PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A decision by the city to eliminate crossing guard services at schools in SAD 1 has raised objections from school board members who are concerned about the safety of students and staff.
City Manager Tom Stevens said this week that the cuts were necessary to cope with a drastic drop in revenue.
But Lucy Richard, who chairs the school board, said Tuesday that she and other board members were concerned the cuts could result in a serious accident.
SAD 1 Superintendent Gehrig Johnson and Stevens both say they are unsure how long crossing guard services have been in place, but both said it has been for a significant number of years.
The four crossing guards had been assigned to the Griffin Street crossing, which is between Presque Isle High School and Zippel Elementary School. The guards also were stationed in the Griffin and Blake streets area, on North Street and at Pine Street Elementary School.
They were the only crossing guards in the district.
The city’s budget cuts were made in late July and took effect immediately, so the guards were not employed when school began in the district last month.
Eliminating the positions will save the city nearly $19,000 a year.
Stevens said the decision was difficult but necessary at a time when the city had to reduce its 2009 municipal budget by more than $632,000. Stevens said the reduction resulted from a reduction in state revenue sharing to towns and a decrease in money generated through excise taxes.
“That amount is nearly 10 percent of our revenue stream,” Stevens said. “Because of this, we had to go back to a budget that we already had approved and cut a huge chunk of money out of it. When we drafted the budget, we anticipated that we would see a drop in revenue, so we adjusted the budget to reflect that. This $632,000 cut comes on top of that. We cannot maintain the same level of services with lower revenues.”
Stevens noted that all municipal departments have been affected by the revenue loss.
Stevens said Presque Isle Police Chief Naldo Gagnon analyzed the options with him and that the two made the decision jointly. It was presented to the City Council and no members objected, Stevens said.
“This was not the preferred route for us,” he said. “It was not a decision we took lightly. But it was necessary and there are alternatives in place for parents and students.”
Those alternatives are in the form of buses and personal vehicles, Stevens said.
“Students in the district can be bused to school or parents can drive their children to school if they have concerns about them walking,” Stevens said. “Those are safe, accessible alternatives that are more cost effective.”
The city also has offered to provide officers from the Presque Isle Police Department to train school personnel to serve as crossing guards at no cost to the district, the manager said.
“That service is available to them if they want to pay to maintain the crossing guards,” Stevens said.
Richard said she disagrees with the city’s viewpoint. She said the entire board objected to the city’s decision when it gathered on Aug. 12.
“This is a huge public safety issue, and we need to protect our students,” she said Tuesday.
“This is a high traffic area where teachers and students are walking and driving in and buses are dropping kids off and picking them up,” Richard said. “Children who are walking to school can make mistakes when crossing the street, especially if they are young. We recently had two serious accidents in the city where pedestrians have been hit by cars, and one of those accidents was in a crosswalk on North Street that our students use all the time. We just want to keep everyone safe.”
In a letter to Stevens, Richard asked that officials reconsider the decision.
Richard maintained that “serious congestion” is present in the city’s school zones, the result of pedestrian, bus and vehicle traffic converging on schools before the day begins and after it ends.
She cited a survey conducted by the Presque Isle Police Department in June that showed that more than 50 students were dropped off on the north side of Pine Street during a 45-minute period, requiring them to cross the street to school.
Richard said the district was not notified until after it had passed its school budget that the city would not pay for the crossing guards. She added that the board had considered appointing volunteers to serve as crossing guards, but the district’s attorney advised against it due to liability issues.
While Richard said buses and cars are a means of travel for students, she pointed out that some students walk to school because they live close to their building and do not want to board a bus for such a short ride.
Stevens acknowledged that he has fielded messages from residents who disagree with the city’s decision, and Richard said school board members also have heard from residents.
Richard said some have stated an intention to go to the Sept. 9 council meeting to discuss their concerns.
“I hope that the city reconsiders their decision,” she said Tuesday. “We just want to do what is best for our students.”