Madawaska School Committee votes to cut jobs, hopes town will fund the positions until end of school year

Posted Dec. 12, 2012, at 10:18 p.m.

MADAWASKA, Maine — The Madawaska School Committee Wednesday night eliminated the equivalent of 12 full-time teaching and staff positions but are hoping the community will support a request to fund the teaching positions through the end of the current school year.

The cuts in teaching positions represent more than 20 percent of the 43-member faculty.

To help meet mandated $525,000 in cuts, the board eliminated the Gifted and Talented program teacher and one teacher each from kindergarten and the business, mathematics, science, social studies, English and French departments.

Those teachers could finish out the year if voters back a half-mill property tax increase at an upcoming special town meeting tentatively planned for Friday, Dec. 21.

The committee also eliminated a half-time physical education teacher, a half-time elementary school teacher, a half-time education technician, a half-time school nurse, a custodian and a secretary.

“I can not recommend the cuts,” Superintendent Terry Wood told the committee after they came out of a two-hour executive session and before they voted. “But these are options.”

About 100 residents waited out the executive session in the Madawaska High School library to hear the committee’s decision.

The committee also accepted an offer from the teachers’ association to cut teacher salaries this year by 3 percent, mandate 2 furlough days, cut administrative salaries by 2 percent, and reduce funding to extracurricular activities. The committee also accepted an offer by retiring Madawaska Elementary School Principal Ginette Albert to voluntarily forfeit $10,000 — 23 percent — of her salary this year.

“At this time of the year we are looking for what is best for the kids and every single one of us agrees making these cuts at this time of the school year is not best for the kids,” Wood said.

Normally the teachers and staff facing elimination would receive a 90-day notice, making their last day of employment Feb. 28, Wood said, and requiring close to $50,000 to fund substitute teachers to fill in the rest of the year.

To keep those teachers employed through June, taxpayers would need to approve $175,000, or a half-mill increase this fiscal year, Wood said.

“To finish off this year and be fair to the kids we have to back to the town and ask for this money,” Wood said. “If the taxpayers say no, I really don’t know where else you want me to go with this.”

Last month, voters rejected the proposed school budget, which included a $275,000 increase from the previous year. The residents mandated that the school committee reduce the proposed budget by $525,000 before presenting it to voters again. Those same voters approved a municipal budget that reflected $250,000 in cuts from the previous year.

Since then, committee members have met with members of the teachers’ negotiating team in an effort to reach a compromise on cuts to teacher salaries as a way to make up at least part of the shortfall.

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 during a four-year period beginning in fiscal year 2010.

Cutting or eliminating academic programs, extracurricular activities and athletics have also been discussed, in addition to reduction in administrative and hourly salaries, furlough days and shortening the school year.

Last week after a five-hour meeting with the school department’s negotiating committee, the teachers’ association agreed to reopen its collective bargaining agreement and reportedly offered to accept reducing salaries by 5 percent in a three-year period.

During the subsequent school committee meeting later that day, however, the committee proposed a 9.45 percent teacher-salary reduction.

The committee has since backed off from that proposal after being warned by counsel from the Maine Education Association, which represents teachers statewide, that the move could represent bad-faith negotiations on the committee’s part and potentially open the school department up to litigation.

In agreeing for the one-year, 3 percent teacher salary reduction, the school committee retained contract language allowing them to again re-open the collective bargain agreement if the current or future valuation abatements at Twin Rivers create economic hardship for taxpayers.

The teachers had offered a 5-percent salary reduction package over three years with the stipulation that the reopening language in the contract be removed, a move school committee members saw as too risky.

“There is a lot of uncertainty out there,” Yves Dube, committee chairman said Wednesday night. “That abatement could really hit us hard again [and the reopening agreement] is really protection for the taxpayers.”

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