School Budget Request Will Include Expansion of Pre-K and BRIDGE Programs

If Approved, Willard School Will Become the New Home of BRIDGE and Sanford Community Adult Education

Sanford School Committee members informally voiced their approval of a proposed budget for 2022-23 at a workshop on Monday, February 14. The official vote will come at the next regular School Committee meeting on February 28.

The proposed budget includes expansion of the Pre-Kindergarten program to serve more of Sanford’s youngest students, as well as an expansion of the successful BRIDGE program that serves students with behavioral issues or psychological disabilities that interfere with learning.

Pre-K Expansion

Currently, there are 64 kids in public Pre-K in Sanford, including 32 full-day students in the Head Start program run by York County Community Action, and 32 half-day students at the Sanford Regional Technical Center (16 in the morning, and 16 in the afternoon). Under the new proposal, Pre-K would expand to serve 96 children, all full-day, with a class of 16 at each of Sanford’s three elementary schools. Head Start would continue with 32 students, while the SRTC program would become a full-day program for 16 students. Superintendent of Schools Matt Nelson told School Committee members there is a greater need in our community for full-day programs.

The budget proposal would add three new teachers and three new ed techs (one of each for each elementary school Pre-K class). A federal grant would cover the cost of the ed tech positions this year, as well as start-up costs for furniture, supplies and transportation. The remaining costs, including teacher salaries, will be paid through state and federal subsidies. The result will be that the first year of Pre-K expansion will actually make money, rather than cost money. In subsequent years, however, the program is expected to cost taxpayers about $50,000 per year.

Pre-K expansion has been proposed in the past, but Mr. Nelson said the one-time grant means this year the economics are more in our favor. “I don’t think we’re going to get a better opportunity,” he said. Committee member Jen Davie added that expanding Pre-K also helps the District save money down the line. Studies have consistently shown that investment in early childhood education reduces the need for special education services later, as well improving a child’s likelihood of graduating from high school and earning a higher salary in the future.

Committee member John Roux said he has heard from teachers who say the expansion is needed because children are coming to Kindergarten without the skills they need to succeed. Assistant Superintendent Steve Bussiere agreed: “The first four months they are learning how to do school.” By starting in Pre-K, he said, they come to Kindergarten the following year ready to learn.

BRIDGE Expansion

The BRIDGE program is being proposed to expand from serving up to 25 students in grades 8-12, to serving up to 50 students in grades 1-12. BRIDGE stands for Building Resiliency, Integrity, Determination and Growth through Education.

Special Education Director Stacey Bissell told the Committee on February 9 that the pandemic has had a severe impact on the mental health needs of students. Students whose needs can’t be met in regular public school are referred to a day treatment program. Wait lists are many months long, and if there is no place for them in Sanford, they have to be sent to a program out of the district, which costs more than $300 per day per student, plus the extra costs of services like physical and speech therapies and transportation. She said some programs are closing, leaving families and school districts without options. Expanding the BRIDGE will allow our students to be served in their own community at less expense then sending them out of district.

Besides the kids who are currently sent out of district, Ms. Bissell said there are an additional ten students currently struggling in elementary school classrooms here in town who would be referred immediately to a new program. BRIDGE also takes a few tuition students from Acton, Saco and Kennebunk. Ms. Bissell said Acton and Kennebunk have already expressed interest in increasing the number of students they send. Between the students who are now sent out of the district, the students still here who need the program, and an increase in tuition students, she expects to be able to fill the 50 spots.

Mr. Nelson asked her if, in the current tight labor market, she anticipates any difficulty in hiring the needed staff. She replied that she has been sending out feelers for some time and already has an experienced board certified behavioral analyst and a BCBA assistant interested in the positions.

Business Manager Cheryl Fournier said she expects that the estimated savings and additional revenue will bring the BRIDGE expansion “very close to break even.” She said she used very conservative numbers in figuring the estimates, and called this “the right time” to expand the program.

The expanded program would move to the third floor of the vacant Willard School on Main St. It is currently housed in the Anderson Learning Center in Springvale, which is part of the old Nasson College campus. Sanford Community Adult Education, which is also in the ALC, would be housed on the second floor of Willard. The City of Sanford owns the ALC, so the rent the School District pays now would be an additional savings. Mr. Roux said the City wants to sell the ALC and the move fits in with their plans.

However, Mr. Nelson said there are some costs associated with the move to Willard School, including the need for a new elevator and chair lift. Those costs would be covered by using carryover from the previous year’s budget.

More On The Budget

As the School Committee has gone through the past several weeks of budget workshops, the numbers have changed each time as Mr. Nelson and Ms. Fournier refine revenue and expense estimates and pare down some items that were deemed of lower priority. Administrators initially requested funds for a Special Education Social Worker at Carl J. Lamb and an increase in the hours for an athletic trainer, but those requests have been taken out. In addition to the Pre-K and BRIDGE positions, other new positions that are still in the budget include the following:

  • A music teacher for Sanford Middle School
  • An allied arts teacher for Carl J. Lamb School
  • A second allied arts teacher to add to the one who is currently shared between Margaret Chase Smith School and Sanford Pride Elementary (so that each elementary school would have one full-time person)
  • Two new ed techs in the support and transition rooms at MCS and CJL
  • A special education math teacher for Sanford High School
  • A behavior interventionist for Sanford Middle School

Funding for the above positions is coming from federal ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds. Other budget priorities include filling in the turf at Alumni Stadium, which is starting to show wear, and funds for clubs and activities at the elementary schools.

Ms. Fournier said the “turn the page” number, which would fund only the items in the current year’s budget, without any of the additions and expansions, shows a $1.81 million increase over the current year’s expenses, or 3.3%. With the additions and expansions, expenses increase to $3.28 million, or 5.8%. Two-thirds of the expenses are offset by subsidies and revenues, leaving a balance of $1.11 million to be raised from taxation, an increase of 7.5% over the current year’s budget. However, this is considered a “worst case” scenario. Final numbers, including state revenue sharing and health insurance costs, have yet to be released, and are expected to reduce that number before the final school budget is adopted by voters in June.

The School Committee will vote on the budget February 28. An overview of both school and municipal budgets will be presented to the Budget Committee March 3. The Budget Committee will meet each Thursday in March, with opportunity for public comment at each meeting. A combined public hearing will be held March 17.

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