Oakland-based Regional School Unit 18 is facing a question mark on state funding, rising costs and an increasing need for support for students who face challenges such as homelessness or drug-addicted parents.

RSU 18 is No. 9 on a list no Maine school wants to be on: those districts that stand to lose the most under Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed education spending plan, which recommends 48 changes to the funding formula for essential programs and services.

The proposed plan would leave RSU 18 short of revenue by $750,000, including $650,000 used for system administration.

“I don’t think the governor should be trying to implement policy through a budget,” said superintendent Gary Smith, referencing LePage’s push to regionalize schools and cut administrative positions.

Smith said he’s still hopeful that the final budget will include more money for education. If so, the school board will mostly ask voters to use the extra money to reduce the local share of school costs at the June ballot.

The Legislature’s Appropriations and Education committees will make a decision on the budget proposal in the weeks ahead.

The proposed budget for RSU 18 is $35,958,586, an increase of 3.9 percent from last year’s approved budget of about $34.6 million.

However, the increase includes a new Day One program, which uses the school as its fiscal agent for its Goodwill Hinckley program. The Department of Education provides the funding, so the money merely passes through the school. With Day One removed from the budget, the increase is around 3.2 percent, Smith said.

One of the largest increases in the budget is for behavioral programs. Without those changes, the increase would be in the 2 percent range, Smith said.

Children fall along a spectrum when it comes to learning, according to Smith. While some require little to no support to do well, others require much more — though not all for the same reasons.

“If you are a special education student with an IEP (Individualized Education Program), there is a prescribed plan,” Smith said. “But there are some kiddos who kind of fall in this middle.”

Some students have behavioral problems or learning challenges “for a host of reasons that do not qualify, technically, for support, but very much need support,” he said.

In a continued effort to address the increased need for support for these children, this proposed budget includes a behavioral program position at Messalonskee Middle School. The position would be funded with both special education and regular education dollars, so it can serve a wider range of students.

It also expands the role of the board-certified behavior analyst, who is certified to conduct behavioral assessments and analyses, from two days per week to four days at both the middle school and elementary school levels. The behavior analyst works with teachers and schools to find solutions for students who might have behavioral problems.

Smith said he anticipates “there will be requests for more of this type of support.”

Over the past few years, the district also has increased its special education staff in each elementary school.

“We have been working slowly over time,” Smith said. The district understood it couldn’t add $500,000 for the problem in one budget year, so solutions have been phased in.

“How do we make more kids successful? That’s what we’re trying to do in this budget,” Smith said.

INCREASED NEED

The district has seen a general increase in the percentage of students who require special education support since 2010, with one small dip.

In 2010, there were 445 students receiving special education support out of 3,257 total students, or 13.7 percent. In 2016, there were 480 students out of 2,892, or 16.6 percent.

While RSU 18 was below the overall state percentage of students who qualified for special education, it is now on par with the state average.

The number of students who require special education has increased in Maine as a whole over the past few years. In the 2010-2011 school year, 15.6 percent of the state’s student population had diagnosed disabilities, which steadily rose to 16.7 percent by the 2015-2016 school year.

Cheryl Mercier, director of special education services for the district, said that the type of problems that children are dealing with now are different. In the past, special education teachers might have mostly taught children with learning disabilities; now more children are on the autism spectrum or are diagnosed with anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Mercier said district officials don’t know why there has been an increase in special education students, but she and others stressed that getting an IEP, a plan designed for each special education student, is a long process and not a quick diagnosis.

“There’s a process. There’s a form. There’s testing. The testing shows what the testing shows,” said Scott Talcove, a special education teacher. “The data drives what we do.”

Talcove also said people might notice special education numbers more now because the programs are more “mainstream.” While special education students often were separated and hidden from their peers in the past, Talcove said, they now know that isn’t going to help any of the students in the long run.

Talcove technically runs a self-contained classroom, but no student spends the whole day with him. They come in and out to get help with things as needed, or to check in with him about their work.

But Smith said he also looks at the problems increasingly looming over the country over the past few years — poverty, drug abuse, the “struggling family unit” — and sees that as “a driver of what we’re seeing coming in.”

For example, over the past five years the district has had about 20 homeless students each year, Smith said. There are 12 homeless students now, and in 2014 there were 27.

A study between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente, a California-based health care association, looked at the effect of “ACEs,” or adverse childhood experiences, on children’s future well-being.

The original study was completed in the 1990s, but the center continues to study the issue today. In the study, two-thirds of participants reported at least one ACE, which include experiences of abuse or household challenges such as substance abuse, parental divorce or an incarcerated family member. More than 1 in 5 reported having three or more ACEs.

The total ACE score was used to determine the participant’s cumulative childhood stress. The study found a relationship between the number of ACEs a child had and negative health and wellbeing outcomes throughout his or her life. As the number of ACEs increased, the child was at increased risk for depression, unemployment and lower education, according to the study.

These issues “impact children’s brain development,” said Angela McMahon, a social worker for RSU 18. “Experiences like that over time … are going to change your ability to (learn).”

In turn, a child who acts out in class because of these problems can affect a whole school.

Almost monthly, there is a “very challenging situation” somewhere in the district that can disrupt a classroom and sometimes forces a school into lockdown.

“This is a barrier that exists in our schools that affects every student in our school,” he said.

BUDGET CHANGES

The total special education budget is proposed to increase by 8.83 percent, or $376,518, which Smith said will address the need for more staff members to handle caseloads.

“I don’t know what the right balance is,” he said. “I suspect that any school might want more supports to make their kids successful, but the key to getting budgets passed is to find the appropriate balance between funding supports and not burdening the taxpayer.”

Six regular education positions, one of which is part-time, are also eliminated in the budget.

Smith said that after looking at projected enrollments, administrators cut one teacher each at Belgrade Central School, James H. Bean School, Atwood Primary School and Williams Elementary School. A mathematics teacher who split time between Messalonskee Middle and High schools also was cut.

In four of the cases, people were leaving or retiring. One teacher was moved to a different position.

A part-time instructional coaching position that provided education for teachers also was cut.

While the cuts were made because of the dwindling population, the district still is pushing its class size limit to the test, Smith said.

“In just about every single budget, we’re faced with this challenge,” he said. “More than ever, we’re pushing those class size limits to the higher end.”

Enrollment also is shifting throughout the year more than it has in the past, he said, which makes the issue even more complicated.

The district also is proposing putting $25,000 toward hiring an architect to assist the facilities committee, which is looking at what changes need to be made to get schools up to fire safety codes, among other things.

The superintendent’s office funding increased by 6.93 percent, mostly because of the cost of hiring a new superintendent, Smith said.

Meanwhile, Smith, who earned $117,473 this past year, is resigning as district superintendent. The current assistant superintendent, Carl Gartley, then will take his position with a salary of $125,000.

“Our salaries for those positions were not competitive to what area or same-size school districts are doing,” Smith said.

The average salary for a superintendent in Kennebec County for this school year was $114,427, according to data from the Maine School Management Association, a nonprofit federation that represents school boards and superintendents. The low for the area was $94,940, while the high was $142,819.

Statewide, the average salary for a superintendent is $116,405, ranging from as low as $84,048 to as high as $151,900.

Funding for the school board also has increased to cover anticipated legal costs. Smith said that when the board had an experienced superintendent, they didn’t need to call the attorneys as often as they might need to now.

‘PEOPLE ARE BURNT’

Smith said he heard what Waterville schools Superintendent Eric Haley said at a recent forum, and he gets it.

“We’ve been there; we are there,” Smith said. Some staff members have taken on more positions, and “people are burnt.”

“The thing that helps us keep going is we continue to follow this vision,” Smith said, referring to the district’s mission to serve each student. “This is for the future.”

While Talcove, the special education teacher, said he feels he gets all the support he needs in his program, there are other areas that struggle.

“I see some of my colleagues go without lunches, without prep periods because our kids need them and their time,” said McMahon, the social worker.

Mercier said if some of her staff members stayed within their designated roles, the school would lose some of its valuable resources. While the special education program has filled its need at the elementary level, she sees a need at the middle school now, she said.

“My fear in continuing at the rate we have is I don’t want to burn out the staff we have,” she said. “This year, our Messalonskee Middle School staff is still giving 150 percent, but they’re tired.”

The alternative to the school’s program, which is paying to send a student to a specialized school, is even more expensive, which Mercier said people should keep in mind. It would cost $60,000 to $120,000 per student to outsource the work.

Some parents also are speaking out and asking the district to do more. At a budget workshop Tuesday, Stephanie Oliphant said it’s impossible for the school to do it all on the bare minimum.

“I just listen to lots of people wanting everyone to work with the bare minimum,” said Oliphant, who is president of the Parent-Teacher Organization in China. “Teachers are parenting these children.”

Janette Kirk, president of the Parent-Teacher Organization at James H. Bean School in Sidney, spoke against consolidating more classes. She urged the district to look at not only the number of students in a cohort, but also its educational needs.

The school board is expected to adopt the budget at its April 26 meeting. There will be public hearings on May 2 and May 3, followed by a districtwide budget hearing on May 18. The referendum vote on the budget is scheduled for June 13.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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