive as legally possible, even adding additional public board meetings and responding to all emails sent to the board,” Pryor said in an email Tuesday night.

More than 150 people attended Tuesday’s meeting on Zoom and close to 800 questions and comments were submitted.

Many of the questions focused on the loss of teaching positions and how their areas of instruction would be delivered as well as the board’s process for making cuts.

But the format also attracted comments and accusations, including that a student had been kicked out of the meeting, that the board was not reading all questions, and complaints about not allowing people to ask their questions aloud. Identifying who was asking questions was difficult because some were submitted without full names.

Several asked about individual employees’ salaries and at one point board chair Patti Oldmixon said the comments were getting too personal. Public comment ended after about two and a half hours, though not every comment or question had been addressed.

Oldmixon said the remaining questions and comments would be compiled and organized into categories, and the board would try to respond.

“A lot of the comments are based in perhaps not a complete understanding of what it takes to run a charter school,” she said. “I think things are getting personal, which is something we have been trying to not have happen. I know that’s difficult when you’re talking about people’s jobs and livelihoods. This was not an easy conversation any of this. We welcome the feedback.”

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