School budget discussed at forum

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FARMINGTON – Participants of a public forum dedicated to the proposed $38.2 million budget for Regional School Unit 9 questioned the addition of an assistant superintendent position and advocated for more funding in other areas Tuesday evening.

Conducted via teleconferencing, the forum was scheduled to take place before a board vote on the budget, tentatively scheduled for Thursday. It remains unclear whether a budget meeting will take place or not, due to restrictions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the district is tentatively planning on holding its meeting on June 23, if possible. The finalizing referendum vote would take place on July 14, the day of the statewide referendum.

The proposed $38,226,924 K-12 budget would represent an increase of $1.1 million or 2.97 percent over the current fiscal year. With Adult Education expenditures accounted for, the budget would utilize $13.5 million in local assessments, a decrease of $188,992, or 1.4 percent less local money raised and appropriated as compared to the current fiscal year.

If passed as proposed, the budget would lead to decreases in local assessments in five towns and increases in the other five. Specifically, Chesterville would see a decrease of $44,566 or 4.19 percent; Farmington would see a decrease of $157,882 or 3.28 percent; Industry would see an increase of $6,920 or 0.74 percent; New Sharon would see an increase of $2,364 or 0.23 percent; New Vineyard would see an increase of $12,234 or 1.6 percent; Starks would see an increase of $23,180 or 4.82 percent; Temple would see an decrease of $3,835 or .89 percent; Vienna would see an increase of $1,822 or .25 percent; Weld would see a decrease of $24,946 or 5.03 percent; and Wilton would see a decrease of $4,282 or .16 percent.

Increases in the budget include raises for salaries employees – the school board previously approved increases to support staff and administrator pay and is currently negotiating with teachers – as well as moving another teacher out of federal classroom reduction grant and into the budget and moving an English Language Learning teacher from part- to full-time and $24,000 for school supplies. The budget also includes $110,000 to move several ed tech positions currently working 5.5 hours to full-time, which would extend benefits to those positions in a bid to retain employees.

Other increases include the second step of the summer salary accrual plan, $80,000, additional funding for nurses, the Extended Year Program, student assessments, the local share of the cost of two buses through the Volkswagon emissions settlement, or $78,000, among other expenses.

The budget also includes $60,000 for a part-time assistant superintendent position, with a third of that cost mitigated through an associated reduction in Curriculum Coordinator funding, as $20,000 of that line would be covered by grants.

Concerns raised at Tuesday’s meeting with the positions addition mostly revolved around whether funds used to support the position could be better spent elsewhere in the school district. Vicky Cohen, a teacher at W.G. Mallett School specializing in mathematics, said that her school’s assessments showed that close to half of children entering the school system were at risk. Noting that even adding a math interventionist via grant money would create a ratio of 1 interventionist to 66 students, Cohen said that wasn’t a reasonable ratio and funds could instead go toward another interventionist that would work with students.

Superintendent Tina Meserve agreed that while administrative staff did not typically work directly with students, she argued that having adequate staffing was important for guaranteeing effective teaching practices and a cohesive curriculum across a district of RSU 9’s size. Those elements were important as the district worked to improve student assessment performance, Meserve said.

The pandemic has also impacted the discussion over the past couple of weeks. Supporters of the assistant superintendent position have pointed out that the district will be going through relatively uncharted territory over the summer break and beyond, as students return to school in the fall after several months away from the classroom. However, some of the directors opposed to the position have cited the financial unknowns associated with the pandemic as reason to wait.

Some speakers specifically cited the Student Innovation Center as an area for additional investment. The SIC provides a place for students to come to get help on projects, help accessing resources for specific problems or help coping with day-to-day life. The center is staffed by a teacher and an ed tech and has been funded by a GEAR Up grant for three years, ending this year. The proposed budget doesn’t include funding for SIC, although it has been suggested that it could be covered  by adding half a teaching position utilizing CARES Act money and leveraging a preexisting half-time alternative education instructor position to staff the center.

Pamela Chernesky, an art teacher at Mt. Blue High School, said she had planned to partner with the SIC for a 3D printing project for her ceramics students. While the pandemic had cut that specific collaboration short, Chernesky said it spoke to the usefulness of the center as a resource. If it wasn’t fully funded, Chernesky suggested it wouldn’t be as successful if the teacher had to split time between the SIC and teaching duties.

“It won’t happen as well,” Chernesky said of the center.

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