OXFORD – Despite a hiring freeze, Superintendent Mark Eastman is putting a long-term substitute teacher at the Rowe Elementary School to work with second- grade special needs students.

“We feel it’s critical in terms of student needs,” Eastman told directors meeting Tuesday night at SAD 17 offices on Main Street.

The position will be paid for with money saved from the resignation of an education technician and use of substitute funds.

“It’s a short-term solution,” Eastman said.

Rowe Elementary School Principal George Sincerbeaux said teachers are “losing (academic) ground” with some grade two students because the class size has increased from 63 to 69 students since the beginning of the year, and at least 10 percent are students with special needs.

With class sizes of 22, 23 and 24 students per teacher, a decision to hire another teacher and add a classroom would have been prudent had the budget permitted, Eastman said.

By pulling in a long-term substitute, officials say they hope to take the students out of the larger classrooms and place them in a separate room for instruction.

“We’ve exhausted all options,” Eastman said of helping the special needs students within the constraints of a tight budget.

School officials are waiting for word from Commissioner of Education Susan Gendron on how the recently approved federal economic stimulus funds will trickle down to the school districts.

The U.S. House and Senate passed the federal economic recovery package Feb. 13. It includes additional funding for special education, Title 1, school and renovation construction and other areas, which are expected to be available for two fiscal years only. Additionally, Gov. John Baldacci has promised to use some of the money coming to Maine to restore $27 million cut this fiscal year in the supplemental budget.

In order to meet the midyear state funding cutback, the SAD 17 board unanimously approved $402,000 in cuts from this year’s budget. Another $70,000 was cut after more than 60 percent of district employees agreed to donate a day’s pay to save seven positions from the budget tax.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, the board acknowledged the donations of the employees.

“It was absolutely extraordinary,” said board member Bill Hanger of Waterford.

Eastman said he is waiting for a conference call with Gendron to determine how much money will be coming to the district and whether some of the cuts, including the voluntary day without pay, can be rescinded.

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