Entire teaching staff laid off

Posted May 14, 2009, at 8:06 p.m.

CAMDEN, Maine — Citing financial hardship and a pressing need to restructure, the Community School last week laid off its entire teaching staff and two other employees.

The five teacher-counselors are welcome to reapply for the new positions that now are being created, said executive director Dorothy Foote, but the mass layoff was necessary given the school’s current requirement to “do more with less.”

“We’re all put in a tough position. I’m still grieving, myself,” Foote said. “It’s a challenging period of time, but we do great work. We just need to continue to do more of it.”

Foote said that the staff positions are being “redesigned,” but that the school has yet to determine how many positions will be needed. There will be fewer, she said. One of the new requirements is that new teaching hires must be state-certified, which has not until now been mandatory. At least three of the five current teachers are not state-certified.

The Community School is an alternative private high school and has been approved by the state of Maine since 1974. Since then, it has awarded 475 diplomas in two programs: the residential program, which just graduated a class of seven students, and the home-based Passages program, which serves teen parents in Knox, Waldo, Lincoln and Washington counties. The Passages program has not been affected by the restructuring, Foote said.

Foote and Joseph Hufnagel, the residential director, said that while the current economic hard times and less grant money available for education programs have created financial challenges, the school’s mission to serve its unique student body is more important than ever. Students in the residential program come from all over the state, and those with nontraditional learning styles, problematic family and social backgrounds or trouble succeeding in public schools are welcome.

“We try not to turn a kid down,” Foote said. “This is a population we must support to help the whole community.”

While several teachers said that they were upset about the decision to lay them off, all spoke highly of the school.

“I feel privileged to have been involved in the Community School,” said former teacher Amy Nesbitt of Camden. “It’s a special little place. It’s a real democracy, and everybody’s equal,” Nesbitt said.

But the decision to make the layoffs was not democratically made, some teachers say.

“I think that on a strictly logical level, the institution needs some major changes, just so that it’s sustaining its financial needs,” said Gabe Finkelstein of Hope, another teacher. “I understand the need for autocratic leadership when dire decisions need to be made. The type of process that’s occurred is not out-of-this-world under the circumstances, but more direct communication of the changes could have maintained a sense of cohesion amongst our team.”

Foote said that 80 percent— or $517,970, according to the 2008 annual report — of the school’s current budget is spent on salaries and benefits. It is still unclear what the school will have for an operating budget next year.

“The last few years, there have been deficits,” she said. The school has lost grants, including a major one from the DHS Office of Substance Abuse.

As part of the restructuring, the school is looking for more funders and partner agencies. It has found one in the New Forest Institute of Brooks, where incoming students will work at apprenticeships and learn about environmentalism. The school also has received a $5,000 gift from a private donor to go “green,” Foote said.

“We want the students to be ready for green jobs. This is their civil rights revolution,” she said.

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