School budget shortfall affects 82 jobs

Posted April 07, 2010, at 9 p.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — Facing a budget shortfall of some $2.5 million for 2010-11, the RSU 13 board last week approved reductions that include 31 layoffs, fewer hours for others, transfers of teachers and elimination of some extracurricular activities.

A total of 82 positions will be affected by reductions in next year’s school budget, which is proposed at $26,090,701, approximately $2.5 million less than this year’s budget of $28,591,822.

The shortfall resulted from a cut in the state subsidy of about $540,000, the elimination of Medicaid revenues for special education programs, and the return of more than $1.6 million to some towns that was required after the administrative consolidation of the new regional school unit.

Personnel cuts make up the majority of the $2.4 million carved from the budget because personnel constitutes about three-quarters of the district’s costs, according to RSU 13 Superintendent Judith Lucarelli. The remainder of the revenue shortfall will be made up with a 3 percent tax increase for the towns served by RSU 13, which include Thomaston, St. George, Cushing, Rockland, South Thomaston and Owls Head. The tax increase for education totals about $630,000 over last year.

At its April 1 meeting, the school board approved the layoffs of a business education teacher, a social worker, the Gilford Butler School principal, seven ed techs, three custodians, a Web assistant, a part-time secretary, two Spanish tutors, a computer technician, a driver, two secretaries and a district kitchen manager. The con-tracts of nine probational teachers also will not be renewed.

Twenty-one stipend positions also will be eliminated, affecting mainly extracurricular activities. Those include fall cheerleading at Rockland District Middle School and High School; field hockey at Georges Valley High School in Thomaston and Thomaston Grammar School; girls soccer, boys and girls tennis, summer strength coaching, Envirothon and jazz band at Rockland High; and baseball, softball and girls basketball at Georges Valley. Field hockey programs will be consolidated at Georges Valley and Rockland High, and cheerleading may be continued through fundraising efforts, according to Lucarelli.

Lucarelli said many of these programs did not have enough students participating to continue anyway.

Other eliminated stipend positions include head teachers at South School and MacDougal School; literacy, math and science leaders for the west side schools; treasurer for Rockland High; and district webmaster. The assistant principal at South School will take on the responsibilities of the head teachers.

The MacDougal School will be closed with students and remaining personnel combined into South School.

One of the budget problems for RSU 13, according to Lucarelli, arose when the towns consolidated into one district and the old SAD 5 had funds remaining from the previous budget cycle for summer payroll. The RSU had to return those funds, amounting to about $1.6 million, to the towns, she said.

RSU 13 doesn’t expect to get that money back for next year, Lucarelli indicated, because with the economy so bad, the towns might have spent that money on their other budgetary needs.

Lucarelli said consolidation was not to blame for the problem.

“I’m not going to blame consolidation for the situation we’re in. I’d say it’s the economy,” she said this week. “It did exacerbate our problem now, but I’m not sure it made it worse.

“I think we would have had to reduce the budget for the current year if we hadn’t had all that money to give back. It’s just pay me now or pay me later,” she said.

In addition to repaying the towns, the RSU also lost money because of a drop in state subsidy of about $540,000 and $264,341 lost in Medicaid revenues the state previously had funded.

According to Lucarelli, the state changed its method of making Medicaid reimbursements for special education programs. The state now deducts Medicaid money from the school district’s subsidy.

“We get money for Medicaid reimbursements for special ed programs,” Lucarelli said, “and [the state] changed it so every dollar we get, they will subtract it from the subsidy. So we aren’t going to even apply for that — it costs us money to get that.”

“Because they will take it away [anyway], we won’t even apply for it,” she said.

The school board’s April 1 meeting drew a crowd of more than 130 people. Residents, teachers and students spoke to defend their schools and ask that their jobs or departments be spared.

Nikki Castellano, a parent and school volunteer, expressed anger at the way the reductions, transfers and layoffs were happening, noting that some teachers had been handed slips notifying them they would be transferred to other schools while they were teaching.

“The lack of compassion and professionalism is astounding,” Castellano said at the meeting. “How will my children benefit from this?”

The situation she referred to happened March 24 when the principal of South School was away.

Todd Martin, principal of the MacDougal School and the future principal of South School, received the transfer letters from the superintendent on a Wednesday morning. Martin explained this week that anxiety was running high among the teachers at his school about who might get transferred. He called South School and spoke to a person who told him tensions were high there, too.

Martin said Tuesday that he brought the transfer slips to the teachers that morning. If a teacher was busy teaching a class, he knocked on the door, apologized, asked teachers singly to step into the hallway, handed each a transfer notification and then let them return to their classrooms, he said.

“I did knock on doors and apologized to teachers and delivered them during class time. I knew they were anxious to hear,” Martin said. “My intent was to alleviate the anxiety so people didn’t have to wait.”

The principal of South School, Jane Moore, said she thought the conduct was unprofessional. About 15 of her teachers got formal notices that day.

“There were some teachers who were given letters during their teaching time, and I had nothing to do with that,” she said. “I was very upset with that — I thought it was very unprofessional. How can people go back and teach after that?”

Also at the April 1 meeting, the board voted to give the MacDougal School to the city of Rockland, indicating there was no further educational use for the building. The RSU will keep the land with the athletic fields and the boiler inside the school, but give the rest of the building and land to Rockland. If the city rejects the offer, the RSU will sell the building.

The town voted earlier this year to close the school, which will remain open for the rest of this school year before transferring its students to South School for the 2010-11 school year.

The school board will host several budget meetings before taking a final vote on the budget May 6.

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