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by Jessica Brophy
Ten community members joined the school board and administration on Wednesday, October 19, to discuss big-picture questions about the future of the school system and its budget.
Total enrollment for K-12 in 2000 was 530, last year it was 351. Yet in the same period, the annual school budget has risen from $4.3 million to $6.3 million.
The CSD per-pupil cost last year was $16,836 compared to an $11,037 state average. As enrollments continue to decline, the question arises, “what is an appropriate level of local funding for education?” Superintendent Bob Webster asked this question, and others, during a slideshow presentation.
The big-picture issues and ideas discussed included transforming the budgeting process, moving the Union 76 central office into one of the CSD schools, reducing administrative staff, developing a minimum class size, incorporating a preschool into the elementary school, sending high school students to other area high schools and instituting pay-to-play fees for extracurricular activities.
Some of the more radical ideas were discussed and dismissed quickly by the group. Webster said local taxpayers could save nearly a million dollars a year if high school students attended nearby schools on tuition, such as those in Ellsworth, Bucksport or Blue Hill. But then, he said, the community would lose its hub for the major events that draw Islanders together, such as athletics, junior prom, and graduation.
Another idea that failed to gain traction was the “pay-to-play” model for sports and other extracurricular activities. Board member Linda Nelson said it would be unfair to those who couldn’t afford to play. A community member said athletics “keep kids out of trouble and keep kids in school.”
Slashing administrative costs, regulating class sizes and reducing electives at the high school were all discussed as ways to curb the budget. Questions were also raised about the cost of special education throughout the school system.
The CSD spends $1,741 per pupil on administration, compared to $918 at the state average, according to information Webster provided in the presentation. Nelson asked why the CSD spends nearly twice as much. Webster said both schools are small, have full-time principals and a full time superintendent. Webster said many principals (and occasionally superintendents) in smaller districts also teach and do administrative work only part of the time.
Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris asked why the administration costs are so high, and whether the lack of a consistent curriculum is to blame.
“It’s less about a lack of curriculum,” said Webster. “It’s more a connection with staffing. The admin costs are historical, the Island has always been a part of Union 76, [Union] 76 has always had a full-time superintendent, the buildings have always had full-time principals, and we have 200 fewer students.”
Board chairman Mark Cormier asked Webster whether a full-time superintendent would be needed if Deer Isle-Stonington were to leave the school union. “Not necessarily,” Webster replied.
One way to cut administrative costs would be to move the Union 76 central office from its current rented space in Sargentville into either the elementary or the high school to save costs. Webster estimates that could save more than $18,000 per year.
Class size and offerings
Another major topic was class size, particularly in the elementary school. This year, the second grade has only one class of 22 students. There used to be two classes, and combining them into one was a contentious change made last year during the budget process.
In the first grade, there are 22 students split into two classes of 11, and in the fourth grade there are 23 students split into a class of 12 and a class of 11. Webster asked whether it would make sense to implement a minimum class size, so that there would be consistency of policy, to avoid it feeling “personal.”
“I think there’s no way to avoid it being personal,” elementary school principal Mike Benjamin said.
“Yes, of course, but at least with a policy it makes sense to parents,” community member Jennifer Morrow said. “They’re not asking, ‘Why does this class get to split up, but not that class?’”
Community member Mary Penfold wanted to know how those minimums would be set. “I don’t know how it was decided comparatively for the second grade,” she said. “I know my son has come home and said there’s complete chaos.”
Susanne Ruch said students here are “really lucky” to have small class sizes, but argued that “kids can have a real quality of education even with larger classes.”
A similar discussion was held about the variety of courses offered at the high school. Board member Skip Greenlaw said it is important to maintain a variety of course offerings. “If we’re going to keep a dynamic high school going here, there’s a certain number of courses we need to have in order to achieve that,” he said. High school principal Todd West shared enrollment in certain classes with those present, noting that one challenge of a diverse course offering—beyond the obvious staffing issue—is student scheduling.
Community member Zach Rosenfield raised some questions about special education costs. “I remember from past meetings that 23-25 percent of every class K through 12 are special ed children. If that’s the case, are they the same kids? Are you always special ed, do you advance out of it? If a quarter of kids are special ed, that’s a major problem,” Rosenfield said.
Rosenfield said a preschool taking all children, perhaps partnered with Child and Family Services, could reduce the special education burden in the future.
Greenlaw said the Ready by 21 group is currently looking at the idea of pre-k education. Ruch asked if the conversation includes owners of daycares and preschools on the Island.
“We’re trying to make everyone feel like they’re involved,” Greenlaw said. “We’re just trying to get kids more ready for kindergarten.”
Facilities costs and budget models
Other issues raised during the meeting included the high facilities costs, which Webster said are due primarily to the age of the high school, which opened in 1976.
Billings-Pezaris asked whether there is a capital improvement plan for the buildings, and whether needed maintenance is being done to avoid larger problems in the future. Webster said that there is not a capital improvement plan, but that he believes the CSD has “done a reasonably good job keeping this building up.” Developing a capital improvement plan for the buildings is on his radar, he said.
Webster also posed a question of how the budgeting process should work this year. Should the board use a traditional incremental budgeting model—where the board starts with last year’s budget costs and adds and subtracts as needed? Or should it try a zero-based budget, where the budget starts at zero and only those things that are proven necessary or effective are added?
No decisions were made at the forum, as this is just a jumping off point for budget planning. The next monthly school board is Tuesday, November 1, at the high school at 6 p.m.
K-5 Class Sizes for 2011-12
Kindergarten: Two classes, 12 and 12