WATERVILLE — When Eric Haley came to Waterville in 1985, there was one nurse for all the schools, there were no social workers or school resource officers on staff and the idea of hiring a psychiatrist was unheard of.

Now, 33 years later, there is a nurse in every school, six social workers are on staff, and the district contracts with a psychiatrist and plans to hire one for the next school year.

It’s a whole different world.

Children come to school with behavioral problems and can be disruptive and out of control, some suffer with anxiety attacks, and others can not control their emotions, said Haley, now the school superintendent.

He was speaking Tuesday night to about 45 city and school officials, parents, educators and others who turned out for a workshop in the City Council chamber to discuss a proposed $24 million school budget for 2018-19.

Discussion turned to the difficult situation that exists in schools now because of societal changes that include babies being born of mothers addicted to opioids and experiencing developmental delays, homeless children coming to school preoccupied with where they will sleep that night and where they will get food to eat and not being able to concentrate, and children who are sexually abused.

The topic arose when Haley was explaining the need for a social worker position at the Albert S. Hall School, where Principal Barbara Jordan does not have an assistant principal and must deal with a lot of behavioral problems.

“The behavior is getting worse and worse and worse and we need some help for her,” Haley said.

He cited a high-profile sexual abuse case in Waterville. School officials reported the abuse to the state for years and nothing was getting done, he said.

“It was our social worker that broke the case open,” he said, adding that the district’s goal is not to have a waiting list so that children’s needs are addressed. He said he does not think there is one school employee who is aware of the case that would say a school social worker is not needed.

“Schools are becoming all things to all kids, so we’ve become more of a clinic — a medical clinic,” Haley said.

The district could not possibly get by with only one nurse, according to Haley.

“Our school nurses have become primary care physicians,” he said.

School budgets are escalating not because of academic needs but because of behavioral needs, he said.

Lisa Wheeler, a parent, said when students have behavioral problems, it affects other students and their ability to learn, so appropriate staff members are needed to work with the children.

“It happens on a regular basis, so the education of the rest of the children is affected,” she said, “so we never have the conversation about what about the rest of the kids? We need every person that can help that. We’ve got to have it so we can elevate the level of the education.”

Rep. Colleen Madigan, a Democrat who represents House District 110, which includes part of Waterville and Oakland, said the opioid epidemic is costly and when parents have no access to treatment, the schools must deal with the problem.

“It’s a problem I’m aware of, and I’m trying to do something to help,” said Madigan, a social worker. She added that the state Department of Health and Human Services is overwhelmed with work also.

“You’re absolutely right. Everyone’s overwhelmed. Nobody has enough people to deal with this,” Haley said.

Assistant Superintendent Peter Thiboutot, who serves as liaison for homeless children, said 60 students in the Waterville school system have been identified as homeless and a lot of them couch surf. He cited an example of a student who does not feel safe going home, so he stays at a friend’s house. If the friend’s house is in Fairfield but the homeless child attends school in Waterville, by law, he still has the right to attend school in Waterville, and the school system must transport the student, according to Thiboutot.

“These are all unexpected costs we don’t think about,” he said.

The schools have a small amount of money to help children with clothes and school supplies, but it usually doesn’t cover the needs, Thiboutot said.

“Fortunately, there are a lot of wonderful people that make donations,” he said.

Haley also cited another phenomenon that did not exist when he came to Waterville in 1985:

“We have food pantries and clothes closets in every single school, staffed by volunteers,” he said.

City officials on Tuesday got a first look at the proposed $24 million school budget for 2018-19, which represents a request for $975,990 in new taxes from the city.

The budget discussed Tuesday is for Waterville schools only. Haley is also superintendent for Alternative Organizational Structure 92, which includes Winslow and Vassalboro schools, but the AOS is dissolving and Haley will oversee only Waterville schools when the dissolution is complete.

The $24 million budget represents an 11 percent or $2.3 million increase on the expenditure side of the budget, according to school finance director Paula Pooler.

“We do have more revenues, and that’s why we only have to ask for $975,990 from the city,” Pooler said before the meeting.

The school board on April 9 voted 7-0 to approve a proposed $24.4 million budget for 2018-19, but the numbers have changed since then, according to Pooler.

The board must take one more vote on the proposal and usually does so after the council votes on the proposed budget.

Within the budget the board passed April 9 were recommendations by Haley that included $85,085 for two self-contained education technician IIs at George J. Mitchell School, $60,898 for a social worker at Albert S. Hall School, $42,542 for an education technician II at Waterville Junior High School, $60,898 for a Waterville Senior High School resource teacher, a science teacher for alternative education for $60,898 and a high school business teacher for $60,093.

The current school budget is $21.7 million.

The proposed municipal budget for 2018-19 is $18.2 million and represents a decrease of 0.8 percent from the current $18.3 million budget.

The city and school budgets approved last year totaled $39.9 million. The reason the proposed municipal budget reflects a decrease for 2018-19 is that no capital improvements are being proposed other than $250,000 for roads.

If the proposed municipal and school budget were to be approved as is, the total combined budget would be $42.2 million.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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