At a budget forum back in March, Waterville schools Superintendent Eric Haley said public education is in serious trouble. From the budgets that have come rolling in since then, you could say Haley hit it right on the nose.

At the national level, the Trump administration has proposed $10.6 billion in cuts from federal education initiatives, which would take money from public schools in favor of school choice programs. Additionally, as state revenue given to schools continues to decline, local districts have to adjust — and generally, that means more cuts. Often the cuts are deep; sometimes they’re devastating.

In Winthrop, a lean budget threatens art, music and sports programs. Waterville officials expect some positions to be slashed if their spending proposal is not approved. High school students in Gardiner had to make personal pleas in order to rescue their wrestling team from the chopping block. Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54 had to eliminate 7.5 positions districtwide, including one elementary school principal position. Some funding for supplies, equipment, textbooks, field trips and extracurricular activities also was gutted.

Now there are parents who are upset, and rightly so. Their children could lose a program they love, or time and attention from a teacher because there are now fewer in the classroom. But then there are citizens who are worried about property tax hikes because they’re already struggling to pay what they owe. Their concerns are equally valid.

While this turmoil rages on in the districts, a possible solution is debated in the Legislature. The controversial 3 percent tax surcharge on wealthier Mainers, which voters passed via referendum in November, could ease the burden on drowning districts. But those who oppose the tax say it ultimately could damage Maine’s economy, and lawmakers might keep it out of the state’s budget.

So, school budgets, as it turns out, are complicated.

But what we often forget is that so too are children.

In college I worked at a public Montessori school in the Tower Grove neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri. It’s a small school with just over 200 or so enrolled. At times, it felt like I was part of a big, quirky family.

For four years, I worked four days a week helping in the preschool classrooms and as an after-school care monitor. The second that I walked through a classroom door — and made the seamless transition from student to teacher — was always my favorite part of the day. I would be swarmed by tiny people, wrapping their pudgy arms around my legs, and it made me feel so important — even though most of my admirers didn’t know how to tie their shoes yet. But I got to watch these tiny people grow and learn how to read, write, and eventually, ace long division.

I also learned about the hardships that these kids, ages 3 to 14, face every day. That’s the hardest part about working with kids. You learn that there are problems that you can’t fix for them. Some things can’t be solved with a Band-Aid and a hug. I also learned that you can’t shelter them from what goes on outside of school.

These kids are often subjected to violence, and they are subjected to drugs. One day I was working in the pre-school, and skinny little Mike sat at a table with a rolled-up piece of paper in his mouth that he pretended to smoke. His friend, 4-year-old Bailey, walked up and asked him, “Mike, is you smoking a cigarette, or is you smoking a blunt?” Earlier that day, Bailey chased Margaret around the playground with a broom, exclaiming, “Imma get you, witch! Imma get you!” Except she didn’t say “witch.” The comedy is fleeting … like Margaret.

These are the moments that I remember most vividly. I’ve cried thinking about Leo, sitting in my lap, looking up at me and saying, “I do not have a mommy. No, I do not.” I’ve cried remembering when Joel told me about how his mom’s car broke down and how she couldn’t make the house payment. And my heart still aches when I think about Adrian. He always tried to hold his emotions in and be strong — be a man. But some days, on especially hard days, he would hug me tightly and just cry. He never said why and I never made him tell me.

It’s hard to become a part of a child’s life and see the child struggle with problems that should be reserved for adults.

However, I was always comforted by knowing that even though their home lives weren’t always perfect or peaceful, school could be their sanctuary. At school there were teachers and faculty to listen to them if they needed it. They had tutors who could take extra time on a subject students struggled to understand. They had meals and snacks when they felt hungry. They had field trips to go on, during which they could learn something that wasn’t possible to experience in the classroom. They had sports teams to help them explore their talents. They had music and art classes where they could express themselves creatively. And they had student workers, like me, who came in to relieve the teachers, and to be their friends.

Budget cuts threaten these sanctuaries. They threaten a child’s relief from the stress outside of school. They threaten the future of the state, the country, as well as the future of public education.

On the federal level, the cuts threaten the funding for federal work-study, which was the program that paid for my employment at the school in St. Louis, because they didn’t have the money to pay us. Without federal work-study funding, I would not have been able to know these kids, to change them and to be changed by them. I wouldn’t have half as much joy or laughter in my life. There are so many memories I’d be without: The time I watched, teary-eyed, as 5-year-old Laurel performed “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” with more confidence than any other student at the talent show. The time towhead Timmy kissed me on the cheek and giggled the rest of recess with impulsive satisfaction. The times Teagan played with my hair or Ari drew me a cartoon about my caffeine dependency. I wouldn’t know what it’s like to teach someone something new, help resolve an argument or be a role model.

Without the funding, students lose. We all do.

I know that there’s no easy solution. We will all have to make compromises and sacrifices. But I think there’s something we can all do: We can volunteer our time at a local public school. Spend a day with the students and see what they can do when they have access to tools that help them be successful. I promise that they will impress you, make you laugh and most definitely, they will break your heart.

Emily Higginbotham, originally from Illinois, is a copy editor at the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. You can follow her on Twitter: @EmilyHigg. Or reach her by email: [email protected]