Waldo County school district plans to cut teachers, French program

Posted April 18, 2012, at 6:13 p.m.

THORNDIKE, Maine — Au revoir le francais.

The French program at Mount View High School is on the chopping block — not to say the guillotine — as the RSU 3 board of directors works to make up for a $750,000 loss of state and federal revenue that has squeezed its budget.

The district also expects to eliminate one elementary school principal, two elementary school teachers, an elementary school guidance counselor and other half-time positions. It also plans to cut back to a single bus run for the next school year.

“We’re cutting more than the muscle here. We’re into the bone,” Kathy Eickenberg of Liberty, chairwoman of the board of directors, said Tuesday evening. “I don’t know how much more we could ever cut from the budget.”

The proposed budget, passed by the board earlier this month, adds up to $19.2 million. Although it represents no expenditure increase over last year’s budget, taxpayers in the 11 towns that make up the far-flung western Waldo County school district will expect to pay more than $450,000 in additional taxes for schools in order to offset the revenue loss.

Voters will make a final decision on whether to pass the proposed budget at the district budget meeting, similar to a town meeting, which will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 23, at the Mount View complex in Thorndike.

The amount of the increased tax burden will vary from town to town. Montville taxpayers expect to see a 0.2 percent increase in what they pay for schools while Freedom taxpayers will have an overall increase of 24.6 percent for schools.

Ron Price, chairman of the Freedom Board of Selectmen, said Wednesday he didn’t expect that property tax payers would see their mill rate — now set at $14.90 per thousand in property valuation — jump by that percentage. However, he said it was too soon to speculate about how much more taxpayers will pay for schools.

The community’s large increase is directly related to the fact that the three-turbine Patriot Renewables wind farm on Beaver Ridge has gone online and has added about $10 million to the town’s previous $50 million total property valuation.

Price said that Freedom’s mill rate has not yet been set for the next year but there will be an increase, though the town will work to keep that as low as possible. He said that the wind farm developers will be paying new taxes on their property but since the town’s share of school costs is based in part on property valuation, the community’s share of school costs also is going up.

The district’s increased costs for schools has not come as a surprise, Price said.

“An $800,000 shortfall districtwide translates to a lot of money districtwide,” he said.

That shortfall includes a $500,000 loss of state subsidies for education and a $250,000 loss from federal stimulus funds.

RSU 3 Superintendent Heather Perry said the district has been able to decrease or keep steady its overall expenditures since the 2006-2007 school year. However, in the same time period, decreasing revenues and increased operation costs have caused the school board to cut an average of $700,600 per year to “hold the line.”

Last year, the school district eliminated nine positions, she said Tuesday, adding that she did not yet know if the principal of Walker Elementary School in Liberty or the principal of Troy Elementary School would be let go. The remaining principal will be in charge of both elementary schools, which are located about 30 miles apart.

District officials said they have worked to minimize any harm to education as they have made the budget cuts. The French program has been unpopular in recent years, with only six of the high school’s 450 students signed up this year to take French I. In contrast, the German and Spanish language programs have been very popular, Eickenberg said.

“When there is limited interest in a topic, that definitely is something we need to look at. That’s unfortunate, because we want to have as diverse an offering as we can,” she said.

According to Perry, if students wish to study French, the district will be able to offer classes through distance learning.

Eickenberg said that while closing one of the district’s smallest elementary schools had been on the table, the board decided not to move in that direction.

“It was a tough decision. I hope we don’t have to go there again,” she said, adding that ideally the district will be able to attract more students as a fix for some of the long-standing budget problems.

“I’m hoping we … essentially grow ourselves out of some of the budget problems we have,” she said.

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