MADAWASKA, Maine — Options put on the table Thursday afternoon to reduce the Madawaska School budget would gut academics and extracurricular activities, and eliminate 20 percent of the teaching staff.
“I can’t recommend anything I am proposing here today,” Superintendent Terry Wood told her school committee during an emergency meeting at the Madawaska High School. “But you asked me to look at the numbers and these are what they are.”
Earlier this month residents voted down a proposed $7 million School Department budget and mandated the committee cut more than 7 percent — or $525,000 — from that budget.
At the same meeting on Nov. 19, voters approved a municipal budget reflecting $250,000 in cuts.
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.
“We need to take action on the people’s mandate to make these cuts,” Yves Dube, school committee chairman, said Thursday. “It is our responsibility to take action.”
To meet the more than half million dollars in cuts, Wood suggested one option that included eliminating nine full-time teaching positions and several support staff and ed tech positions; cutting staff hours; reducing administrative pay by 1 percent; implementing four mandatory furlough days; eliminating middle school, junior varsity and varsity athletics; shortening the school year by one day; and cutting the pay of all teachers by 2.2 percent.
Programs and staff positions could be saved, Wood said, under an alternate plan calling for an 11 percent salary reduction for teachers.
“I personally do not begin to think this will not impact students,” Wood said. “But there is nothing left in the budget to begin with that does not impact students.”
School committee members are up against a tight deadline to act on the options with a special town meeting scheduled for Dec. 10 for residents to vote on a new budget. Under Maine law, the agenda of that special meeting must be posted seven days before it is held.
Saying this was the first time they had seen Wood’s options, board members opted Thursday to table any decision on the budget until a special committee meeting Monday afternoon, with the place and time to be announced.
Thursday’s meeting originally had been scheduled for the superintendent’s conference room but was moved to the high school library when more than 200 residents showed up.
Proposed cuts to staff and programs were not popular options among voters attending the meeting.
“Before you make any decision I have three suggestions for you,” resident James Cyr told the school committee. “Go into the gym and look at our championship banners [and] then go into the band room and look at the photos of the band [and] then look at every kid here in the eye because those are the faces of education you are destroying.”
Earlier this week school officials canceled preseason basketball games at the varsity and middle school levels pending resolution of the budget problems, a move some saw as vindictive.
“I saw that decision to stop those sports as a really passive aggressive move,” Meghan Gendreau said, referring to the cancellation earlier this week of preseason basketball games the boys and girls high school teams were scheduled to play. “Cutting those games was directed at the kids and there were so many broken hearts and tears [and] I felt the kids were pawns [and] this was a shot at the parents.”
The time has come, several residents said, for the community to work together.
“The [voters] are not going to approve a budget unless it is cut so that has to happen,” Paul Roy, a 2006 graduate of Madawaska High School, said. “But it is unfair to fire teachers and unfair to cut sports. We can’t point fingers at the school board [and] the time has come to compromise, but drastic cuts are not the way to go.”
If the committee were to accept Wood’s options, the reality for Madawaska students would be bleak, high school principal Wayne Anderson said.
Language, theater, writing, science, mathematics, social studies and Advanced Placement programs all would be cut with student schedules limited to core classes and study halls, Anderson said.
“These are not my recommendations,” the principal said. “But this is what things will look like if this budget gets passed.”
In agreeing to take the matter up for final action on Monday, school committee members also directed Wood to request the date of the special town meeting to act on a proposed school budget be moved back a few days from the Dec. 10 date to give the committee more time to consider the cuts.
“These cuts are the mandate of the people and will be very difficult to address,” Dube said. “We are just hearing them for the first time today and need the time to consider them.”