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Proposed Budget Cuts will Sting, say Maine School Officials, Students
03/18/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Parents, students, teachers, principals and superintendents say Gov. Paul LePage's biennial budget will force school districts to cut extra-curricular activities, lay off teachers, increase class sizes and make other education cuts that will hurt kids. The Legislature's Appropriations and Education Committees heard testimony on the budget this afternoon in a joint public hearing. As Jay Field reports, the administration is trying to close a more than $800 million deficit over the next two-year budget cycle.

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Proposed Budget Cuts will Sting, say Maine School Listen
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Maine schools have already had to absorb a more than $12 million funding cut in December, as part of the state curtailment. The next two-year budget would leave General Purpose Aid to Education where it is right now - at just under $900 million annually.

The afternoon's most dramatic testimony about the effect this flat funding could have came when Maggie Stokes stepped to the lectern. Stokes was greeted by State Sen. Dawn Hill, the York Democrat who chairs the Appropriations Committee.

"Hi! I can barely see you. You know what? Can you pull the mic down? Cause we definitely want to hear you. So we want to make sure it's by your mouth. Thank you so much. Go ahead," Hill said.

Stokes is a fifth-grader from Oakland. Her elementary school, she told the committee, hasn't been able to fill key positions in recent years and can't afford to lose the adults it does have inside the building.

"Bullying has been a problem in my school because we don't have enough money to hire aides and counselors to help those students with behavioral issues," Stokes said.

Stokes says this understaffing made her fourth-grade year a struggle. "I was physically attacked, literally, by the same student numerous times because there weren't enough adults around."

Her school, Stokes told the committee, relies on parents and teachers to donate basic classroom supplies, like pens and pencils. The librarian buys the library books. The art teacher buys the art supplies.

Besides the flat funding, the governor's budget would also slash the state's annual contribution to teacher retirement plans by 50 percent. The proposal would force local property tax owners to pick up the tab instead.

But Kate Kalajainen says asking homeowners to pay more hasn't worked out so well where she lives, in Brunswick. Kalajainen, who's taught elementary school herself in New York and overseas, has a fifth grader in the Brunswick school system.

"In Brunswick, we raised our property taxes eight percent last year. And doing that did not get us a fantastic or visionary school budget. It barely kept the status quo," Kalajainen said. "The solution is not forcing more tax burden onto middle class towns and people through property taxes. We need the state to provide the bare funding necessary to fund the school systems we want to see."

In Sanford, where David Theoharides is school superintendent, the governor's budget would result in a loss of $1 million in funding. Theoharides says the cut, along with property tax hike, would force him to make some painful choices.

"I anticipate that I will need to cut over 25 teaching and staff positions, significantly reduce our athletic program, eliminate technology purchases for our high school and curtail all of our after school busing," he said.

The district is already closing two buildings next year and is leaving five open positions unfilled.



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