High schoolers take a stand on Glenburn-Veazie-Orono budget cuts: Don’t cut our teachers

Orono High School student Alex Bulteel, 17, (standing) speaks to the RSU 26 Board about the student body's desire to keep teachers and custodians safe from cuts in the wake of a $2 million budget gap. Other Orono High School students sit on either side of him.
Orono High School student Alex Bulteel, 17, (standing) speaks to the RSU 26 Board about the student body's desire to keep teachers and custodians safe from cuts in the wake of a $2 million budget gap. Other Orono High School students sit on either side of him. Buy Photo
Posted Dec. 14, 2011, at 9:27 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 15, 2011, at 3:07 p.m.

GLENBURN, Maine — Letters, emails, phone calls and comments have flowed into RSU 26 since the school district announced a $2 million budget shortfall in a letter sent to residents last week.

Some are upset, others are worried, many are offering potential solutions. Hundreds of teachers, administrators and residents of Glenburn, Veazie and Orono have rallied to offer ideas and help close the gap.

Among those taking interest is a group of Orono High School students who are worried about the prospect of losing some of their teachers and staff at the school.

“Our goal is to demonstrate that students care about the faculty,” said Billy DeSisto, a 16-year-old junior at the high school. Desisto attended a finance committee meeting on Monday along with six classmates. Students also turned out for Wednesday’s regular RSU board meeting, which some were late for because of a conflicting concert performance.

After learning of the cuts late last week, Jiawei Zou, 17, Laurie Hamilton, 17, Conall Molloy,15, Schuyler Collett, 16, Alex Bulteel, 17, DeSisto and others called a meeting. They distributed more than 200 copies of a one-page brief on the situation to students, presented in several classrooms and created a Facebook page so students could follow the developments.

Most of the students behind the push to get students involved in the RSU budget discussion are members of the student newspaper, The Inside.

The students also wrote a letter, which they presented to the RSU 26 board during its meeting Wednesday night.

“It stands to reason that the budget could effectively cut back on spending without dismissing faculty,” the letter states. “We expect the Board to exhaust all options before considering these drastic measures. Cuts to school projects, athletic programs, and extra-curricular activities are preferable to dismissals.”

That letter was signed by about 140 students.

The teachers and other staff who could see their positions disappear have already been informed, according to RSU board member Susan O’Roak.

Without any tax increases, the school unit estimates that Glenburn schools would lose 12.5 positions, Orono schools would lose 16 and Veazie schools 9.5. To avoid losses that severe, school board members has visited town councils in Veazie, Glenburn and Orono to fill them in on the situation and request a 1-mill tax rate increase in each town.

The tax increase could be less than 1 mill, but definitely won’t exceed that, RSU officials have said.

With a 1-mill hike, the district would raise $894,000 and save some of those jobs. Glenburn would lose six positions, Orono would lose nine and Veazie four, according to Smith.

That still leaves $1.1 million to be cut.

Administrators in the school district already have suggested ways to save. They range from eliminating a portable classroom at Orono High School to eliminating or cutting the hours of the school nurse in Glenburn.

If all suggestions from the administrators were adopted, that still would leave a $101,000 gap. That’s where ideas from the public, teachers and other staff come in.

Residents and employees have offered ideas that could be useful, while others are a bit “loony,” O’Roak said during Monday’s finance committee meeting.

If an idea is presented by both the administration and members of the public, it’s given extra weight, according to O’Roak.

A full list of recommendations and a breakdown of the potential savings involved is available by calling the RSU 26 superintendent’s office at 942-4405 or by attending a Monday finance committee meeting.

O’Roak stressed that the changes are fluid and are likely to change before the finance committee presents its recommendations to the board in January.

Some residents who attended the meeting expressed frustration and confusion about how the school district ended up $2 million short.

State subsidy money for next year has been slashed, teachers were scheduled for a wage increase, federal funding has expired and the carry-forward money — or the amount of surplus money each community brought into the school unit at its formation three years ago — is almost depleted.

Veazie resident Rod Hathaway sat on the steering board that developed the regional school unit under Gov. John Baldacci.

“I’m really curious to understand how we are in this position after developing a budget and implementing a budget three years ago,” he said. “Here we are three years later, discussing some drastic reductions in our schools. … What happened? What went wrong? Were we kidding ourselves?”

O’Roak said during Monday’s meeting that the future of the RSU hinges on how the schools confront the budget shortfall.

“This is either going to blow us apart or bring us together as an RSU,” she said.

CORRECTION:

An early version of this story contained an error. A position was cut last year in RSU 26’s office support staff, not in system administration.

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