Following public outcry, the Baxter Board of Directors last week decided to hold off on a plan for a staff reduction to help find a $448,000 savings in next school year’s budget. Instead the group will meet with the teacher’s union to explore other ideas. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — Staff and students at Baxter Academy for Technology and Science fear the impact on the charter school of a 10% budget cut and the possible elimination of the French and Spanish language programs.

The $4.28 million budget the board approved last month for the 2020-2021 school year calls for the elimination of four administrative positions and four teaching positions, which would mean an end to French and Spanish programs and a change in the health/wellness instruction program. After an outcry from staff, students and families, the board postponed layoffs and is meeting with the teachers’ union to negotiate another solution.

The budget, as it stands now, is approximately $448,000, or 10% less than what was originally proposed earlier this spring. The budget for the 2019-2020 school year was $4.7 million.

The Maine Charter School Commission, the organization that oversees the 10 charter schools in Maine, recommended budget cuts of between 10% and 20% for next year because of an expected decrease in revenue to come from the state. Baxter Academy is expecting $4 million in state aid. It got $4.2 million last year.

“The decision of the board and administration was not an action, but a reaction to the situation,” Baxter Academy Board of Directors Chairman Patti Oldmixon said at a June 2 meeting. The board at that meeting fielded questions from close to 150 parents and community members angered by the staff reduction.

English teacher Breanne Lucy, president of the Baxter Educators Association said prior to the June 2 meeting the union has “concerns how the school can function with that level of cuts and with a significant loss of personnel.”

The school employees 35 teachers and 12 administrators.

Lucy said four teachers, the school’s Spanish, French and health/wellness teachers and an alternative education teacher were given notice May 27 that their contracts would not be renewed.

The board decided June 2 to pause the layoffs and is meeting with the teachers’ union to discuss a funding plan for next year’s budget.

“Together, the two teams began work toward overcoming the projected shortfall in the state subsidy,” Baxter Academy Executive Director Kelli Pryor told the Forecaster. “Any outcome will likely be presented to the board for a vote.”

Board treasurer Peter Montano said the teaching positions could be retained if teachers agreed to a 6% reduction in their pay.

Lucy said she could not comment on that proposal because negotiations are ongoing.

“These cuts come at an enormous cost to current Baxter students, as the people who fill these positions are some of the most exceptional in the school. I personally have been deeply saddened by the loss of our Spanish and wellness classes,” Nick Caruso, a graduating senior, told the Forecaster.

Caruso said he tailored his high school classes around the Spanish program and owes much of his bilingualism to the school. While at Baxter Academy, he worked one-on-one in independent studies, helped to teach in the classroom and planned a trip to Spain, “all of which were very unique to Baxter’s innovative learning environment.”

Caruso said the health/wellness instruction offered a glimpse into “sex, gender, substance abuse and many other issues often avoided or considered taboo” and was presented in a way that provided an open discussion between students and staff.

Oldmixon said the “cuts were based on positions or programs. They were not based on the people filling those positions or the roles they are playing in people’s lives.”

The school community, she said, was informed about the need to cut the budget, but there were few suggestions or solutions offered at board meetings so the board did what it had to do to close that budget gap.

Although the union was notified that cuts were needed, Lucy said she was caught off-guard by the elimination of the teaching positions.

“Essentially, terminating those positions terminates those programs,” Lucy said.

Lucy said the union understands the school is in a tough financial situation, but “layoffs should be the last option.”

If the French and Spanish programs are cut, Mandarin Chinese will be the only foreign language taught at the school. Pryor said at the meeting that Mandarin is “identified as internationally important” in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

“It is an important program for us and is a big draw. It is an excellent program and sets students up well for jobs in STEM fields,” Pryor said.

Students who want to continue learning French or Spanish, Lucy said, may have to do so through outside online instruction. The health curriculum would be taught by staff members during the daily student advisory period.

“I feel for my peers who have been left to their own devices in completing their required credits in these topics, and can only hope something more will be done to preserve these necessary programs in our school,” Caruso said.

Bob Kautz, executive director of the Maine Charter School Commission said unlike public school districts, charter schools cannot go to taxpayers to raise additional funding beyond what is allocated from the state. How much Baxter Academy will need to cut is dependent on the school’s allocation from the state.

“It may take some time for the Mills administration and Legislature to decide on what curtailments will be made in school funding. From the school’s perspective, the sooner that decision is made the better it will be for everyone affected,” Pryor said.

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