AUGUSTA — Leasing, instead of purchasing, new laptops or other technology for students could help plug much of the remaining hole in the proposed school budget, according to Superintendent of Schools James Anastasio.

Doing so could save the school system $330,000 next year — nearly enough, when combined with savings from other proposed cuts, to close the $331,000 gap in the currently proposed school budget, he said.

Proposed cuts to close the original funding gap of more than $1 million still could include two half-time elementary school secretaries, a study hall monitor at Cony High School, a half-time middle school literacy mentor, $160,000 worth of buildings and grounds projects, and replacing three of the system’s six school nurses with licensed practical nurses.

But the potential savings of lease-purchasing technology could prevent the need for school board members to delve into a second list of potential budget cuts. Those potential cuts include eliminating education technicians from elementary schools, saving $105,000; eliminating instrumental music classes, but not the entire music program, from elementary schools, saving $83,000; eliminating Project Pride education technicians at Gilbert Elementary School and Farrington Elementary School who work with students who need extra help, saving $70,000; and asking parents or boosters to pick up the cost of renting ice and pool time for athletic teams that need to rent facilities, saving $31,000.

Other options included cutting one first-grade and one second-grade teacher, saving $120,000; cutting one social studies and one English teacher at Cony, saving $120,000; cutting a secretary at the high school, saving $30,000; cutting an education technician focused on career training at the high school, saving $30,000; delaying the removal of underground oil tanks from school buildings for a year, saving $30,000; and cutting all middle school after-school sports and clubs, saving $38,000.

All of that might be able to be held off in part by the lease-purchase of technology proposal.

“If you choose to do a lease-purchase, which would be for five years, it will allow us to purchase 800 to 1,000 devices (laptops or tablets for students) and would be quite an infusion into our school district,” Anastasio said at Wednesday’s school board meeting.

Also, he said, it would allow the board “to close the gap of $331,000 you still have to close.”

Last week board members asked Anastasio and other administrators to look into other ways to save funds and balance the budget, including potentially lease-purchasing, instead of outright purchasing, technology for student use, which could spread the cost out over multiple years. Administrators had proposed cutting $200,000 from the technology budget, which was budgeted to help buy a total of 800 laptops or similar technology used by students, by only buying half that many devices, but board members asked them to look into a lease-purchase deal to spread out the cost of acquiring new technology to replace student devices that are seven or more years old.

On Wednesday, Anastasio said leasing instead of purchasing technology for students could save $330,000 next year. Payments including interest would be about $90,000 a year.

Board members didn’t vote on the proposal Wednesday, but at least some expressed support for the idea as a way to balance the budget. Others, however, expressed concern about taking on debt that will have to be paid off over the next five years.

The gap between revenue and expenses school officials are trying to close was more than $1 million, but most school board members informally agreed last week to use $400,000 from the schools’ fund balance account, for a total of $2 million from that account, to help balance the budget. Board members also last week and also informally agreed to $340,000 worth of cuts proposed previously by administrators, reducing the gap they still needed to close at Wednesday’s meeting to slightly more than $331,000.

The cuts were recommended only as potential ways to help close the budget gap left because Augusta is projected to receive about $1 million less in state funding than was initially budgeted.

The proposed budget, written before administrators learned Augusta’s state subsidy would be more than $1 million less than last year, is up about $1.5 million, or 5.5 percent, and would require about $861,000 more from property taxpayers, which is up by 7 percent compared to last year’s school budget.

Board members urged residents to contact their state legislators and Gov. Paul LePage to advocate for more funding for Maine’s schools.

No members of the public commented on the budget at Wednesday’s meeting, which was not a public hearing on the budget but did include a time when the public could comment on any school-related issue.

Officials did say they had heard concerns from residents the school system has too many administrators.

Laura Hamilton, an at-large board member, said a comment she’s heard in the community is, “When I went to Cony, there were twice as many students, and two administrators,” and people ask why, with fewer students, there are now more administrators there.

Cony, which in 2010 added students in grades seven and eight who previously attended Hodgkins Middle School before it closed at the end of 2009, now has one principal and three assistant principals, one of whom is focused on grades seven and eight.

Anastasio said he, too, has heard comments that the school system is top-heavy with administrators. He said there are more administrators at Cony now and at other schools elsewhere because society has changed.

“The world was much different, and so were the students,” Anastasio said of the time he was a student. “There wasn’t the need to do as many of the things we do today for students. Students, whether it’s good or bad, were much more compliant then than now. We didn’t have the same social issues. There also weren’t as many demands from the state and federal level. So society is much different. I’d invite anybody who wants to see how schools have changed and the needs of students and day-to-day operation of a school to go to your local school and come in and spend the day.”

He also said in the 1960s, only about 60 percent of school-aged children were in school, while today it is more than 90 percent. He said that’s the right thing to do, but it has made administering schools more difficult.

A few Cony High School students wrote emails to board members, asking them to save the career training specialist position at Cony now held by Lisa Plourde, who they said plays an important role in the lives of all students there. The position was included in a list of potential cuts to close the budget gap given to the school board last week.

“Cony High School has many important faculty members, but as far as the students are concerned, Lisa Plourde may be among the most important,” Cony senior Madeline Lewis wrote, noting Plourde teaches a career unit, tests students, answers questions about college searches and leads a scholarship committee, among other roles. “Although as busy as Mrs. Plourde is, she’s always willing to make time to listen to a student. Mrs. Plourde is extremely important to the students of Cony High School in discovering their future journeys.”

Cony senior Kelsey Rohman, the nonvoting student representative to the school board, said some Cony students sent the board emails because, with the annual Chizzle Wizzle variety show taking place next week, the many students involved in that production will be unable to attend a school board meeting March 18 at which a public hearing will be held on the budget.

The March 18 budget workshop, which will include a time for public comment, is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. in council chambers at Augusta City Center.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj


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