2017-03-02 / Front Page

Proposed budget cuts leave school officials worried

By Garrick Hoffman
Staff Writer

SACO – A somber air permeated city hall after the Saco School Board proposed budget cuts that amount to $796,315 for the fiscal year 2017-2018 year, potentially resulting in the loss of 13 jobs in the Saco School Department.

More than 50 people attended the school board meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 22, including city councilors, residents, teachers, administrators and staff from Saco schools.

Superintendent Dominic Depatsy said the cuts are chiefly due to Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget.

“On Feb. 17 the school departments around Maine received their EDU 279, which provides subsidy information to school districts,” Depatsy said in a written budget update on Smore.com. “Due to the governor’s biennial budget, L.D. 390, there were 48 changes to our subsidy, which accounted for a $280,000 loss. The (earnings per share) formula is very complicated and affects all aspects of school funding and these proposed changes should not have been implemented, as they have not been vetted in a public forum.”

Depatsy said school officials proposed a flat budget to the finance committee and school board, but the department is still looking at a $3 million increase in expenditures over last year’s budget, due to an increase in tuition by the Maine Department of Education for Thornton Academy, salaries for staff in the kindergarten through eighth-grade program and health insurance for school staff.

“There are still so many unknowns in the budget process including what the Legislature will do with the governor’s changes, what we can accurately report for revenue, as well as what the city councilors will ask of the Saco School Department, which could include more cuts,” Depatsy said at the meeting.

Depatsy said cuts came from a combination of input from the Saco Teachers’ Association, the Saco school leadership team – which includes all Saco principals, department heads and the superintendent – and the school board, and took two hours to deliberate and make final decisions before announcing them to the public.

Jason DiDonato, finance director of Saco schools, said the district’s budget for the 2017-2018 year is $35,742,524.

Depatsy said cuts include a restructure of the central office for $40,000; cutting the kindergarten through eighth grade resource officer at $65,000; cutting the curriculum director at $127,000; cutting summer school at Saco Middle School for $8,315; moving four special education technicians to the Local Entitlement Special Education Grant for $120,000; abstaining from professional development for educational technicians for $30,000; abstaining from purchasing band tables, carpet and miscellaneous small projects and capital improvement projects for $65,000; cutting nine regular kindergarten through eighth grade education technicians for $260,000; cutting the alternative education teacher at Saco Middle School for $61,000; and abstaining from purchasing a new bus and a new van for $20,000. The cuts amount to $796,315.

The vote for the budget reduction was approved 4-3, with board members Beth Johnston of Ward 7, Edna Ben-Ami of Ward 3 and Michel Ohayon of Ward 5 dissenting.

DiDonato said in an email that moving four special education technicians to the local entitlement grant would be a reclassification of where they are paid from. Instead of being paid by Saco’s general fund, they will be paid via the grant. This would not be a reduction of a position; instead, it would be shifting the educational technicians to a different source of payment.

In addition, the grant fund will no longer have a place holder for students with increased needs, so those students would be required to be sent out of district. The board hopes the move won’t be needed. Sending a child out of district costs $60,000 to $90,000 annually, DiDonato said.

DiDonato said the school board is looking to consolidate services in its central office by eliminating one employee, though that is inconclusive.

The board elected not to budget professional development for educational technicians, meaning they will no longer work an extra hour after school to help students on abbreviated Wednesdays, though this help is much needed, DiDonato said.

The nine kindergarten through eighth grade educational technicians proposed to be eliminated are all regular positions for literacy and math, DiDonato said. The district plans to re-structure its current intervention model district-wide to fill the void. The model would change if cuts occur, and more details will be explained as the process continues, DiDonato said.

In addition to savings from the cuts, the school board is looking to save $10,000 to $12,000 annually in energy savings by educating schools on efficiencies that include turning off lights, re-evaluating temperature settings and clearing out all items that draw power in classrooms that are unnecessary, such as space heaters and mini refrigerators, DiDonato said.

The list of cuts was given to the school board in a three-tier approach, DiDonato said. The first level reflected the greatest impact on students, the second reflected a moderate impact and the third reflected the most impact. The board went through the list and decided what they wanted to reduce.

Depatsy said the board started with about $3.2 million in total tax impact for the district because of expenditure increases, lack of subsidies from the state and a lack of revenue lost from one year to the next. The board has cut expenditures down to about $1.7 million after the proposed cuts. These figures are subject to change based on negotiations and other information as it reaches the board, Depatsy said. There will be a school budget hearing at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 8 at 7 p.m. at city hall for public comment.

The school budget is due to the city of Saco on March 10, with a proposed joint workshop with the city council and school board at 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 13 at city hall.

“These proposed and possible future cuts will have a devastating impact on the students and the community of Saco,” Depatsy said. “We have a rigorous strategic plan where we want to close the achievement and opportunity gap and to provide our students with 21st century skills.”

“It was a difficult task,” Ohayon said at the meeting. “I’ve been on and off the school board for the past 11 years and I can tell you that this was one of the hardest budget reduction times I’ve experienced. All options were on the table and nothing was taken lightly.”

Johnston concurred.

“This was a really painful process,” she said. “It seems that some of the things that we put out here are extreme, and although obviously we all hope things will work out for the best, there are certain aspects of this I cannot support. I think it cuts into what we try to do here, which is to educate children. I understand that there are some other structures, things suggested, and it’s come to pass that I hope that they will work well. But for me tonight, it was not necessarily the outcome I wanted to see.”

Ward 4 board member Kevin Lafortune said the board’s decisions were principally a response to actions happening in Augusta.

“The (earnings per share) formula changes that we’re looking at (are) what are putting us in this particular position that we’re in now,” Lafortune said. “There’s not been a substantive change in Saco that’s forced us to have to do this. This is stuff that is being redistributed from Augusta to us . . . We cannot do the things we need to do if we are constantly reacting to cuts that are coming from outside.”

Lafortune urged people to contact their senators and representatives about the budget cuts.

“Beyond that we’re effectively stuck with what we have to do here, and it’s not going to be pleasant.”

Carrie Woodcock, a Saco resident with two children in the district who have special needs, criticized the cuts in a written statement to local media.

“I am extremely disappointed and frustrated by the direction the district has chosen to take with the budget cuts,” Woodcock said. “Half of the cuts that are being considered will have a direct impact on the population of students who need some special consideration when it comes to learning and/or qualify for special education . . . If cuts are being made, all programming should be considered.

“You are not being fair to the special education students within the district. It appears from where I am sitting that you are impacting those that need more instruction the most while protecting those that are ‘gifted.’ This makes me sick to my stomach . . . Our special education in Maine needs more, not less.”

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