WATERBORO – Weighing the potential damage to the quality of education for students in Regional School Unit 57 versus rising property taxes, the school board's finance committee decided against further cuts last week in recommending a $33.5 million budget for next year.
The committee voted 3-2 to send the administration's budget proposal to the full board after some hearty debate, with Dominic Vermette of Limerick, Jennifer Roux of Shapleigh and Seth McCoy of Alfred voting yes.
Nancy Harrison of Lyman and Mary Ross of Waterboro voted no, and before the full board takes up the spending plan, one member is already dead set against its passage.
"At this level (of tax increase), I don't know if the town of Waterboro can support this," Vice Chairwoman Lisa Faith of Waterboro said.
The school board votes on April 28 to approve a budget. A community meeting to discuss the budget is being planned for May 20 ahead of the May 26 annual school district meeting. Voters go to the polls on Primary Day, June 8, to decide the budget's fate.
The district includes Alfred, Limerick, Lyman, Newfield, Shapleigh and Waterboro.
If the school board adopts the administration's proposed budget, the local assessment to the six district towns would increase by an average of 9.5 percent. The breakdown for each town differs - Alfred would be up $263,537 or 13.95 percent; Limerick's increase would be $195,123 or 8.49 percent; Lyman taxes would increase by $308,998 or 9.1 percent; Newfield would pay $128,242 more for schools or 8.64 percent; Shapleigh's increase would be $162,181 or 5.82 percent; and Waterboro school taxes would go up $651,039 or 10.61 percent.
Without any further reductions through upcoming negotiations, the $33.5 million proposal would eliminate 30.55 full-time equivalent positions - 8.5 teachers at Massabesic High School, six elementary teachers, six educational technicians, 4.8 teachers at Massabesic Middle School, the assistant principal at Waterboro Elementary School, 1.75 clerical staff positions, two part-time custodians, a full-time librarian at the middle school and a part-time nurse at the high school. It also includes salary freezes for administrators and support staff.
While the proposal represents a 0.92 percent decrease in spending, local assessments to the six towns in the district would increase by an average of 9.5 percent because of an approximately $2 million drop in state education aid. Selectmen from five of the six towns have said they would support a 7.5 percent increase.
Committee members said they understood the extent of the cuts included in the budget proposal but feared the need to make further cuts if the budget is rejected.
Harrison and Ross said residents in their towns are saying they cannot afford the tax increase this budget would require, a similar message Faith said she is hearing.
"I have a responsibility to express what I've been hearing," said Harrison, who thought another $500,000 in cuts might help ease those concerns.
"I don't want to take away more for the kids, but I'm torn," Ross said.
Supporters of the budget found further cuts unpalatable and said residents should be given the chance to decide whether they want more cuts, likely in the areas of positions and programs, including sports, by voting down the budget.
"I'm comfortable moving it forward as it is," Roux said.
Business Manager Bill Brockman said the district spends less per pupil than any other K-12 district in the state, a reflection of flat-funded budgets in recent years and the reductions made to keep spending down.
"We've pared down this budget in the past three years significantly," said Brockman, explaining if the district spent the state average for per pupil costs (around $11,000) the budget would be $4 million higher today.
"I think a lot of people don't know the numbers," McCoy said.
More potential savings are being sought through negotiations, but they cannot be included in the budget proposal unless they are in place before the school board makes its final decision in two weeks. Reducing three calendar days, two workshop days and one student day, and limiting course reimbursements could reduce the budget by another $361,300, and salary freezes for teachers and educational technicians, plus cutting stipends for sports coaches and co-curricular advisers shave another $686,267.
Administrators said any news on negotiated items would be shared with the school board on Wednesday. The board meets at Massabesic Middle School at 7 p.m.
As expected, the finance committee delved into the debate about cutting certain sports, with Faith again leading the charge to cut all freshman sports instead of most, as proposed in the budget.
Athletic Director Tim Spear, Massabesic High School Principal Chris Elkington and Massabesic Middle School Principal Mark Fisher defended decisions to cut freshman baseball, field hockey, girls soccer, softball and boys and girls lacrosse, and seventh-grade field hockey, boys and girls soccer, boys and girls basketball, baseball and softball, based on the number of students participating.
Objections were also heard on cutting the middle school swim team for seventh- and eighth-grade students, and questions about the high school football program were also discussed.
Spear defended not cutting freshman football, arguing those students could not adequately compete with older students at the junior varsity level in a collision sport when they are still growing. He also said six coaches, two each for freshmen, junior varsity and varsity, are required to make sure students learn the right way to play to avoid injuries.
Elkington repeated his argument against Faith's position cutting all freshman sports would be equitable.
Spear said the sports budget, which makes up a small part of the overall school budget, would take a 20 percent hit in the proposed budget. The pay-to-play fee would be raised to $50, a similar figure seen at other schools he surveyed, Spear said.
Golf and boys and girls tennis would also be cut at the high school next year, despite 35 boys turning out for tennis this spring. Administrators said a similar arrangement to the hockey program is possible, where the district pays for coaches and parents pick up the rest of the cost, and tennis supporters indicated the coach would volunteer to coach.