SACO — More than 200 Thornton Academy students upset with school administrators for cutting eight staff positions walked out of class Wednesday afternoon in protest.

The students, who say administrators are out of touch with the school community, said they want an open dialogue with school leadership about the reasons behind the cuts and the impact they will have on students.

For more than an hour, the students lined the sidewalk in front of campus while they waved signs and chanted in support of the staff members who lost their jobs last Friday. The students erupted in cheers each time a passing driver honked.

“We need to show we care,” said junior Anjelika Lee. “It’s not OK what they’re doing.”

Thornton Academy on Friday laid off one part-time instructor and seven full-time employees who are not classroom teachers. School officials say the cuts were necessary to balance the budget as the private school faces a decline in revenue from local students whose towns pay for them to attend Thornton, which is privately operated.

This is the first time in recent history that Thornton Academy’s total tuition revenue will decline from the previous year, according to the president of the board of trustees.

Headmaster Rene Menard would not identify the specific positions or employees who were laid off, but said the cuts came from departments across the school organization. The school also offered early-retirement packages to teachers and staff, and six employees took that offer, according to school officials.

“These are wonderful people who are very committed to TA and our students. It’s a sad day for all of us,” Menard said in an interview. “We’ve been clear with folks this is not in any way a reflection of their performance or their value to our school community. These are really hard, difficult but necessary budget decisions.”

Eric Purvis, president of the board of trustees, said in a letter to the Thornton Academy community dated Tuesday that the board “charged Menard with the difficult task of developing a balanced operating budget in the midst of declining tuition revenue.”

Thornton Academy is a private school, but Saco, Dayton and Arundel pay for high school students to attend. The per-pupil tuition rate is set by the state and the tuition increase set in December was 1.9 percent, lower than the typical 3.38 to 6.92 percent increase, Purvis said.

Students from Thornton Academy in Saco protest staff cuts at the school on Wednesday. Press Herald photo by Ben McCanna

Next school year, Thornton Academy will see a decline of 59 students from Saco, Dayton and Arundel. Tuition for each high school student next school year will be about $11,900, meaning the school will see a decline in tuition revenue of more than $700,000.

From 2016 to 2019, Thornton Academy experienced a decline of 78 publicly funded upper- and middle-school students.

Menard said the decline in local enrollment mirrors what is happening in communities across the state and is expected to continue over the next few years.

“There aren’t as many kids in the local school system and we’re starting to feel that,” he said.

In recent years, Thornton Academy has grown its enrollment by opening a middle school and expanding its boarding program for international students. That “thriving” program has supplemented tuition from local communities and allowed Thornton to “expand both the breadth and rigor” of course offerings, Purvis said.

Because of the layoff of the part-time instructor, two elective STEM courses will not be offered next year, Menard said.

Jesse Adlard, a sophomore at Thornton Academy, holds an A-frame sign alongside more than 200 other students who walked out of classes Wednesday afternoon to protest the school’s decision to cut eight positions. School officials say the cuts were necessary because of a decline in local public enrollment. Press Herald photo by Ben McCanna

The employees who were laid off will be paid through the end of their contracts on June 30 and receive severance packages. Menard said the layoffs took effect immediately to give employees as much time as possible to look for new jobs.

Delaney Ziegman, an 18-year-old senior who is active in the music and theater programs, said the staff cuts were upsetting to students, particularly in the arts program. She said the staff members laid off include Doug Stebbins, a longtime employee who served as the facilities use coordinator.

“He’s a huge part of our arts program and our arts community,” Ziegman said.

Ziegman said Stebbins was responsible for a wide range of tasks, from selling tickets to performances to running the light board to building sets. Many students had a close relationship with him and appreciated his support, she said.

“Everyone can’t imagine him not being around,” Ziegman said. “We have concerts this weekend and we don’t have anyone to sell tickets. It feels like (the administration) didn’t know how much he did.”

Stebbins could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Students are not the only ones with strong reactions in the Thornton Academy community.

Some alumni and current students questioned why the staff cuts came as the school is renovating the gymnasium as part of a multimillion-dollar upgrade to the athletic complex. That project is being funded through a capital campaign, the money from which cannot be used for other purposes, Menard said.

This week, Ziegman has handed out more than 100 T-shirts that read “Know Doug, Know Arts” and many students wore them to the protest. More than 200 people have signed an online petition asking school administrators for a public meeting about the staff cuts; a separate petition to bring back Stebbins is circulating. Several hundred comments – primarily from people upset about the layoffs – were posted on a Thornton Academy Facebook post announcing the news.

Ziegman said she started planning Wednesday’s demonstration after her request for a public meeting about the cuts was shot down by administration.

“We want to have an open dialogue about it,” she said.

Lee, who attended the protest with her mother, said she is especially upset about the layoff of Shawna Johnston, the school’s only librarian. Johnston went above and beyond by helping students with their work and supporting those who needed it, Lee said.

“She’s a fantastic person. She was the first person to ever make me feel safe at school,” Lee said.

Charlotte Kelley, Johnston’s sister-in-law, took photos of the protesting students and thanked them for supporting the staff. She said the layoffs came as a shock to the community, and praised the students for taking action.

“They’re making their voices heard,” Kelley said. “That’s what these teachers and staff have taught them.”

Robin Roy, a parent of a Thornton senior, watched as students protested.

“Some of the people let go are the very essence of what makes this place special,” she said.

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