Alisa Roman is worried that her older daughter, Elizabeth, won’t have a music program when she enters the sixth grade at Winthrop Middle School next year.

Elizabeth doesn’t play sports and has had trouble making friends as a fifth grader, Alisa said, but she has found playing the flute to be “one thing that makes her really happy … It’s a support for her. She gets a lot out of playing it, and she does chorus too.”

Parents like Roman are concerned, however, about budget cuts that have been proposed by the Winthrop School Department.

Under the proposal, a music teacher who makes about $55,000 would be laid off, eliminating music instruction from the middle school and high school. Other items on the chopping block include a Spanish and French program for younger students, extracurricular activities for all ages, and high school sports such as skiing, tennis, cross country and junior varsity football.

Gary Rosenthal, superintendent of the Winthrop schools, has drafted that budget proposal at the request of the Town Council, which is hoping to limit next year’s spending as much as possible.

The council has asked Rosenthal to put together a $10.9 million budget, a 2 percent drop from the $11.2 million budget that was approved for this year. By passing a lean budget, councilors hope the town will be able to start recovering from a large shortfall in the school budget that was discovered last summer.


But Rosenthal hopes that an $11.4 million budget can be passed for next year, even though it would require a tax increase. He’s encouraging concerned citizens like Roman to attend a Town Council meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday night, so that they can voice their displeasure with the cuts he’ll be presenting. About 50 people attended a recent meeting of the school board in which the cuts were discussed.

“Almost all of them were there to advocate for music programs,” Rosenthal said, noting that his own sons are avid musicians. “I’m very much an advocate of music education … It’s bothering me an awful lot that we’ve got to do this.”

It’s also bothering some members of the Town Council, who question whether so many school programs need to be eliminated to reach their $10.9 million funding target.

Councilors set that lean target partly because of a difficult financial situation facing the town. A large shortfall was discovered in the school budget last summer, and officials now think they’ll have to borrow $2 million to ensure the town has operating funds next fiscal year.

In Winthrop, councilors must approve the school budget before it can go to voters in a referendum on June 13.

They have also set the $10.9 million funding target because the school department has managed to save nearly $400,000 since the discovery of the shortfall, said Sarah Fuller, chairwoman of the Town Council. They hope the school department will be able to keep costs that low next year, so the town will be able to restore its cash flow and start repaying those loans.


“We’re asking them to hold the line for a year,” Fuller said. “We thought that seemed fairly reasonable.”

This week, councilors plan to ask Rosenthal whether the school district will be able to find savings anywhere else in the school budget, so that arts and extracurricular programs won’t have to be cut, Fuller said. While there are some cost increases that can’t be avoided, such as special education, Fuller questioned whether the school department had tried to find savings in other areas, like fuel costs.

“People care deeply about arts, music and sports,” Fuller said. “When you threaten cutting that stuff away, it’s very emotional, and rightfully so. I’m upset about it. I don’t want to lose those programs, but I think there’s other things we can take a look at … Why are you scuttling arts and music when, as far as we can tell, fuel prices are not going up sky high?”

Rosenthal, though, said that the school department was methodical in its creation of the budget proposals and worked with auditors hired by the town to find the savings. In a presentation about the budget that’s available on the school department website, he indicated that there are several unavoidable cost increases facing the town, including $150,000 for special education and $155,000 for health insurance.

The district may have to raise an additional $200,000 because of cuts to school funding in Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget, Rosenthal said — though Fuller questioned whether LePage’s budget will be passed or those cuts would have the impact Rosenthal suggests.

There’s a growing need for health services in the district’s schools, so Rosenthal said the department can’t avoid hiring an additional health worker. He also said the district must budget for possible maintenance issues or come back to the council next year when those needs arise.


“We’ve tried to put off maintenance for as much as we could, but we can only kick the can down the road for so long,” Rosenthal said. “You can always go to a line in the budget and question it, but you have to look at the budget as a whole and say, ‘Is this a sound budget?'”

Speaking more generally about the funding of the school department, Rosenthal said the cost savings the district has found this year can’t be continued long term if the district wants to keep offering a consistent level of education to its students. He referred to parents like Roman, who are drawn to Winthrop’s schools and would consider sending their kids elsewhere if programs are cut.

While Rosenthal’s preference for an $11.4 million budget would increase the town’s property tax rate, he said Winthrop would still have a lower tax rate than other towns that offer a similar level of services.

Besides drafting a $10.9 million budget, Rosenthal has also drafted an alternative, $11.2 million budget that includes fewer cuts, but that still would eliminate a language teacher, a music teacher, skiing, middle school robotics and other programs.

That’s the same amount as this year’s budget, and the district would automatically be funded at that level if voters reject a different budget on June 13, Rosenthal said. It would continue to be funded at that level until a new budget is approved.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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