Madawaska school budget woes prompt emergency meeting, possible elimination of teaching positions and cancellation of basketball games

Posted Nov. 28, 2012, at 10:54 a.m.
Last modified Nov. 28, 2012, at 7:33 p.m.

MADAWASKA, Maine — Teaching positions, academic and athletic programs and extracurricular activities are all on the chopping block as the Madawaska School Committee looks for ways to cut more than $525,000 from the current budget.

“Everything is on the table at this point,” Superintendent Terry Wood said Wednesday afternoon.

Residents will get their first look at proposed budget cuts Thursday afternoon when the Madawaska School Committee holds an emergency meeting to drastically reduce spending for the current fiscal year, which started July 1.

Some preseason basketball games for this weekend already have been canceled and members of the teachers’ association learned Wednesday about a plan to eliminate 10 teaching positions this year.

Bonny Plourde-Tingley, a fifth-grade teacher and co-president of the teachers’ association negotiating team, said she learned about the possible teacher cuts on Wednesday afternoon from Yves Dube, chairman of the school committee.

When reached at home Wednesday evening, Dube would not discuss details of any budget proposals or cuts.

“I am reluctant to say anything about that right now,” Dube said. “What we have now are official documents between the school committee and the [teachers] association and I don’t think I can make them public.”

From coffee shops to the grocery store to the halls of Madawaska High School, talk on Wednesday was of how the needed cuts would be made and the potential impact on education.

“The people of this town need to decide where the priorities are,” Gisele Faucher, a teacher and member of the teacher negotiating team, said Wednesday afternoon. “Do they want a school with more than just the basics or do they want to be able to offer more?”

Cutting 10 teachers, Faucher said, would bring the total number of teachers in the system to 33 among the elementary, middle and high schools.

“We already have middle school kids being taught by high school teachers,” Jenny Bechard, negotiating team co-president, said.

More than 300 residents soundly defeated the previously proposed budget and sent it back to the school committee during a special town meeting on Nov. 19. That budget proposal included a $271,000 increase over the previous year despite prior calls by town officials for a $250,000 decrease, Town Manager Christine Therrien said Wednesday morning.

At the same meeting residents approved the municipal budget, which did include $250,000 in reductions from the previous year, Therrien said.

The need for the budget cutbacks was prompted by property tax abatements granted to Twin Rivers Paper Co., reducing its valuation from $170 million to $85 million over a four-year period beginning in fiscal year 2010.

If the municipal and school budgets each had made the $250,000 in cuts, Therrien said, Madawaska’s mill rate would rise from $15.90 per $1,000 in property value to $17.90. Without the school committee cuts, she said, the rate will rise an additional $2 per thousand.

According to language written into the recently ratified teachers contract, the teachers association agreed to reopen its collective bargaining unit “if the revaluation of the Twin Rivers Mill results in a tax abatement and an unprecedented change in the mill rate” and if all other options for meeting the budget have been considered.

The situation, Faucher and her fellow negotiating team members said Wednesday, is nowhere near that point yet.

Budget problems were being felt this week with Tuesday’s announced cancellations of boys and girls preseason basketball games, according to a message posted by athletic director Benjamin Sirois on the Madawaska Parent/Athlete information blog.

The preseason tournament game this weekend for the Owls high school boys at Central Aroostook in Mars Hill has been canceled, along with hoops action for the high school girls on Dec. 3 and 4 at Washburn, according to Sirois’ blog post. No decision has been announced on whether play will resume for the regular season.

Madawaska middle school A- and B-team games scheduled with Fort Kent for Nov. 28 and 29 also have been canceled until further notice, according to Sirois’ posts.

Calls to Sirois were not returned Wednesday.

At least one high school student is not pleased with the direction the cuts could take.

“I’m upset and I don’t think they should cut our athletic programs,” the sophomore, who did not want to be identified, said Wednesday. “High school is where you learn good habits and those continue on in life [and] they are taking away opportunities from us.”

Superintendent Wood said it will be up to the school committee at Thursday’s meeting to act on the suggested cuts and, one way or another, a decision must be made by Dec. 3 to allow enough time for a special town meeting to vote on the new budget to be posted. That special town meeting is slated for Dec. 10, she said.

Regardless of what happens, Wood said, she is well aware there will be consequences within the community.

“I don’t understand how people can feel with the cuts that must be made it will not impact students,” she said. “These cuts should have been done a long time ago.”

The public will be allowed 15 minutes to comment at the start of Thursday’s emergency school committee meeting and if turnout is heavy, the location may be changed to accommodate the public, committee Chairman Dube said. That decision will be made before the meeting is called to order.

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