On the evening of August 4 the Robbinston school board struggled to come up with $67,933 in cuts to the school system budget. The board was required to do so by the town's voters at the July 28 budget referendum vote that saw townspeople uphold the budget that had been reduced in contradiction to the school committee's recommendation. A total of 110 residents turned out for the referendum, with 70 of those voting for and 40 against the reduced school budget. The specific decrease affected the regular education line item, the only area of the budget the committee could reduce the different educational categories by more than 5%.
But before they could get down to the few brass tacks left, AOS #77 Superintendent Jim Underwood read a letter of resignation effective immediately from teaching Principal Brenda Donovan. The 17‑year veteran of the school system has accepted a position with the Alexander school. Underwood thanked her for her commitment to the school. "I'm very, very sad to see her go," he said. The school committee will now need to find either a teaching principal or a teacher and a part‑time principal to replace Donovan.
Not only did the school lose its teaching principal just a few weeks before the school year resumes, but at the end of the meeting the school board chair, Tom Critchley, also tendered his resignation. Underwood told Critchley and the audience of over 20, "I hate to see you go. You've done a lot for this school." He added that the board chair has "a real rational, wise head. You've made a huge contribution to the school."
During the course of its August 3 meeting the committee managed to whittle about $34,000 from its budget, with $24,247 coming from an unfilled ed tech position, a $5,000 donation from Downeast LNG that will offset playground and other physical education‑related expenses, a $1,200 donation from the Parent Teacher Committee to be used to offset regular education expenses, and a possible $4,500 reduction in a salary line that may be a budgeting error. Underwood explained that he would need to research the last item to make sure that the overage was in error. In addition, Cathy Footer, town clerk and an employee with Downeast LNG who presented the good news of the $5,000 donation, offered her volunteer services to help with paperwork in the principal's office for a month or two.
Audience members, including Tom Moholland, chair of the select board, offered their suggestions for budget cuts, with Moholland challenging the budget process as not built on actual expenses. Underwood refuted Moholland's statement, explaining that the budget is built on previous year's expenses but that there are some costs, such as with special education, that are highly changeable and cannot be based primarily on a prior year's expense record. He noted that the budget process had started in January with financial documents available to the board. Moholland asked school committee member James Trainor if the budget process had gone according to Underwood's explanation, with Trainor responding, "No." Critchley and Underwood again explained the budget process.
In addition Moholland suggested that the increases in health insurance benefits were out of line, saying that historically a 2% increase was the norm. He was countered by a few school staff members in the audience who noted that Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield was projecting an 8% increase for the year. Underwood also explained that during the previous school year a teacher had been on staff who did not take health insurance. After that person left a new person was hired who did take insurance at the family level, adding considerably to the cost. According to an Aetna report on healthcare costs, the average rate of increase for healthcare costs in the U.S. had slowed from 9.5% in 2002 to 3.9% in 2010. For 2011 and 2012, Kaiser Family Health News reports that the annual increase in costs was at 4%.
When it came time for the committee to vote on the budget changes, Critchley abstained from all votes with Joe Footer and James Trainor voting in favor of the proposed cuts and acceptance of donation funds. In addition the committee voted in favor of advertising for either a teacher or teaching principal for the coming school year. The committee members hope that advertising for the teaching position alone will generate more applications, but with the possibility that the right candidate might come along to take on both. If no teaching principal comes out of the woodwork, Underwood explained that by law they are required to have a principal but that the state will allow some time as long as the school committee is searching for a viable solution. In the past the school had tried having a part‑time out‑of‑house principal shared with Calais, but Underwood noted that it had not worked well for Robbinston. A teaching principal must have three years of teaching experience at a minimum.
Options to be weighed
Underwood pointed out that questions the board will need to consider over the ensuing months are whether the reduced budget puts such a strain on the school that they may decide to begin planning either for the withdrawal from AOS #77, with one possibility to join the Calais school system, and/or for the closure of the school. Legally the school board can vote to close the school without voter approval. However, if 10% of the population petitions to have the vote go to the town, it would need to be done in that manner.
Joe Footer noted that, the last time the school board had raised the question of closing the school and taken it to the voters, committee members were roundly chastised for not doing their jobs. Any kind of decision to try to withdraw from the AOS, to join with Calais, or to look at a contract for high school students with Calais that might result in lower costs was "too late for this year," Footer said.
Underwood reminded the school board that, during the round of contentious town discussions about the school budget held a few years ago, school choice for high school students was so important to parents that the town ended up voting to put back in funding to support that choice.
When asked by Underwood whether the board wished to make a statement about the possibility of closing the school, Footer remarked that they had done better than he expected that evening with the cuts and that he had no statement at this time.