NEWPORT, Maine — RSU 19 Superintendent Greg Potter’s proposed districtwide shutdown, which would allow the district to defer some payments in order to pay other bills, may have hit a snag.
During a board of directors meeting at Nokomis Regional High School on Tuesday evening, Potter said he could not recommend a shutdown scenario to the board.
Because of serious errors in previous budgets, RSU 19 has a $3.6 million shortfall this school year. The district already has cut $1.6 million from the budget for this school year. RSU 19’s board of directors previously voted to ask voters for a $2.8 million stabilization loan. The district would use $1.5 million to repay its revenue anticipation loan to Androscoggin Bank, while the other $1.3 million would be used to pay bills. The loan will be put on the referendum on March 8.
If that loan is not approved by voters, the district may have to shut down for four weeks in order to allow the district to better manage its cash flow. Hourly employees would not get paychecks for two pay periods during the shutdown, Potter said. Instead, they’ll work those days in the summer.
However, such a shutdown may end up costing RSU 19 more money, he said.
“The issue [is] whether hourly employees … would or would not be eligible to secure unemployment benefits,” said Potter during the meeting. “What I have been told, if a ruling is in the affirmative, that employees … [could] draw up to two weeks of benefits during a three-week shutdown and up to three weeks of benefits during a four-week shutdown scenario. The district, as a public employer and government entity, would be on the hook to pay the full amount of benefits that the individuals would be eligible for.”
Potter said he is waiting on a ruling from the Maine Department of Labor so he can make a recommendation to the board.
“If, in fact, hourly employees could draw the full amount of those unemployment benefits during the shutdown, we would then be nearly doubling the cost to the RSU, and you would not derive a benefit in that respect,” he said.
The proposed shutdown has been a hot issue in the eight towns that make up RSU 19.
Candi Russell, a third-grade teacher at Newport Elementary School, spoke up during the meeting.
“As a teacher, every vacation impacts learning,” said Russell. “Even a long weekend can have a huge impact, particularly on the students who struggle the most.”
A high school sophomore also weighed in on the issue. Lynn Dee Ackerman, who did not attend the meeting, wrote a letter that was read for the board.
“[A] concern is the expectation of students attending school until July. I know that in prior years it gets very hot in the schools, and I know personally I can’t think as well when the sweat is pouring off me,” said Ackerman in the letter, who also addressed quality child care for families during the shutdown, teachers who usually work other jobs during the summer, losing free breakfast and lunch for underprivileged students during the shutdown and already-planned family vacations.
“I wonder about attendance during the time when family vacations have already been scheduled,” she said in the letter. “I know that my family has already made reservations for our family vacation.”
Board member Christopher Eastman of Dixmont agreed with what Russell said in the letter.
“I think the high school student said it about as clear as any of us can,” said Eastman. “It is an education nightmare to shut down for that long. My family’s one of the ones who already has plans [for the summer]. Regardless of what the board does, my daughter will not be in school for those last three weeks. Those plans are set. They’re done. They’re not going to change.”
Eastman said he could not support any shutdown scenario.
“I also know of several residents who have relatives in neighboring school districts, and their kids will be transferred for the remainder of the year at least,” he said. “They will stay with relatives and we’ll lose those students.”
The board voted to table the shutdown issue so that it could be addressed during a future meeting.
After an executive session, the board voted to have Potter contact the Maine attorney general’s office and the Penobscot County district attorney’s office in order to seek additional advice and assistance about the district’s financial situation.
“We’ve had numerous public inquiries about what had been done — Is this a crime? Does any of this rise to the level of criminal activity on the part of any employees or former employee?” Potter said after the meeting. “The bottom line is, we made some verbal inquiries. We talked with our attorneys, insurer, law enforcement to look into the issue. The messages we have been receiving, again informally, is likely not.
“This is a formal step to seek those opinions in writing,” he said. “The board will reconvene and consider any recommendations that were made.”