Councilor urges changes to city funding of parochial school

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LEWISTON — City voters may have overwhelmingly backed city financial support for private schools, but that was a long time ago, according to City Councilor John Butler.

“That was eight years ago, and things change,” Councilor John Butler said. “I think it’s time we change this.”

Butler was the only councilor last week speaking in support of ending a city practice to provide busing and money for books and testing for Lewiston residents attending parochial or private schools in Lewiston. According to the city’s proposed budget, the city is budgeting $126,965 to bus students to Trinity Catholic School on Main Street. The budget also includes $10,000 for books for the school and $3,000 for state testing.

“But other private schools in other cities make do without this kind of support,” Butler said. “They take care of themselves. They have their own buses that get their students to and from school.”

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Lewiston currently pays for students attending Trinity Catholic Elementary and Junior High School and not those attending Main Street’s Central Maine Christian Academy or Vineyard Christian School. Pat. St. Hilaire, prinicipal for the Christian Academy, could not be reached for comment — a receptionist at the school declined to forward a message to her and she could not be reached at her home.

According to Executive Pastor Allen Austin of the Vineyard Church, parents of the students at his school drive their children to school and pay a book fee each year. He estimates that 40 of his 121 kindergarten-through-grade-12 students live in Lewiston.

“I don’t think we’d even pursue taking this kind of money, if it were available,” he said. “There are only so many places you can devote your attention and throw your energy. I’m not sure this is one of those places.”

Austin said he’s not against the city paying for other schools.

“I guess you’d have to say I have no opinion,” he said. “I’m a lifelong resident of Lewiston, so I know how strong the link has always been between the city and the private schools.”

According to Sue Bernard, communications director for the Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, there are 172 students from Lewiston attending Trinity Catholic School, from pre-kindergarten through grade 8.

“It’s extremely important to this school,” Bernard said. “No question, having it helps the school. The city and the school have had a long working relationship over the years, and it’s important for it to continue.”

Councilors are reviewing an especially tight budget this year. Actual spending is down compared to the current budget but the property tax rate could increase as much as $1.41 for each $1,000 of property value. Councilors are reviewing a slate of potential cuts to keep taxes down, including reduced snow plowing in the winter, fewer street lights and less support for buses and public transit.

But the most controversial cut being proposed would see up to 20 employee positions cut around the city, a savings of $731,171. Another plan to eliminate four police officer positions and park a firetruck, eliminating nine firefighting positions, is also being considered.

Butler said that’s why he’s looking at the private school funding.

“When we look at eliminating jobs, we need to look at this,” he said. “But I had strong opinions on this before. I really don’t think we should be putting public dollars into a private school.”

Councilors put the matter to a vote in 2001, asking voters if they wanted to continue the practice. More than 80 percent said they did.

The practice still has plenty of supporters. Councilor Mark Cayer said he received numerous e-mails from parents last week, urging his continued support of the parochial school money.

And Councilor Ron Jean said he believes the city saves money by paying for the students rather than enrolling them in public schools.

But Butler said the issue is not dead. As deadline for adopting the budget gets closer, councilors may be more willing to consider the cuts.

“When you look at the numbers, that $140,000 represents four jobs,” he said. “So at least it’s still on the table. At least it’s still being considered.”

staylor@sunjournal.com

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