Where the Rubber Meets the Road ~ A School Budget Battle

July 20, 2013

Badge - 2008 election

By:  Maria Solorzano

Currently, the town of  Jefferson, my town, is embroiled in a school budget battle.  Public sentiment runs deep on this subject and will bring out the best and worst in people.    I’ve been taking my time to write because I’ve been reflecting inwardly at my own stance on the issues.  Obviously, I am writing for a Conservative webpage so naturally my viewpoint is conservative.  I believe in being fiscally conservative.  Does that mean that if I am Conservative I am anti-education as many would like to mislabel Conservatives as?  Your personal ideologies make the biggest difference locally.  This is where the rubber meets the road.  Are you all for slashing budgets no matter the consequences, are you looking to give the kids every opportunity available no matter the cost , or do you look for balance?

I have found some hard core conservatives in my community who are hell bent on their agenda, even if it means stripping the school down to bare bones.  On the other end are those who are so supportive of the school that they want it all no matter what it will cost the taxpayers without consideration for those on fixed income, single moms, etc..  I find myself trying to weed through facts and numbers and seeing how all of this actually affects the level of education in my children’s school.   After all, these decisions directly affect my children’s growth.

Here is a basic layout of the events so far. On May 21st, the town held its first validation meeting after months of talking and wrangling over what cuts to make to the school budget.   The number of townspeople who attended that meeting was very low.  The school board did indeed make cuts.  They cut the stipends for the assistant principal and the athletic director.  They also cut the school guidance councilor and the Gifted and Talented teacher positions.  That validation passed but on June 4th the town voted down the budget proposal.  Another meeting was held on June 9th to discuss what to do with the budget.  Again the attendance to this meeting was very low.  The school board truly wasn’t sure whether to make additional cuts or add an additional teacher.  Due to a number of citizens speaking out and wanting another teacher added for kindergarten, because of an increase of students by fall, the school board chose to add a teaching position.    During the town’s second validation meeting, a citizen stood and asked to amend the regular instruction portion of the budget by cutting the budget $240,000.  They based this number on the  equivalence of  4 teachers’ salaries.  This time he brought his support with him and by a vote of  61 – 46 it passed. So now we are to vote on Tuesday, July 23 to decide if the town will accept this budget or not.  Grassroots are in full force for both sides of this debate.

Apparently, with school parents wanting to add another teacher, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back in this town.  We went from “do we or do we not add another teacher for Kindergarten”  to  “lets cut 4 teachers”.  It truly makes no sense to me.  I can understand the opposition of wanting to add the extra teacher position.  We could rearrange teachers positions to give Kindergarten another teacher if needed.  What I cannot understand is the sentiment of cutting 4 teachers out of regular instruction!  This action will greatly affect the children in this school.

The outrage from those who want to cut the budget deeper seems to stem from teacher salaries and benefits as well as the fact that the town built the new school.    They are angry over taxes rising every year.   10% of Jefferson’s town taxes have not been collected.  I, myself, always sigh when I see my tax bill every year and see it go up another $100.  Since 2005 with a mill rate at 8.10, Jefferson’s mill rate continues to climb.  The mill rate is based on property value and the number of properties owned within the town.  It will take the budget and divide it among  the number of property owners.  However, the mill rate is also based on the states yearly audit of property value.  The state will look at what a house sells for verses its value.  It’s is different for every town.  Currently the state has Jefferson at 100%, which I may add hasn’t happened in a long time.   I do not enjoy the current mill rate of 12.84.  After looking at towns that directly connect to Jefferson I have learned that Jefferson is right in the middle.  Nobleboro is 9.8, Windsor is 12.4, Waldoboro is 13.5, and Whitefield is 14.75.   For a true reading of mill rates we would need to look at what the state sets the percentage at for each of these towns.

I have also looked into the debt service for the new school.   In Article 11 the town authorized a payment to be made of $1,192, 001.  In the summarization of Article 13 it shows a State Subsidy Debt Service payment of $1,192,001.   Essentially it’s a wash.  Right now, the state of Maine is paying 100% for our school.  Yes, we as Maine tax payers are paying for that, but the reality is, the state would have spent that money in another town if Jefferson didn’t take it’s chance to build the much needed new school.

The biggest argument used for the $240,000 cut is the EPS model.  EPS stands for the state’s Essential Programs & Services formula.  Those who want the cuts say Jefferson is way above the EPS’s recommendation for classroom teachers.  What they fail to recognize is that the EPS includes art, music, and PE teachers in the student/teacher ratio.  In a letter to the editor, a Jefferson School Board Committee member pointed out “Larger schools have the flexibility to adjust classroom sizes to “suggest” a 17/1 student/teacher ratio.  Jefferson would have to reach 34 students in a grade before a class could be split without exceeding EPS.”   The EPS formula also suggests that Jefferson’s school principal be only a four day a week position and library ed tech for 2 days a week.    Sounds to me like we have a flawed EPS formula.  This formula has been widely criticized because it favors large districts at the expense of smaller rural schools like ours.  I have heard that the Maine State Legislators are going to be taking a closer look at how the EPS model is affecting the communities.  With 78.5% of communities in Maine exceeding the EPS’s formula for budgeting, I think that would be a smart idea.

The school board is faced with reduced state subsidy, mandated health care and teacher retirement benefits, less carry over from previous years because of pared down budgets, and increased Special Ed needs.

So where is the common sense and balance?  I do understand  the sentiments of teachers salaries and benefits being too high.  For me personally, I think it’s the benefit portion.  I believe the town could save money in the area of health care cost.   This was discussed at the last town validation meeting.  Tougher negotiations need to go on against powerful teachers unions.  Teacher unions have made it possible to tenure teachers without any continued evaluation of performance and merit.   Jefferson students deserve better than that.  While Jefferson has its teachers worth their weight in gold, there are some who need closer examination.   Sentiments in the community have been that they have “lost faith in the school board”.   So my question is “Where were you?”

Where were all of you when the the school board were to negotiate contracts?  Did you write letters and be open and vocal about what the kids deserve and what you thought the town could afford?  Where were you when the school board started this budget process back in December?  School board meetings are open to the public.  Even at the meeting they held  back in May with the budget committee, very few townspeople showed up for the meeting.  Much discussion went back and forth and citizens were allowed to voice our opinions on what we wanted to see happen.   Where were all of you?

Of course I have my opinions and this is where I stand.   I believe that there needs to be balance.  My children would love to have it all… dance lessons, sports camps, guitar lessons… with 4 children the list is huge!  But I have taught my children that we have to live within our means.  I apply the same concept towards government.   I am all for cutting what I call “extras”.  I supported cutting the school councilor, gifted and talented, athletic director, and vice principal stipend.   Other cuts could still be made in art, music, etc. by making those positions part time as long as it meant saving classroom teachers.  That is where the biggest effect will be felt.  Students suffer most when class sizes are large.   Studies have proven that smaller class sizes especially in K – 3 have given children significant gains… especially disadvantaged children.  Jefferson’s children on free and reduced lunch are at 48%.   We have a high percentage of children in that category.

One other observation I’d like to make.  Most of the town’s people voting to reduce the budget were people without children in the school any longer….if ever.   While many of these people do have good cause for their feelings, what they seem to not be fully capable of realizing, is the depth of the problems it would cause for the children directly affected by these actions.  The three people supporting the cuts who have children to be in the school are choosing private school as a means to educate their children.   I personally, have chosen at times to home school my children.  I do currently home school and use public school.  Not everyone has that luxury.  I recognize that fact.  I would never vote to put other people’s children at a severe disadvantage because I had other options that I could afford.   We have a moral obligation to our children to give them the best we can afford.  Cutting 4 classroom teachers from the school and putting our communities youth at a severe disadvantage is not the best Jefferson can do…. especially after all the gains the school has made from previous years when we were on “probation” with the state due to poor performance.   Jefferson School is not perfect but it has made significant gains.  Are we willing to go backwards?  I am voting  NO.  That will give us the opportunity to go back and do this better.

On a final note, with a town of over 1,900 voters only 148 voters turned out on June 4th for the ballot vote.  Whether you agree or disagree with my points, please come out to vote.   Our government is We the People.  If you don’t like what’s happening then, please, get involved in the process.   Please come out to vote!









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