Rockland-area school board faces ‘painful’ budget choices

Posted Jan. 02, 2014, at 6:24 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 03, 2014, at 7:47 a.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — Superintendent Lew Collins unveiled Thursday a proposed package of $1.7 million in spending cuts and tax hikes needed to balance next year’s school budget.

The proposals include merging the district’s two middle schools and eliminating administrative positions.

“This is a painful proposal. There’s a ton of pain to go around. There’s no doubt about it,” Collins said at a meeting of Regional School Unit 13’s finance committee. The meeting was attended by five of the 12 district board members.

A year ago, the superintendent had recommended merging the Rockland District Middle School in Rockland and Thomaston Grammar School in Thomaston but the board opted to hold off for further study and to not implement the consolidation until September 2015. The budget proposal released Thursday again calls for the merger beginning in September 2014.

Collins said the consolidation would result in the middle school students being educated at the Rockland school. The merger would save an estimated $414,000, according to the superintendent.

The superintendent also is recommending the elimination of several administrative posts, including the director of school improvement, the position held by Neal Guyer; one high school principal post; and an assistant maintenance director. The proposal also calls for reducing the athletic director’s position from full-time to half-time.

The district has two high schools with a principal at both schools — Oceanside East in Rockland and Oceanside West in Thomaston. Collins said that both schools would still have an assistant principal and one principal could oversee both.

Those administrative reductions would save $285,000.

“I’ve heard it loud and clear that people don’t want us to cut from direct services to students but instead to look at administration,” he said.

The superintendent also is calling for unspecified cuts from all the schools of various amounts, with the most being $88,000 from Oceanside East.

Even with these cuts, there are additional expenses projected for the 2014-2015 budget year, he said. Those include $350,000 more in salaries for existing staff, an additional $150,000 for health insurance and $120,000 to cover the deficit in the school lunch program.

Collins also is in favor of hiring two new gifted and talented teachers — one for both the high school and middle school. And he is calling for hiring a teacher and educational technician to start a pilot prekindergarten program. He said the program would benefit the students and be greeted warmly by kindergarten teachers in the district. He said the additions for the gifted and talented have been called for by many people in the community.

The district also will be strapped for revenues, he pointed out. RSU 13 used $938,000 this year in surplus to offset property taxes, but Collins said he expects no surplus will be available to cushion the 2014-2015 budget. In addition, the district expects to receive $150,000 less in state aid because of declining enrollment.

This means the district will need to raise an additional $634,000 in property taxes from the RSU 13 communities.

Those factors combine to make for some difficult decisions, he said. He stressed that if the RSU 13 board chooses not to make some of the cuts, other cuts would be needed or additional property taxes will have to be raised.

Collins, who announced on Tuesday that he was resigning effective Feb. 15, acknowledged he was a lame duck. But he said that he nevertheless wanted to get the budget proposals submitted for the district to work toward an adoption in late April or early May.

Rockland board member Steven Roberts said Thursday that the district needs to come to grips with the fact that it has about 50 more employees than the state funding formula indicates it should have. He said the board should ask teachers and administrators to come up with proposals that would bring the district closer to the state formula while improving education.

“We’ve allowed the district to get bloated without getting a better education for students,” Roberts said.

At the Thursday meeting, Collins also announced that he would be nominating Helen Slocumb to be interim business manager. Slocumb has worked for the RSU 13 business office for several years as an accounts payable specialist.

The appointment comes as Scott Vaitones remains on paid leave since Nov. 14. His disciplinary hearing is scheduled to begin Jan. 21, at which time he said he will fight an effort to fire him as recommended by Collins.

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