WATERVILLE — Waterville school Superintendent Eric Haley drew a dark picture Wednesday of the future of public education, saying the outlook is particularly dim for Waterville schools.

“I think public education in general is in trouble, but it’s in serious trouble here,” he said. “It’s immediate. It’s now.”

Haley was speaking to about 150 teachers, administrators, parents, students and Waterville Board of Education members who turned out for a community educational forum Wednesday night at Trask Auditorium at Waterville Senior High School.

It was the first time the school board has hosted such a forum, but it did so in the wake of a particularly difficult budget season last year in which residents argued budgets are too high and people could not afford an increase in taxes.

The forum was designed to help explain how school budgets are developed and what taxpayer money is used for in schools. School principals and directors of Mid-Maine Technical Center and Mid-Maine Adult & Community Education spoke about their schools and what they are most proud of in those schools. Assistant Superintendent Peter Thiboutot discussed challenges schools face; and Scott Jones, a parent, presented a 17-year financial history of Waterville schools, using data from the schools finance office, the state Department of Education and Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Haley said last week that the proposed school budget for 2017-18 is $22.4 million, or a 6 percent — $1.3 million— increase from the 2016-17 budget of $21.1 million. Those numbers will change as the budget process progresses, according to Haley. Increases are reflected in higher salary and benefit costs, insurance and other items.

There are a lot of unknowns on the revenue side of the budget. For instance, Gov. Paul LePage is recommending 48 changes to the funding formula for essential programs and services, and if the Legislature approves all of them, Waterville would stand to lose about $100,000 in school funding, Haley said.

One of the governor’s proposed changes is changing the student-to-teacher ratio from 16-to-1 to 17-to-1. The governor also proposes to change the ratio of special education students to teachers. If that were to happen, school officials estimate Waterville would lose $646,983.

Haley said Wednesday that a group of residents wants to see the tax rate cut by $1 per $1,000 worth of assessed valuation, which represents $650,000.

To make further cuts in the school budget, positions would have to be eliminated, according to Haley. As it is, he said, teachers and others are burning out from doing more than they were asked when hired. When the food services director left the schools, for instance, school Finance Director Paula Pooler took on that job as well and is working beyond what she should.

“We’re burning her up,” Haley said. “We’re burning our teachers up. We’re burning up our support staff. I see it in their faces when we do program development. We can’t continue to do that.”

Jones’ presentation showed that when one looks closely at the numbers and includes inflation, the Waterville school budget really has increased only $400,000 in 17 years, which is, on average, less than $25,000 a year, according to Haley. Waterville spends less per pupil than surrounding communities and uses only 32 cents of every dollar raised by local taxes.

“I don’t think that’s excessive,” Haley said.

He said schools cannot continue to operate in the way they have, with teachers and other staff doing more with less and working overtime and double time.

“We’re going to tip over and we’re going to tip over because we’re burning our staff up,” he said.

The school health insurance bill is more than $3 million this year, according to Haley, who said that increase in health insurance over the last five years has been 6.24 percent per year.

He said that to balance the budget last year, surplus was used, and there is only about $6,000 left in surplus.

Meanwhile, Thiboutot said 45 students in Waterville schools are homeless and either live at the local homeless shelter, are couch-surfing or are living in unsafe environments.

Seventy-two percent of children at George J. Mitchell School are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, 70 percent of children at Albert S. Hall School are eligible, 63 percent at Waterville Junior High School, and 59 percent at Waterville Senior High, Thiboutot said.

In 2015, 11,974 meals were served to children during the summer as part of a special program; in 2016, 13,500 summer meals were served, he said.

Students living in poverty often need extra support in the areas of reading and mathematics, he said, adding that 30 percent of students in kindergarten through grade three are transient — they moved out of the district because of financial hardship, and others move in.

“It becomes very difficult for those students to receive a consistent education,” he said.

Regarding special-needs students, the state average is 17 percent of students, versus 23 percent identified as special needs in Waterville, he said.

In 1975, there were three identified categories of special needs; now 13 categories are identified, he said. Special education teachers must be hired to meet the needs, he said. He said 80 students in Waterville are served by Kennebec Behavioral Health.

Enrollment in Waterville went from 1,950 in 2007 to 1,750 in 2016, forcing the staff to be cut.

Since 2007, 15 high school positions have been eliminated and 27 high school electives cut. Teachers for art, music and foreign languages are being shared across buildings, according to Thiboutot.

“These are not ideal situations for our teachers when you have to constantly get in the car and drive to another building,” he said.

The number of sports teams has decreased and now there are shared sports teams. Renovations to the high school have been deferred and private donations had to be used for building improvements, according to Thiboutot. He used as an example the renovated auditorium the crowd was sitting in Wednesday.

“You can’t fund education on the backs of fundraising efforts,” he said.

He made a plea for supporting teachers and staff.

“They need the tools and resources to do their jobs, and we need to find ways to stop asking them to do more with less.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17


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