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4/3/2013 2:00:00 PM
Great Salt Bay Budget Sees Further Cuts
By Shlomit Auciello

Approximately 90 parents and other residents of the Great Salt Bay Community School District advocated for beloved programs and offered support for their school, when the GSB School Committee presented a draft budget March 27.

Fifty percent of the cost of operating GSB comes from Damariscotta, with Newcastle paying 37 percent and Bremen paying 13 percent.

Those in attendance came from all three towns, as well as Alna, which sends some students to the Great Salt Bay Community School.

Fiscal belt-tightening was evident from the start of the presentation in the GSB gymnasium, when only 25 copies of a March 21 version of the 2013-14 budget proposal was available to those in attendance.

Superintendent Steve Bailey offered a slide presentation containing changes from that version, designed to reflect impacts coming from actions and proposals from the LePage Administration that include a budget curtailment and plans to shift some costs from the state budget to those of municipalities and local school districts.

"We were running a tight budget this year," he said. In spite of that, he said the budget for the coming year would be tighter. "We needed to put the brakes on."

Bailey said he does not expect all the Governor's proposals to be adopted in the final budget that is approved by the Legislature. Gov. Paul LePage has proposed asking districts to pick up one-third of the cost of teacher retirement. Currently the state pays two-thirds and the employee contributes the remainder.

Each third equals 2.65 percent of the employee's annual salary. For 2013-14, the cost to the GSB district would be $70,542.

"From what I've heard, the intent is that the whole two-thirds will eventually be on the district," Bailey said.

Budget pared down to reduce growth
"Our number one concern ... is what is in the best interest of our students?" Bailey said. He said the board understands that its decisions will influence tax rates as well as what takes place in the schools.

Bailey then offered another side presentation that outlined proposals being considered to shrink the budget.

The previous draft of the budget for Great Salt Bay Community School totaled $5.62 million - almost $600,000 more than the 2012-13 budget and an increase of 11.86 percent.

"We knew that was too high," Bailey said. He said the new target was to keep budget growth to 2 percent or less, and that the committee was concerned whether that would be a deep enough cut to gain voter approval.

The total of that reduced budget would be $5,124,141, a reduction of $495,196 from the previous draft.

"That's a huge hole to fill," he said. "We looked at what would impact students the least." He said the new draft comes close to reaching that target with reductions totaling $494,744.

Bailey outlined the new proposals by budget category, stressing that no action would be taken until a budget is finalized.

Suggested reductions in regular instruction included the elimination of a math tutor, an education technician in the English Language Learner program, and approximately 10 percent of funds for teacher development, as well as reducing the gifted and talented program teacher to a half-time position and cutting supplies for that post.

The above would reduce the budget by $69,311.

In special education, three Ed Techs would be cut from Alternative Classroom Education Services. Bailey said that change reflected the move of several ACES students from eighth grade into high school. A special education position may also be cut.

Bailey said the district is expecting $69,057 in revenue from two schools that pay tuition for students to attend a special education program in the Great Salt Bay district.

The total overall budget reduction from these changes would be $215,213.

Under other instruction, the proposal calls for cuts in co-curricular stipends, sports transportation, grade 7 basketball and field hockey, and purchased services such as programs at Kieve and Chewonki and art therapy, totaling $38,091. Bailey said most members of these teams attended other schools.

In later discussion, it was suggested that teachers and community members may be able to provide similar services to those now provided by outside agencies.

Bailey said $8550 that would be cut from student and staff support, in the form of reductions in computer hardware and grants for teacher leadership. The latter, at a cost of $2250, will be covered by grant funds, he said. The remaining $6300 would have to be considered in future budgets.

School administration staff and tuition would be reduced by $13,121, representing a half-time administrative assistant position and all tuition for graduate level courses for the principal and assistant principal.

The district would forego a $33,000 contribution to the bus purchase reserve account. Bailey said there is already enough money set aside to buy a new bus, should the state approve that purchase.

The proposal would eliminate the bus monitor, and remove from the budget funds for a bus lift that will not be needed next year. Total savings in the transportation line would be $46,655 under the current proposal.

Shifting existing staff to eliminate one position in the facilities and maintenance line would save almost $60,000. When added to cuts in grounds maintenance, plant enhancement and improvement, facilities maintenance and capital reserve the total reduction for that line would be $92,477.

Eliminating two playground monitors would save the district $11,326. Bailey said the district would look for different ways to provide services if positions were eliminated.

Under this proposal, the 2013-14 GSB budget would be $100,925 higher than in the current year.

In order to reach the goal of a 2 percent increase, Bailey said, additional cuts could be made by reducing the number of Ed Techs and positions in visual and performing arts, and facilities.

He said savings could also be realized by increasing class sizes.

Great Salt Bay School Committee representative Bill Thomas of Bremen said the proposal represented efforts to minimize negative impacts to the quality of education while crafting a budget that voters will support.

"There are many of us on the finance committee and the board who are passionate about some of the programs," Chairman Jennifer MacDonald, of Damariscotta, said before opening the discussion to audience members. "It's been emotional." She said town budgets are also facing cuts from the state.

Citizens offer comments and suggestions
Comments from the audience were often complimentary to the school and board and generally aimed at defending programs and positions.

Many, beginning with Dave Martin, of Bremen, called on the board to maintain arts programming.

"It's the arts, ironically, that provide equally for all kids," Martin said. "The child with disabilities may not be able to do sports, but they can do art."

Crystal Gemeinhardt, of Newcastle, is a school nurse at Jefferson Village School and said she has seen evidence of the value of performing arts in building student confidence and helping them work through difficult issues.

Toward the end of the evening, seventh-grader Mina Toscano received applause when she offered her support for music programs that "give me something to strive for."

Rob Nelson, of Newcastle, was one of several who asked the board to consider submitting a more expensive budget.

"We don't know what the state budget will be," he said. Nelson suggested the board create two budgets, one that reflected the LePage proposals and one that did not.

Later in the discussion, Al Crocetti, of Bremen, agreed, calling on the board "not to try to streamline the process too much.

"Have a little faith in ... how much this community supports this school," Crocetti said.

Retired GSB Principal Dick Marchi, of Bremen, called state cuts "a slippery slope" and said the shift from state to local support would not save taxpayers any money. He urged citizens to contact their legislators and Gov. LePage to protest the Governor's plan.

Not everyone present was willing to see increases in the GSB budget.

"Retired educators don't make the money that current educators do," Ann Pinkham of Damariscotta said. She received applause after saying rising taxes could push some homeowners out of the community.

"I appreciate your commitment to small class size," Jenny Mayher of Newcastle said. She asked how the board could continue to maintain infrastructure while deferring maintenance and capital reserves.

She said programs through Kieve and Chewonki offer opportunities to children they might otherwise not have.

"If we jump too fast and cut too much we never get it back," Mayher said.

"I'm having regrets from last year's budget," Stacy Crocetti of Bremen said. "Do we really need so much technology? I'd rather have the arts and Chewonki." She said outdoor education improves students' lives.

"Think of the people our children are going to become and not their test scores," Crocetti said, receiving applause for her comments.

Kristi Houghton agreed, saying kindergarten students are exhibiting behavioral problems as a result of too much screen time.

"I'd rather get rid of these iPads and get the children outside," she said.

Deborah Arter of Damariscotta said Kieve and Chewonki provide a special experience and skills that help students as they head to high school and beyond. She suggested savings could come from not letting buses idle so long at the school.

"That's a cut that wouldn't hurt any students," she said.

Ed Thelander of Alna has three children at GSB. He said small class sizes, arts and sports programs "helped them get in the groove," at their new school.

"They've stepped it up a notch from Wiscasset," he said. "You don't have to be in the gifted and talented program to benefit from it. It gives you something to strive for."

Doug Strauss of Newcastle rose in support of the gifted and talented program.

"It helps provide challenges to students who need it so we don't get bored students who act out," he said.

Steven Hufnagel of Damariscotta said the quality of education impacts the value of real estate. He supported arts and the gifted and talented program and said there was a "false economy" in some cuts.

Thelander agreed, saying tuition-paying students are drawn to GSB and their parents become part of the community, participating in school events and shopping at nearby stores.

"A family of five spends a lot of money," he said.

MacDonald praised GSB's teachers' flexibility and creativity.

"They make this school," she said. MacDonald said the board wants to preserve small class sizes.

In answer to an earlier question about insurance rates from Alan "Buzz" Pinkham, Bailey said he had just learned GSB's medical risk rating indicates there will be no increase in premium cost for health insurance for the coming year.

The approximate $100,000 savings would be deducted from the proposed budget. The board will need to determine how to use the impact of these savings, Bailey said.

Bailey said each time a budget goes before voters it takes 24 days to complete the validation process.

"If we don't have a budget approved by July 1, the board operates under the last approved budget," he said.

As volunteers from the audience folded chairs, the board reconfigured the tables and began a discussion about whether further savings should be sought and how to achieve them. No decisions were made.

Bailey went over the local additional appropriations that would come from each town if a 2 percent - or $124,141 - increase were to take effect.

Under the previous version that called for an 11.86 percent increase, Bremen's local additional share, beyond that required by state law, would be $137,947. Damariscotta would raise $494,379 in additional funds and Newcastle's share would be $368,100.

Last year's local additional appropriations were $105,496 for Bremen; $363,866 for Damariscotta and $296,323 for Newcastle.

MacDonald said she would like the budget committee to review the information in light of the insurance savings and come up with a new proposal.

Mark Doe of Newcastle said cuts already under discussion may not hurt the quality of education at GSB.

AOS 93 Business Manager Katherine Hunt reminded the board that funds added to the budget by voters at the annual budget meeting cannot be earmarked for specific budget lines.

"We need to present a budget that mirrors a long-term approach," MacDonald said. She encouraged support for building contingency funds and said the budget should justify the percentage of the increase, and not the reverse.

Bailey later said the board would look at the proposals that were presented in the slides and continue their conversation on proposals that will be discussed and presented by the finance committee at the next board meeting on, Wednesday, April 10 at 6 p.m.

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