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School Committee Recommends Cutting 31 Positions in Tough Budget Year

School Committee members

L to R: Business Manager Cheryl Fournier, Superintendent Matt Nelson, School Committee Chair Paula Cote, Vice Chair Amy Sevigny, Committee members Jen Davie, Melissa Simpson and Emily Sheffield, Assistant Superintendent Steve Bussiere.

Photo: WSSR-TV

By Zendelle Bouchard

The Sanford School Committee met in emergency session on Thursday morning, Feb. 29, 2024, to approve a budget recommendation that reflects a major reduction in teachers and other staff for the 2024/25 fiscal year. In all, 31 current positions are being axed in the Committee’s recommendation, which will now be forwarded to the City Council for approval. Voters will have the final say on the school budget in June.

School Department administrators had recommended cutting 34 positions, including the four teachers at Sanford High School’s Alternative Education program. The proposal to eliminate the program, which serves at-risk students in a separate unit at SHS, created a backlash among parents, students and community members who pleaded for the program to be retained. In a 3-2 vote, Committee members agreed, but noted that the City Council will have a say as well. See this story for more details: https://sanfordspringvalenews.com/shs-alternative-education-program-stays-in-the-budget-for-now/.

The drastic cuts come mainly in response to the impending end of Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief (ESSER) funding in September of this year. These emergency federal funds were appropriated in 2020 in response to the Covid pandemic to help school districts cope with Covid-related expenses. In Sanford, ESSER funds were used to hire many additional teachers, so that class sizes could be reduced to meet distancing protocols set by the Maine Department of Education. Social workers and other professionals to help kids deal with the emotional and psychological impacts of isolation were also added to the payroll. All teachers and staff who were hired with ESSER funds were told before accepting employment that their positions would likely be temporary. Class sizes will be returned to pre-pandemic levels in September.

Another factor affecting the bottom line is the loss of more than one-half million dollars in state subsidy, due to the 10% increase in property valuation in Sanford over the past year. The state average was 8%. Superintendent of Schools Matt Nelson explained that the state expects municipalities with higher-than-average increase in valuation to contribute more to education funding. He said the news could have been much worse – he had been expecting the district to lose $1.2 million in subsidy, but adjusting the mill rate caused the district to lose only about half of what was anticipated.

Although school enrollment increased this year due to the arrival of new Mainers, it is expected that next year’s incoming kindergarten class will be smaller than this year’s graduating senior class, reducing overall enrollment and further impacting the subsidy that Sanford receives, which is allocated by the state on a per-pupil basis.

The 31 positions being cut include the following:

  • At SHS, an art teacher, a social studies teacher, a math teacher, a phys ed/health teacher, a counseling receptionist and the attendance coordinator are being cut. A substance use counselor position that is shared with Sanford Middle School is also being eliminated.
  • At SMS, a teaching position at each of the four grade levels, plus the positions of two other teachers, a resource room teacher and a music teacher are being eliminated, along with a behavior interventionist and administrative assistant positions.
  • Carl J. Lamb School will be losing a third-grade teacher and ed tech position in the self-contained classroom.
  • At Sanford Pride Elementary School, a second-grade teacher and an ed tech position are being cut.
  • Margaret Chase Smith School will be losing a teacher from second grade, a fourth-grade teacher, and a special education ed tech.
  • Seven positions that serve the entire School District are also being eliminated, including the communications coordinator, another behavior interventionist, and five additional ed techs.

Nelson emphasized that any personnel or program being cut was no reflection on their quality or effectiveness, but purely on the need to get the numbers as low as possible, but that it has been a challenge. “This is not done lightly…no matter what we do, there will be impact,” he said.

The initial budget presented to the School Committee on Jan. 29 reflected a 9.2% increase in expenses overall, with a taxation impact of 29.4%. These job cuts, as well as other reductions that were made, brought the final projection down to a 6.3% increase with a taxation impact of 11.1%. Nelson proposed an expense increase below 6% with a taxation impact below 10%, but the Committee’s vote to retain the Alt Ed program brought the numbers beyond those thresholds.

The other items that were cut from the budget included a new boiler for the Willard Building and new bleachers for Cobb Stadium. Most of the remaining increase in the recommended budget is due to contracted increases in salaries, health insurance premium hikes, costs for outside placement of autistic students, and transportation costs, over which the district has no control.

School Committee members expressed concern that the Council might require even further cuts before the budget process is finished. The remaining schedule for the budget process is as follows:

  • March 5 the Council will hear one-hour presentations on the City and School Department budgets beginning at 4 pm.
  • March 12 the Council will hear a more detailed presentation of the school budget at 4 pm.
  • March 19 there will be a more detailed presentation of the city budget, followed by a public hearing on both budgets during the regular Council meeting which begins at 6 pm.
  • March 26 there will be a wrap-up of both budgets beginning at 4 pm.
  • April 2 the Council will vote on both budgets.
  • A public hearing on the Budget Validation Referendum for the school budget will be held May 7 or May 21.
  • The School Budget Validation Referendum will be held June 11.
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