A two-hour celebration for teachers and other education staff could end up costing Maine schools nearly $100,000 for substitutes and transportation.

Celebrate ME, the nonprofit arm of a private video and event production company, will host “Celebrate School People” at the Augusta Civic Center on Wednesday, Oct. 18. A year in planning, the 4,000-guest party will include music, entertainment and a video of people saying “thank-you” to the special school people who touched their lives.

The event is the brainchild of former TV news reporter Patsy Wiggins and her business partner, former substance abuse counselor and public speaker Kathleen Alfiero.

“The intent is a media campaign to lift the spirits of school people,” Alfiero said.

Celebrate ME plans to host four people from every one of Maine’s 809 public and private schools, plus more than 700 home-school, preschool and college representatives.

Celebrate School People is championed by the state – the education commissioner asked schools to embrace the project, and Gov. John Baldacci officially proclaimed Oct. 18 “Celebrate School People Day” – though organizers say no tax money is going to the event. Private donations are paying for the $250,000 cost of planning, public relations and the party.

But schools have to pay for transportation and for substitutes to replace the people they send for the day.

Of the 3,200 public- and private-school people expected to show, Celebrate ME officials estimate about half will be teachers. Many of those will need substitutes, as will some bus drivers, crossing guards and other school people.

At $50 a day – the average cost of teacher substitutes – schools could end up spending about $80,000 to replace the 1,600 teachers expected to celebrate. And if each school spends just $20 for transportation, that’s another $16,000-plus.

Some school systems have balked at sending so many people to the party. To meet Celebrate ME’s four-representatives-per-school request, Lewiston would need to send 36 school people and Auburn would need to send 44. Instead, each city will send 14.

Both Lewiston and Auburn school officials are excited about the celebration but said they just couldn’t handle having 80 people gone from Twin Cities schools.

“It would have been a considerable number of people out of the classroom. That would have had a negative affect on education,” said Tom Jarvis, human resources director for the Lewiston school system.

Union 44, which serves Litchfield, Sabattus and Wales, isn’t sending anyone.

Superintendent Susan Hodgdon called the celebration “commendable,” but said budget issues, time constraints and other projects won’t allow her to send 24 people to Augusta.

“The timing was just wrong,” she said.

Other school officials are happy to send a full group to the party.

“It is going to be hard of course, but it’s a generous gesture of recognition and appreciation,” said Union 29 Superintendent Nina Schlikin, who oversees five schools in Poland, Minot and Mechanic Falls. She will send 20 people.

Schlikin has not yet calculated the cost of substitutes and transportation, though she’s hoping to keep costs down since administrators, administrative assistants and other Union 29 representatives won’t need subs.

“I think this is probably a relatively small token compared to what my employees give every day,” she said.

Celebrate ME officials said many schools have found creative, affordable ways to send people to the party. Some are staffing classrooms with volunteers rather than paid subs, they said. Some are asking attendees to carpool. Others are paying for the trip using money set aside for teacher training.

Auburn has limited the number of teachers going to the celebration and will try to use other staff members to cover the duties of party-goers.

On Celebrate ME’s urging, schools will hold a lottery today to name their representatives. After that, Celebrate ME will know how many teachers and others plan to attend.

“It’s a small price to pay for people to come back and say ‘OK, I’ll give it another year, another 10 years. I’m glad I’ve made this my life choice,'” said Linda Hogan of Celebrate ME. “What is the price of appreciation?”

Celebrate ME hopes Celebrate School People will eventually put a national spotlight on education. Officials plan a three-part series, with a celebration of school people, a celebration of parents and community members and then a celebration of children.

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