MADAWASKA, Maine — School department officials confirmed over the weekend they will meet with members of the Madawaska Education Association Monday morning to explore options aimed at cutting $525,000 from the current year’s budget.
The school committee will then meet at 4 p.m. Monday in the Madawaska High School to take final action on reducing its overall budget by 7 percent in accordance with a mandate stemming from a Nov. 19 town meeting where voters approved $250,000 in municipal budget cuts.
If the municipal and school budgets each had made the $250,000 in cuts, Madawaska’s mill rate would rise from $15.90 per $1,000 in property value to $17.90. Without the school committee cuts the rate will rise an additional $2 per thousand.
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.
The school committee got its first look at reduction options during an emergency meeting last Thursday afternoon attended by more than 200 Madawaska voters.
Among the options put forth by Terry Wood, school superintendent, were eliminating teachers and staff, cutting academic and extracurricular programs, reducing the school year by a day, mandatory furlough days and teacher salary reductions.
If approved as presented, the plan would reduce the teaching staff by 20 percent while gutting academics and extracurricular activities.
“I can’t recommend anything I am proposing here today,” Wood told her school committee at Thursday’s meeting. “But you asked me to look at the numbers and these are what they are.”
Wood spent the weekend collecting documents and information requested by members of the Madawaska Education Association — the teachers’ negotiating unit — in preparation for the Monday morning meeting between the association and the school committee.
“What I am really hoping for with this meeting with the association is a ray of hope,” Yves Dube, chairman of the school committee, said on Saturday. “I am hoping they come up with some ideas [and] we are going to need to hear their side and ideas on how we can resolve this issue.”
The options outlined at Thursday’s meeting paired cutting 10 teachers, staff hours and program cuts with a 2.2 percent across-the-board reduction to teachers’ salaries.
An alternate plan proposed by Wood saved those positions and programs in exchange for an 11 percent across-the-board teacher salary reduction.
Members of the education association were quick to react to those proposed cuts, which would mean reopening the current ratified and signed contract.
“The negotiating team is working on a few things this weekend,” Bonny Plourde-Tingley, fifth-grade teacher and co-president of the teachers’ association negotiating team, said Saturday. “That’s really all I can say right now.”
Other negotiating team members also declined to speak on the record over the weekend.
“The association requested to meet with the school committee’s negotiating team on Monday to discuss the possibility of opening the collective bargaining agreement,” Wood said.
As serious and far-reaching any of the reduction options are, Dube said they must be made.
“We have been put in a near-impossible situation,” he said. “We have to cut and we all know in doing so it calls for drastic cuts but when the people voted on mandating those cuts it came like law for us.”
At the same time, when it comes to changes to teaching salaries, Dube said the committee must take labor laws into account.
“There are laws that do protect people with bargaining rights,” he said.
“If there is a negotiated contract in place [cutting salaries] cannot be done,” Ray Walker, executive director of the Maine Education Association, said on Friday. “If the teachers are willing to reopen those contracts it sounds like a real honest gesture on [their] par.”
According to language written into the recently ratified teachers contract in July, 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.
Wood believes the situation has reached that point.
“If we are being asked to make cuts that would increase the tax rate by 4 mils to the people of Madawaska, how that this not be significant?”
On Wednesday afternoon last week, several members of the teachers’ association said things have not yet gotten to that point.
“It sounds like [Madawaska] is struggling to keep the mill in place a little while longer,” Walker said. “It sounds like there should be some sincere talks [but] it is a huge sacrifice to ask for 11 percent.”
Looking at alternatives to cutting those salaries is on the table, Dube said.
“I have already taken a straw poll with most of the school committee members and there is a sense that some things might need to be looked at a little differently,” he said. “I can’t discuss it at this time but there is a growing consensus to look at some different options.”
Whatever the final plan, Wood hopes everyone will get on board.
“Compromise has come about from every department of the school system except the teachers,” she said. “I am hoping that there will be compromise from all stakeholders involved in the education of our students in Madawaska.”
Regardless, Dube said, tough decisions will be made at Monday’s school committee meeting when they act on budget reduction options.
“It would be unfortunate if the committee and the teachers’ association can’t come to terms with what the community has put upon us,” the committee chairman said. “We are hopeful that our association and the committee can sit down and come to a positive resolution.”
A special town meeting has been scheduled for Dec. 10 for voters to act on the new, reduced budget. School committee members Thursday directed Wood to request municipal officials postpone that meeting for several days to allow time to study and prepare the new budget.