Thursday, March 28, 2002

Cape schools look at possible staff, program cuts

Published in the Current

The Cape Elizabeth School Board has decided to look at cutting at least one teaching job at the middle school, and possible elimination of poorly attended extra-curricular activities, to deal with a state funding shortfall.

Board members expressed their frustration at cuts in state funding at a budget workshop Tuesday night. Board member Jim Rowe said he would vote against the budget in protest of the state’s acts, even though he thinks the expenses in the budget are responsible and should not be cut further. Another suggested town residents should make their voices heard in Augusta.

“The residents of Cape Elizabeth need to get off their fat and happy rear ends,” said board member Kevin Sweeney.

The school district had been looking at a $589,598 reduction in state funds, but $142,000 is expected to be restored by the state, though the figures were not final as of press time.

Superintendent Tom Forcella said there is not much more to cut in the budget. “(Cutting) anything else would have a significant impact,” he said.

He warned of the danger of delaying planned expenses, such as classroom furniture replacements. “At some point we’re going to have to pay,” Forcella

The next step could be staff cuts. The board was reluctant to revise its policy on class sizes, but may reassess staffing needs for classes that are below the
numbers in the policy.

“We have no choice but to have a very conservative budget this year,” said board member Marie Prager, suggesting the district administration look at what impact cutting a teacher at the middle school would have on the classroom experience.

Board Chairman George Entwistle warned, “Class size is not something that you determine when you’re doing a budget,” but said that a stricter adherence to the class size policy could be a way to keep costs down.

Forcella said one fifth-grade teaching position has been questioned since the beginning of the budget process.

Sweeney, who has been requesting a lot of information from Forcella about the possible impact of special education staff cuts, said he does not see room for reductions in that area, especially with what he sees as a lack of professional development support for special education teachers.

“We have not spent a dime of our professional development money on our goal of reaching all students,” Sweeney said.

He also said he was reluctant to cut staff if he didn’t have to. “Given the choice of anything and a teacher, the teacher wins hands down,” Sweeney said.

Board member Susan Steinman asked if there was room to cut the stipends for school staff involved with extra-curricular activities.

Entwistle said the people are paid for the work they do. Forcella said it might be possible to eliminate some activities that have low participation.

Activity fees also were discussed, with the board requesting a public hearing be held on the issue. No hearing date was set.

If introduced, the fees would be there for the long term, rather than a quick funding fix in a tight budget year, Prager said. Most members of the board expressed their philosophical objections to the fees, seeing them as barriers to participation in valuable activities.

“The community is a better community because these programs are available to the kids,” Steinman said.

Rowe raised the issue of fiscal responsibility. “Sometimes you can’t afford to continue things that you have been doing,” he said. He expressed disappointment with the state legislators who represent Cape Elizabeth, for voting for a budget that was projected to significantly cut funding to Cape schools.

“We’re in a mess right now,” Rowe said. He said he would vote against the budget not as a protest against the expense side of the budget but to protest the revenue side, in which state funds were decreased significantly.

Other board members agreed with Rowe that the state funds were unsatisfactory, but didn’t see that voting against the budget would make that statement effectively.