“Think outside the box.”
“Do more with less.”
As schools in Regional School Unit 16 have adapted to consolidation and challenging economic times, administration officials have heard and responded to the sentiments embodied in these expressions.
“Do more with less.” That’s the phrase we’ve probably heard the most. With 74 positions cut over the past three years and a proposed budget that is $1.36 million less than that of the final year as a school union in 2008-09, there comes a point when less is simply that. Less.
It is a fact: Fewer opportunities and resources exist to support children’s education in RSU 16 than have existed in the past. Children from Minot, Mechanic Falls and Poland have fewer course offerings and opportunities than their peers in surrounding districts.
Further cuts to the proposed budget will only exacerbate these inequities. That is the reality.
We cannot do more with less any longer. We passed that point when we lost foreign languages at the middle and high school levels. We passed that point when we reduced levels of music, physical education and health for K-8 students. We passed that point when we increased class sizes. We passed that point when we consolidated all seventh- and eighth-grade students into one middle school. We passed that point when we enacted fees for extra-curricular activities and computer use. These cuts were made even as surrounding districts offered opportunities and resources our students have never had — late buses, orchestra, language options, additional sports and co-curricular activities, updated learning technologies and the like.
These cuts have taken place at a time when schools are being called upon to provide more than ever before.
Educating students means being responsive to myriad out-of-school factors that affect student learning. As educators, we are challenged to learn new and more effective ways of meeting the diverse needs of our student population.
Teachers and staff are working exceptionally hard to minimize the impact of the cuts sustained to date (including taking four furlough days last year, assuming additional responsibilities and frequently paying for classroom supplies).
RSU 16 educators and staff work tirelessly to provide programming and services that are rigorous and responsive and to meet the accountability demands of the public and the law. Our work is a reflection of our dedication and responsibility to do what is best for our students. It is, however, simply unreasonable to expect that we can continue to “do more with less.”
The suggestion to further delay the equalization of salaries and benefits across the district is also concerning. This process began several years ago and, under the projected budget, will take another two years to complete.
Time and time again, visitors and volunteers in the RSU 16 schools comment upon the hard work and dedication of the staff. “I don’t know how you do it,” many have said. They see the diverse needs of the children. They see teachers and staff purchasing supplies, food and clothing for students. They see the tremendous amount of planning quality instruction requires.
They hear that many teachers have considerable education debt acquired to have the credentials and skills necessary to do this work well. They see the ways in which students, families, schools and education today is very different from their own experience.
Seeing all of that, they recognize and admire the level of professionalism and expertise the staff brings to this work. Delaying salary equalization is demoralizing to the majority of educators who give so much (including time with their own families) to provide for the needs of the children of this community.
In addition, as my fellow administrators can attest, these circumstances have discouraged high-quality candidates from choosing to work in the district.
We must continue to make progress in this area.
The budget committee will soon reconvene to determine the next steps. In the meantime, voters of Mechanic Falls, Minot and Poland are faced with several questions: What do they want for their children? Why is it acceptable for their children to have less opportunities than the peers with whom they will be competing for entrance to college and for jobs in the years ahead? What kind of education system is needed to build and sustain the prosperity of these three towns? How can action taken now help create the conditions for the future successes of our students and these towns?
One essential purpose of public schools is the preservation and advancement of opportunity — providing all students the experiences necessary to allow them to make choices about their futures. Education is a critical investment in children and the future. The RSU 16 school budget cannot endure further cuts.
I urge all citizens of these three towns to take responsibility for the children and for the healthy and productive future of the community.
Ayesha Farag-Davis is principal of the Whittier Middle School in Poland.