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SHS Alternative Education Program Stays in the Budget – For Now 

SHS Alternative Education program Director Karen Webb

SHS Alternative Education program Director Karen Webb addresses the School Committee.

Photo: WSSR-TV

By Alexa Livingston and Zendelle Bouchard

On Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, at an emotional emergency meeting, the Sanford School Committee voted to keep Sanford High School’s Alternative Education program in the school budget for the 2024/25 fiscal year, but members of the Committee and Superintendent of Schools Matt Nelson made it clear that the program ultimately may not survive if the City Council demands further budget cuts.

The Committee was originally scheduled to vote on the budget Monday, Feb. 26. The proposed budget reflected the elimination of 34 positions across the district, including the four Alt Ed teachers, but after multiple public statements were made in protest of eliminating the program, the decision was tabled until the 29th to give more time for Committee members to consider.  

After it was announced that the program was being recommended for elimination, Alt Ed Director and English teacher Karen Webb spoke before the Committee at a budget workshop on Feb. 12. She said students in the program have severe anxiety disorders, depression, ADHD, PTSD and suicidal ideation. Some have been hospitalized multiple times. Despite these challenges, students in the program have a very high graduation rate. She predicted that if the program were cut, more than half would drop out. Students who drop out have a detrimental impact on the community and their future families, she said, and noted that those dropouts also would negatively affect the subsidy Sanford receives from the state, which is tied to school enrollment.

At the School Committee’s regular meeting on the 26th, several audience members, including students, alumni, parents, and retired teachers, emphasized the value of the Alternative Education Program in providing at-risk youth with resources that foster personal growth, community involvement, and academic achievement. The program was highlighted for its ability to provide personalized learning environments, innovative teaching methods, and holistic development in students. 

“It wasn’t just a school program, it was survival,” stated Wanda Parent, a graduate of the Alt Ed program in the 1980s who currently serves as director of both Stuff the Bus and the Right Brain Club. In her statement, Parent shared her difficult educational journey, underlining the importance of supportive Alt Ed teachers and the resources provided for disadvantaged youth, like herself.  

“I feel that we owe it to those who have shared for us to go back to ensure that we have done our work,” board member Jennifer Davie, who first moved to table the decision, said following the emotional statements. “It doesn’t feel transparent having taken an hour of sharing to then not have an opportunity as a school committee to discuss…I want to ensure people feel heard.” She emphasized that tabling would not guarantee a different budget outcome. “This [decision] comes down to the dollars and cents of running a school budget,” she explained.  

When the Committee reconvened on Feb. 29, several more community members, program graduates and current students pleaded for the program to continue. One graduate of the program, Nikki Vicario, spoke via Zoom from her home in El Paso, TX, where she is employed as a midlevel senior manager for a Fortune 100 company. Vicario attributed all her success to being able to graduate thanks to the Alt Ed program. “Being able to have a program like that saved my education and, in many ways, saved my life,” she said.

Stephanie Jopling, mother of a current Alt Ed student, said her child and others in the program have tried other interventions including counseling and referrals to mental health services, without success. She said there is nothing else in Sanford comparable to the highly structured environment of the program, which provides the continuity and predictable environment that the most anxious students need to succeed.

Former School Committee member Kendra Williams asked if there is a way the program could be modified or scaled back, rather than cut completely. “Eliminating this program will save property taxes, but what about the future impact? Each high school dropout costs taxpayers $292,000 through the course of their lives,” she warned.

Following the public comment period, Superintendent Nelson went through the proposed budget again and presented another option, which would retain the Alt Ed program but cut the counseling receptionist position, then asked if Committee members had any other suggestions.

Committee member Melissa Simpson motioned to retain the Alt Ed program but cut the social worker positions at Sanford’s three elementary schools. She said she felt there was a duplication of services there and that the school budget should focus on education rather than social work.

Committee member Emily Sheffield, who opposed cutting the social worker positions, became emotional as she talked about her adult children’s mental health struggles and said there were many more students in the district who need help than the 39 who are currently served by the Alt Ed program.

Simpson’s motion ultimately failed to gain support from a majority of Committee members. At that point Committee member Amy Sevigny motioned to approve Nelson’s Option #2, retaining the Alt Ed program and cutting the counseling receptionist. Simpson and Chair Paula Cote agreed that they could not support eliminating Alt Ed. Committee member Jen Davie said she couldn’t support Option 2 because Alt Ed needed to be reinvented to serve all students, not just a small portion of the student body. The motion passed 3-2, with Sheffield and Davie in opposition.

The school budget will now be forwarded to the City Council for further review. For more on the school budget, including positions that were eliminated, tax impact, and the schedule for upcoming hearings, see this story: [insert link URL here].

Parents, students and community members have formed a SaveAltEd Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/371209535712243, and plan to continue advocating for the program at City Council budget meetings in March.

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