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Superintendent warns against further cuts
POLAND — Further reducing a budget that is already $1.3 million below where it was three years ago could endanger the futures of the district's students, warns Superintendent Dennis Duquette.
"There's not much left to cut or reduce," said Duquette. "We've taken away more and more from the kids and we can't take any more away. We can't take away any more programs; we can't take away any more staff."
At a meeting on Monday night, Duquette said that the district would have another chance to update the budget in September, after the next school year begins. To start the year, however, they will be using the most recently proposed budget, which was approved by a public vote but was not ratified during a June 21 referendum.
Voters from Poland, Minot, and Mechanic Falls rejected a $17,872,765 budget that was $270,000 lower than that originally proposed.
Opponents of the budget have called for that number to be reduced a further $250,000, to reduce taxes to the same level as in 2010/11. That number would be $600,000 below 2009/10, and $1.6 million below 2008/09 before school consolidation. The total budged would be approximately $500,000 greater than last year because of a federal jobs grant and money carried over from the previous budget.
Duquette says that a number of cuts to staffing, programming and classes were undertaken to reach last year's number, and still more would be required to keep the budget there. Health care benefits, a more-than-$2,000,000 expenditure, increased by 6.5 percent, and Duquette said that significant increases in the cost of fuel affect the budget as well.
"It takes a lot to run these buses and then heat these buildings when gas has gone up so much," said Duquette. He said that the proposed budget already cut spending for an oil-heating system at the high school that serves as a back-up to the new wood-burning furnace.
Over the past three years of cuts, the district has lost 74 positions, leading to increased class sizes, the elimination of middle school language courses, two out of three high school language options, elementary school technology classes and music from kindergarten through fourth grade, and a reduction of Advanced Placement, technology, physical education, and health classes. In addition, the school has instituted pay-to-play programs for sports teams and asked other extracurriculars to fund-raise a large portion of their own travel costs.
"If you value education, then someone has to pay for it and we owe our kids to give them the best education we can possibly give them. We're doing it on a shoe-string and the districts around us offer so much more than we do, so how do we afford to cut more? It's not right and it's not forward thinking," said Duquette. "We've taken consolidation to heart and we've reduced and utilized our resources to the maximum. Now, what do you reduce? What do you take away now without taking from the backbone of our education system?"
Duquette attributes the losses to a vocal but motivated minority of residents who are committed to rejecting any sort of tax increase. The latest rejected budget would have increased annual taxes by 50 cents in Mechanic Falls, $.21 in Poland, and $.14 in Minot per $1,000 worth of property.
"Some people simply don't want any type of tax increase of any kind and they don't care how it affects education," said Duquette. "That's when I've got to stand and defend what's right for these kids. I call it a minority, and they defeated the budget twice but I think it's a minority of how people think in our school district. It's just a matter of getting people out."