News Feature

Deer Isle
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, June 21, 2012
CSD School board makes spending choices after public vote
Some voter requests granted, some not

Deer Isle-Stonington CSD Archive
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by Jessica Brophy

At a special meeting on June 14, the CSD school board deliberated on what to do with the additional $147,000 voted into the 2012-13 school budget with nearly two-to-one support at the June 7 budget meeting and with more than two-to-one support at the ballot box June 12.

The funds had been added to the school board’s proposed budget at the district budget meeting June 7. Former school board member Andy Vaughn, who made the motions increasing the budget, and several parents, teachers and community members spoke about the funds.

During discussion, those in favor of the increased funds asked the funds be used to reinstate the half-time librarian, the middle-level literacy position, the second fifth-grade teacher and to reinstate the gifted and talented teacher’s position from 2.5 to four days per week. These four positions had been eliminated or reduced as part of the budget process.

Legally, the public can change the amount of money raised for warrant articles, but the public cannot dictate how those funds are spent. Maine law grants the school board broad authority to expend publicly-approved funds at the board’s discretion.

At the June 14 special meeting, the board voted 2-3 (Cormier, Zelnick, Nelson) against reinstating the high school librarian position.

The board voted 2-3 (Cormier, Zelnick, Nelson) against increasing the gifted and talented teacher’s position from 2.5 to four days per week.

The board voted for restoring the middle-level reading position 4-1 (Zelnick).

The board voted for having two fifth-grade classes for next year 4-1 (Cormier).

The board meets Monday, July 2, at 5 p.m. at the high school.

Debate over the votes

Approximately 40 parents, teachers and community members gathered at the June 14 special meeting. Several spoke in favor of using the funds to reinstate the four positions eliminated or reduced during the budget process. Many expressed frustration that the board did not do so for all the positions, despite the district budget meeting vote and island-wide ballot vote that validated the increased budget.

Parent Amy Vaughn said to ignore voter intent and the “public mandate” of the votes was “paternalistic.”

Board member Linda Nelson said people who voted at the ballot box on June 12 “did not know what they were voting for,” a comment that prompted outcry from those present at the meeting. In a follow-up interview, Nelson said what she meant by the statement is that with only four days between the district meeting and the referendum vote, many people did not have time to find out what, if any, changes had been made to the budget.

“I had a lot of people say they voted for the budget at the ballot because they trusted the school board,” said Nelson. “They didn’t know the budget had been changed.”

“I am really tired of hearing about the board hearing from unknown constituents,” said industrial arts teacher Dennis Saindon. “If they are so concerned, they could get out and vote. The way I look at it, the public has spoken.”

Parent Deena Staples agreed with Saindon. “I don’t think people are uneducated [about the budget]. It feels kind of disrespectful to say we don’t know what is going on.”

Nelson also said there are groups of people who don’t feel comfortable coming to a public meeting and speaking up for a smaller budget, because they don’t want to be seen as anti-education or anti-children.

Board member Stephen York said he did not think voters had been misled, and supported reinstating the funds as suggested at the district budget meeting.

Board member Vicki Zelnick said the board is faced with the problem of a “really big budget” for an enrollment that is not big, and that the board could have curtailed the budget through attrition for next year. Zelnick said she would prefer to see the funds added to the budget used for professional development to improve the current teaching staff.

Skip Greenlaw, board member, said that “after months of debate,” the public “overwhelmingly approved” the addition of funds, and urged the other members of the board to vote in favor of using the funds to reinstate the requested positions.

In terms of the second fifth-grade class, fifth-grade teacher Linda Weed reported that another student had signed up for next year’s fifth-grade, bringing the total number of students to 24.

Board chairman Mark Cormier said he had been on school boards over the years that believed in the benefit of small class sizes, but hadn’t “seen the fruits” of those small classes.

When asked why he did not align all of his votes with public opinion, in a follow-up interview, Cormier said the board asked administrators to make cuts for a flat budget. When the funds are added back in, people assume the administration would reinstate the same positions and programs. In fact, Cormier said, administrators may want to take the school in a new direction.

Reduction in force for high school positions

Two partial reductions in force at the high school level were considered by the board at its June 14 meeting. The first was to reduce English and social studies teacher Marion Austin’s position by .82 full-time equivalent, leaving Austin with one U.S. History course. The board approved this RIF 4-1 (York).

The second reduction recommended was a .33-reduction of the full-time English position held by Lee Lehto. The recommendation was made by the administration when a course of Lehto’s failed to enroll any students. A class size policy passed earlier this year says any high school elective enrolling less than five students would be cancelled.

At the meeting on June 14, Lehto said she had students who were interested in taking the course but had not signed up. She also said she was considering other employment opportunities.

The school board went into executive session, and when members returned from executive session, they voted 0-5 against reducing Lehto’s position.

In a follow-up interview, Superintendent Robert Webster said the situation was similar to Congress requiring the Navy to build a battleship it didn’t need.

“Each member may have had their own reason [to vote to keep Lehto on full time],” said Cormier. “I think the strongest may have been that it is hard to offer a teacher a part-time position.” Cormier said he is sure principal Todd West will find a productive use for Lehto’s open class time.

Other business

At the request of board member Stephen York, the board reconsidered its position on whether to include administrator, teacher and staff salaries as part of the annual school report in the Island Ad-Vantages. York said withholding the information from the report “seems adversarial” since the information is requested by the newspaper each year and published anyway. Greenlaw said he didn’t think the publishing of salaries served any purpose. The board approved the motion to publish employee salaries, 4-1 (Greenlaw).

The board also decided 5-0 to hold its meetings at the high school on a regular basis, instead of switching between the high school and the elementary school. All meetings will now be held at 5 p.m. in the high school cafeteria, unless otherwise scheduled.

The board also saw plans drawn up by architect Mike Sealander for the renovation of part of the high school into a new central office location. The board voiced support for a revision made to an earlier Sealander design. Webster encouraged the board to engage Sealander for a design for the library, which will be renovated into a library/media center.

During the June 14 meeting, a concern was raised about the nature of the relationship between the school system and Opera House Arts. In a follow-up interview, Webster said there is no contract for funding between the school system and OHA, and no plans for one. There are occasional ad-hoc programs that involve visiting artists, events or performances (some of which may involve OHA and other area organizations); these are determined by the principals on a case-by-case basis and paid for (if not donated) out of the schools’ budgets for assemblies, workshops and student activities. Cormier confirmed that if any vote were to come before the board involving OHA, Nelson would abstain from that vote.

In a follow-up interview, Nelson said, “Opera House Arts, like several island nonprofits, invests a great deal of resources in programs that benefit our students and schools—in OHA’s case approximately $35,000-$50,000 annually.”

During the citizen comments period, parent Hyeja Poling addressed the board with concerns about reductions to the food budget. “I met with [Forrest Davis in Food Service] and he said the food quality will have to go down next year because of a reduction of staff hours and the increase of the cost of food,” said Poling. “I think we need to think seriously about the food. What is more important than food for our children—not maintenance or the librarian.”

Cormier said the board periodically revisits the school lunch program, and invited Poling to come back to the board with her concerns then.