2018-05-04 / Front Page

School budget proposal is finalized

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — It took two hours and six votes Monday, April 30, but the RSU 21 Board of Directors ended up exactly where they started, with a $48.13 million budget for the coming school year.

That proposal will now go to voters for an up-or-down decision at the district budget meeting, set for 7 p.m. May 15 at Kennebunk Elementary School. Then comes the final say at the polls in all three towns for the budget validation vote on June 12.

If voters give their assent, the $2.36 million (5.15 percent) increase in spending over the current $45.77 million plan will drive a $2.48 million (6.4 percent) hike in that portion of the budget covered by local taxpayers — this despite a modest $22,381 increase in the state subsidy, to $4.73 million.

According to Matthew Fadiman, chairman of the school board budget committee, had the RSU not drawn the state’s favor, and thus its dollars, by adding a new pre-kindergarten program next year, the subsidy would have actually dropped by nearly $1 million.

Fadiman has said a drop in state dollars, pre-K notwithstanding, can be pinned primarily to increased property values in Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel — which means the state kicks in less, relative to other districts.

Although the bottom line on the budget had not changed since the first reading at the March 19 school board meeting, there had been some substantive edits over the six weeks that led to final passage Monday.

In the wake of the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Superintendent Katie Hawes had built into her budget proposal $100,000 to add and upgrade security cameras at all district buildings. On April 2, the school board agreed in principal to apply for a federal grant to increase the police presence in local schools. Currently, RSU 21 has one school resource officer stationed at Kennebunk High School and one at the Middle School of the Kennebunks. The hope was to add additional officers at each of the district’s four elementary schools.

At an April 12 meeting of the school board’s finance subcommittee, it was decided to just go ahead and make that addition and not wait around for grant money. Under an arrangement Hawes said she worked out with police chiefs in Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, the two towns would hire four new police officers between them, with the RSU paying 75 percent of their salaries — enough to cover the nine months of the year each would spend working in the schools.

That total cost of $280,000 was obtained without moving the needle on the budget by cutting $80,000 from the amount already set aside for new security cameras.

Also, the first reading of the budget had included a “placeholder” for employee insurance costs that assumed a 10 percent hike in premiums. But the final increase came in at just 3 percent, saving $200,000, Fadiman said.

The full school board never voted on the change in the budget from its first reading, however. Instead, the addition of the four school resource officers was Monday presented by Fadiman as a done deal. However, it could be argued the full board did indeed memorialize that change by the time it wrapped a series of five budget amendments —none of which passed— on the way adopting the final budget unanimously.

Those changes began with a proposed amendment by Fadiman to add a Grade 4 teacher at Kennebunk Consolidated School that had been cut due to declining enrollment, and to add a Grade 5 teacher at the Mildred L. Day School in Arundel.

One of two Grade 4 teacher jobs had been eliminated at Consolidated because there are expected to be just 24 students in next year’s class. That’s at the high end of the 18-24 pupil range called for in district policy. Keeping two Grade 4 teachers, however, would have meant classes of just 12 students, each. That, some argued, was a far cry from the 21-22 students expected to be in Grade 4 classes at all other district schools next year.

Meanwhile, the two Grade 5 classes at Mildred L. Day School next year are projected to have between 25 and 26 students, each. District policy does allow for exceeding the preferred class size range by two students with additional support staff. Still, Fadiman’s motion was to add a third class even though MLD — despite a recent $7 million renovation — doesn’t have the space. Hawes said a room now used for Spanish instruction would have to be pressed into service as regular instruction.

Fadiman said his motion to add two teachers would have added $156,000 to the budget. That would have pushed the overall tax hike to 6.8 percent.

Despite that increase, about a dozen parents rose to support Fadiman’s motion.

“We’re really, really happy with our school and we think it’s incredibly important to retain our amazing teachers,” said Kennebunkport resident Michelle Draghetti, drawing a round of applause from the audience, much of which, she said, had elected her to speak on their behalf.

“We don’t think it’s a good idea to address (population) bubbles in either direction, to let a wonderful teacher go only to have to replace that teacher in a year or two,” Draghetti said. “We ought to show our commitment to our teachers and show how much the amazing work they do means to us.”

Hawes pointed out that while one of two Grade 4 teachers would be taken out of KCS next year, that person would not get laid off, as there are several other openings available dsitrict-wide in Grades K-5.

“Nobody’s losing a job,” she said.

Still, Draghetti said losing a Grade 4 teacher at KCS stings, given the $56.5 million bond approved in 2015 to overhaul it, Mildred L. Day and the high school.

“Investing so much in our plant and now not investing in our teachers is really rubbing some people the wrong way,” she said.

Several school board members took the side of the parents.

“It’s not just class size, it’s how the whole school works,” said Kennebunkport Director Peter Fellenz. “When we voted to keep an elementary school in each town we agreed there are considerations over and above class size ratios.”

“Consolidated is our most fragile school,” said Fadiman, noting that 20 percent of its 210 students actually live in Arundel and Kennebunk. That would mean some irony, he said, if a couple of Grade 4 students should move into Kennebunkport between now a September, only to get sent to one of the other towns, because Consolidated has just the one class with 24 kids in it already.

“Kennebunkport has declining enrollment,” Fadiman said. “It is an expensive place to live. It has trouble attracting families. So, the last thing I want to do is take kids that want to go to Consolidated and say, guess what, we have other places we can send you to.”

Others, however, saw it differently.

“I think we need to be flexible about how we deal with class sizes and enrollment, but I also think we have a policy for a reason,” Maureen King of Kennebunkport said, adding, “Those class sizes have been in place many years and have been fine.”

“I think there are far better ways for us to think about this than simply hiring new teachers and spending more money,” said Brad Huot, of Kennebunk

After all, he said, the district is entering its “peak year” of payments on the school renovation bond.

“This is really putting a lot of pressure on our budget,” Hout said.

Still others said they could not support staffing in one school that mean 12-student classes, while others have as many as 24.

“What I am struggling with is the general issue of equity in class size among all our schools,” Kennebunk Director Emily Kahn said.

Ultimately, Fadiman’s motion went down 7-4, with just himself, Fellenz, Rachel Phipps of Kennebunk and Maeghan Lovejoy of Kennebunkport in favor.

At that point, school board member Tanya Alsberg of Kennebunk moved to forego the additional Grade 5 teacher at Mildred L. Day and just retain two Grade 4 teachers at Consolidated, at a cost of $78,000. But that proved even less popular, with just herself, Fellenz and Lovejoy voting yes.

And that’s when the new school resource officers came into play. Fadiman moved to add in both the Grade 4 KCS teacher and the Grade 5 Mildred L. Day teacher, while cutting the number of new police officers from four to two. That, he said, would be a draw — meaning “no impact” to the budget.

That was the closest vote of the night, with five in favor — Alsberg, Fadiman, Fellenz, Lovejoy and Phipps — and six opposed — Hout, Kahn and King, along with Ira Camp, MaryBeth Luce and Mike Mosher. Board member Catherine Rush of Arundel was not present.

The next vote, advanced by Phipps, was to add the two teachers, but cut all of the new police officers, which she was opposed to, on basic principle.

“I don’t think we are running a garrison state here, I think we are running schools,” she said.

But only Phipps and Fellenz voted for that idea.

Finally, Phipps took one final stab. Taking the advice of Chairman Luce, who suggested the issue of additional teachers had played itself out, Phipps left that aspect alone and moved instead to cut the new police officers corps from four to two, a move that would have carved $140,000 from the budget.

But that drew criticism from Phipps’ peers and school parents alike.

“I have a problem telling any building you’re only going to get an officer for half of day and god forbid that the half-a-day you have them is not the time when the shooter arrives,” King said. “I can not in good conscience put any of our children at risk in the days and times we live in.”

“This is not just a cop in your school with a gun,” Kennebunkport parent Beth Fawcett said. “They are there building relationships and learning who those kids are who have issues that could be a problem going forward.”

“If there is no (school resource officer), that security camera footage you are going to see instead will be just taking names and watching to see whose kids got shot,” said Bill Dries, also of Kennebunkport.

Ultimately that final vote fell 7-4, with Alsberg, Fellenz, Kahn, and Phipps in favor.

The board then voted 11-0 in favor of the full $48.13 million budget package.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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