Michelle Morley, left, an 18-year-old senior at Sanford High School, and Elv Jopling, 15, a sophomore, stand outside of their school on Tuesday. Both students are a part of the alternative learning program at the school, which serves about 40 students who struggle with anxiety, depression and other issues that make learning in a typical environment difficult. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The Sanford School Committee voted Thursday to add a high school alternative learning program back into its proposed budget, but there’s no guarantee the program is completely off the chopping block.

Faced with what district leaders call the most challenging budget to date, the school committee has been grappling with how to trim a projected $5 million increase in expenses to avoid a staggering tax increase of nearly 30%.

The alternative learning program, which has an annual price tag of about $335,000, was among the cuts proposed by the superintendent and considered by the school committee.

But emotional testimony from parents and students in the program has at least so far convinced the committee to reconsider.

“Alt has been the one home that’s stayed consistent for me during my time at Sanford. I know most of my fellow students in the program feel the same way,” sophomore Jazz Sweet told the school board on Thursday. “It’s very scary to believe it could be taken away.”

Stephanie Jopling, whose child, Elv, is a sophomore in alternative learning, said she sees the vote as “a very tentative win.”


“We know we still have a long way to go,” she said. “It could be a stay of execution, but I hope it gives time for more discussion about compromises instead of completely cutting the program.”

The program, which started more than 25 years ago, serves 40 students in a separate wing of the high school. It provides a supportive environment for students who struggle with mental health, have been bullied or have other struggles that make learning in other environments difficult.

School committee members had been slated to vote Monday night on a budget to send to the City Council, but delayed the decision until Thursday after hearing more than an hour of public comment. On Thursday, they heard again from students and parents who described the program as a lifeline that provides teens the safety and support they need to engage in learning.

Emotions ran high during the two-hour meeting, with many speaking through tears as they implored the school committee not to cut the program. Several committee members also were emotional as they described their own experiences with mental health and the struggle to balance the needs of the school department with the financial strain a budget increase puts on Sanford residents.

“You’ve all seen how emotionally charged it is, how difficult it is,” Chairperson Paula Cote said. “We don’t have the luxury of thinking about just one program. We have to think about every single program, every single position, every single demographic, every single section of the school.”



The district is facing a $5 million funding gap next year in order to keep up all of its current programs. Expenses are up 9.2% and the district lost $567,000 in state education subsidy because the city’s valuation continues to increase. Without spending cuts, the district would have to pass a massive  29.4%, or $4.8 million, tax increase, Superintendent Matt Nelson has said.

Over the past month, the school committee worked to reduce the expected tax increase to 9.4%. That included cutting the alternative learning program and 34 other teaching and support positions across the district.

On Thursday, the committee ultimately voted to support a second budget proposal offered by Nelson that returned alternative learning to the budget and removed a counseling receptionist position. That option has a total price tag of about $65.4 million, requiring a tax increase of 11.1%.

Committee member Melissa Simpson proposed a lower-cost, third option that would keep alternative learning, but cut three social workers and a counseling receptionist, saying the school department is charged with providing education, not mental health care. The alternative learning program helps kids focus on their education, she said.

Amy Sevigny, vice chair of the committee, opposed Simpson’s motion and said many families don’t have easy access to mental health services and face long waiting lists for care.

“It is a shame that currently the state does not give us money in the (funding) formula for social workers in all schools throughout the state of Maine,” Sevigny said. “It’s shocking we don’t get a dime and all the social workers have to come from the local budget.”


The City Council will begin working through both the city and school budgets next week. Ultimately, residents will vote on the school budget in a June validation referendum.

Committee members cautioned the public that the City Council is likely to send the budget back to the school committee for more cuts.

“I can guarantee you that the city is going to look at 11.1% (increase in) taxation and that’s a no-go,” member Emily Sheffield said.

“I pray it doesn’t get kicked back to us because we have nothing left,” Cote said.

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