News Feature

Deer Isle
Web exclusive, May 20, 2011
Proposed budget cuts at school draw a crowd

Deer Isle-Stonington CSD Archive
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by Colin Powell

There was standing room only when roughly 100 people packed the high school library on May 12 for the first budget session after the CSD 13 School Board asked Superintendent Robert Webster to present a 2011-12 school budget with a 0-percent increase for taxpayers. The message of the crowd was split, with some making impassioned pleas against approving more than $660,000 in cuts, and others advocating for taxpayers who are already struggling to make ends meet in a recession economy.

The budget will come before the school board again at a special meeting on May 19, at which the board will vote it up or down.

The cuts, arrived at by the collaboration of the two school principals and Webster, covered 18 areas of the budget, from full-time elementary and high school faculty positions, to middle level B athletic teams. As explained by Webster, the cuts would decrease the school budget by 4 percent over the current year, which, because of revenue shortfalls, would keep the increase to taxpayers to 0 percent.

A first draft of the budget, which was rejected by the board, would have increased costs by 6 percent over the current year, and increased local property taxes by approximately 10 percent.

In discussing how to proceed with the budget session, given the list of cuts, board member Linda Nelson noted that the board’s job is to set fiscal policy and that she did not have a lot to say about the individual items. “It’s not our job to pick what to cut. They [the administrators] have met goals we set for them, but the important part of this meeting is to hear what you, the public, have to say,” Nelson explained to the audience.

Board member Vicki Zelnick agreed with Nelson, and added that the administrators had achieved what the board had asked them to do. “For me to nitpick here and there is a disservice to what they have accomplished.” She also pointed out that, in her research, she discovered that the school district has added two full-time employees over the past 10 years, while student enrollment has dropped 23 percent. Zelnick also noted that the district’s student-to-teacher ratio has gone from 9.75 students per teacher in 2000 to 6.2 in 2010.

While Nelson and Zelnick favored accepting the cuts proposed by the administration, their fellow board members, Andrew Vaughn and Virginia Olsen, felt it was important for the board to be able to consider the list and add back in those items that they felt were too important to cut. Vaughn emphasized that the list of cuts represented what the administration would cut if they had to, but that the board should be making the decisions.

“What we asked them to do was to come up with a list of cuts that would take us to a zero tax increase. I don’t take that request as an endorsement that these are the cuts that they think we should make,” explained Vaughn. He then added that, while a 0-percent taxpayer increase is a worthwhile goal, the vote two years ago against consolidation was done with full knowledge that the state would impose a penalty via a decrease in the Essential Programs and Services subsidy. Given that fact, Vaughn felt it would be only right to restore at least $110,000, the amount of the penalty for the current year. He also expressed reservations about many of the cuts, including the middle-level reading position, which, he said, serves the only group of students increasing in size over the current year.

“That’s the only section where enrollment is going up a bit, and we’re saying we’re making cuts for enrollment reasons. That makes no sense to me,” said Vaughn. He added that the half-time reading specialist has done a great job with previous workshops involving the sixth grade.

One citizen, a parent, pointed out that no parent wants to see cuts to core programs.

“But costs have risen at such a rate, we cannot continue to afford the model of education we currently have,” she said. She added that, while she has a child in a middle grade who would be affected by the loss of a reading specialist, people in the two Island towns “can’t afford our taxes, and the economy isn’t getting any better any time soon.”

Another parent, Nicole Cormier, took the opposite position, saying that the increase spread across the tax base is not so great, and the community should be able to have a voice and say what they are willing to pay extra for.

Nelson defended the decision to work to reduce the budget, noting that members of the audience were making assumptions that by cutting positions the school would be cutting services. “For staff to go steady and students to go down for this many years, we have to ask the question about whether we’re doing this as effectively as we can, or are we getting into a precedent where we’re over-staffing?” questioned Nelson. She noted that many similarly sized school districts manage to be high-performing while also being more cost-efficient than CSD 13.

In an e-mail after the meeting, Nelson wrote that, based on data from the Center for Educational Policy at the University of Southern Maine, K-8 schools in Carmel, Levant, Kingfield and Strong are all examples of small, rural schools that cost less to operate but are high-performing academically. She also noted that there are no small, rural high schools rated well for cost-efficiency, which is why she has not pushed for equal budget cuts to the two Island schools. The high school, she noted, is required to have too many options for too few students to be very cost-effective. Rather, making the high school a magnet school that draws other area students “is probably the only way to make a real difference at the high school in terms of average cost per student.”

Responding to Nelson’s argument about making cuts first and letting the administration figure out how to run the schools after, faculty member Roberta Johnson told the school board they were putting the cart before the horse. “Shouldn’t you find a way to be more efficient before you cut positions?” she asked.

Asked about the specific impact the reduction of a technology and business position in the high school would have, Principal Todd West said they would have to go to “plan B” for integration of technology into the classroom, and that it would likely not be as effective as “plan A.” But he also noted that the current business lab equipment may be antiquated in three years, and that he has seen a gradual increase in shifting responsibility for classroom technology integration to individual teachers.

In the elementary school, Principal Mike Benjamin said the reduction of two teaching positions as well as the reading consultant, “is going to cause pain.” He added that there will be problems as a result of these cuts and that while the school may be able to be more efficient in the classroom, he does not believe that cutting positions is the right thing to be doing right now. “Looking at the strategic plan to increase literacy, this is not the way to do it,” said Benjamin. “If you want a zero increase, this is how you do it.”

Vaughn asked the board to consider adding back in a handful of items cut. Put to a straw poll, the reintroduction of the reading specialist in the middle level, “AP4ALL” funding, high school books, funding for an anti-bullying workshop in the elementary school and $23,000 for high school maintenance did not get approval.

He also noted that he did not agree with the position of other board members that cuts should be made by the administration. “My job as a school committee member is to take feedback and make decisions. I feel I’m abdicating some of my responsibility by asking the administration to make those decisions,” said Vaughn.

Nelson disagreed. “We set fiscal goals and the administration sets educational goals within that fiscal framework.” She added that the board hires professionals, evaluates them, pays them, sets their priorities, and expects them to be accountable. “We have got to stop muddying the waters as a school board,” stated Nelson.

Vaughn said he thought the board was going too far with the proposed cuts and said he would not support the budget when it came up for a vote.

Citizen Stephen York argued that the board had heard ample voices from the public that didn’t agree with what the board is doing and said he was not impressed with the performance of the board. Nelson encouraged all those not in support of the budget to participate in the process and come to the annual budget meeting on June 9 and vote the budget down.

Concluding the discussion, Superintendent Webster said that he appreciated the passion and support from members of the public and their desire to have the best for their children. “But you really have to recognize that enrollment continues to go down. You cannot continue to spend $6 million to educate 250 kids. You’re really going to have to wrestle with that,” said Webster. He noted that most parents probably voted to keep the school in Orland open. “But they were outvoted 2 to 1,” explained Webster.

The board will vote on the budget at the special meeting on Thursday, May 19, at 6 p.m. at the high school.