Lisbon High students protest proposed school budget cuts

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LISBON — Carrying homemade signs and shouting “Save our education,” 20 Lisbon High School students protested outside the school Monday, objecting to proposed budget cuts they say will slash the number of teachers, gut programs and make it harder for them to get into college.  

“It’s like they’re caring about money but they’re not caring about us,” said 16-year-old sophomore Amanda Blancato, whose handwritten cardboard sign urged drivers to “honk for our teachers.”

Superintendent Rick Green has proposed a $13.4 million budget for 2010-11. That proposed budget is down about $400,000 from last year’s budget, but costs have risen while revenue has declined. The Lisbon school system lost over $660,000 in state aid alone when Maine reduced its contributions in an effort to balance its own budget. Green has proposed asking residents for about $260,000 more in local funding, which would mean a property tax increase of 72 cents per $1,000 valuation. Because costs have risen so dramatically, he has also proposed cutting $1.1 million from the system’s three schools. 

That would mean a loss of about 30 positions across the system, including teachers, guidance counselors, nurses and custodians. Because some remaining positions would be shared between two schools, it’s unclear exactly how many positions would be cut from the high school alone. 

At their protest Monday, Lisbon High School students said they learned about the budget proposal from their teachers. 

“Some teachers got upset and were crying in class,” Blancato said. “They said ‘You have the right to know.'”

The students believe the proposal will eliminate electives, gut Advanced Placement and foreign language programs and make it harder for them to get help from a guidance counselor. All of that, they said, would make it more difficult to get into college.

“We need teachers to learn. You can’t just cut out all the teachers and expect us to teach ourselves. Thirty? It’s out of control,” said 16-year-old sophomore Tyler Dery.

Word of the protest spread through Facebook. By 7 a.m. Monday, about 20 students had gathered on a sidewalk across the street from the school. The superintendent said school administrators gave the teenagers until about 8 a.m. to  finish their demonstration and get to class. Some went inside. Some stayed outside. And some new protesters left the school to join their classmates. Protesters said they were suspended for the rest of the day Monday and all day Tuesday for skipping school.   

The punishment didn’t bother many of them.

“I feel we’re fighting for what we believe in,” said 17-year-old junior Cody Watson, who helped organize the protest.

The superintendent sympathized with the students and their goals. Before their protest, he said, the school system had a hard time getting the community involved in the budget process.

“It definitely got everybody’s attention,” Green said. “I hope it works in a positive way for them.”

But he also believes some of the students’ fears are unfounded.

Under his proposal, he said, no programs would be eliminated. Guidance counselors would be cut, but the high school would lose only half of a position. The school would drop its three-credit foreign language requirement and one credit of a social studies requirement, but the school’s graduation requirements would still remain within state guidelines and the classes would still be offered. Class sizes would increase and some advanced classes would be offered every other year rather than every year, but electives would remain. The school is also looking at providing students with online classes and collaborating with other area schools so Lisbon students can take classes elsewhere if they need to. 

Green said he’s done his best to cater to the needs of students while dealing with the needs of taxpayers. 

The student protesters expected to remain outside the school throughout the day Monday and then move to the town office, where the school committee would meet to vote on the proposal. 

The town council is slated to vote on the proposal tonight at 7 p.m. at the town office. Residents will vote on it in a referendum June 8.

ltice@sunjournal.com

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