LEWISTON — When asked to approve a new virtual school in Lewiston at a cost of $50,000, the Lewiston School Committee instead indicated that money should be used for a new kindergarten class at McMahon Elementary School.

The committee took no action on creating a virtual school. After hearing a report that recommended a small virtual school, no committee members indicated support. Several said there are too many unanswered questions, and smaller classrooms at schools are a higher priority.

After hearing McMahon parents complain about overcrowded kindergarten classrooms and studying enrollment numbers which showed larger kindergarten classes than allowed by state law, Committee Chairman Jim Handy directed Superintendent Bill Webster to give a report on creating an additional kindergarten class.

New enrollment data shows Lewiston has 467 kindergarten students, 65 more than expected.

McMahon has the largest classes, with three of its four kindergarten classes containing 26 students, and one with 25. Farwell, Geiger, Martel and Montello elementary schools each have kindergarten classes with between 22 to 25 students. Only Longley has classes with fewer than 20.

Assistant Superintendent Tom Jarvis said state law sets the student-teacher ratio in kindergarten at a maximum of 20-to-1.

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In a memo to committee members, Webster wrote: “I wish all our kindergarten classes had 20 or fewer students, but I have no recommendation to add additional teaching positions given our budget situation.”

Webster was not at Monday’s meeting because he’s participating in a BikeMaine tour. He recommended asking the state for a waiver to allow larger kindergarten classes.

That didn’t sit well with committee members.

“The application for a waiver only says you can do it differently than we think you should,” agreed committee member Tom Shannon, who said Lewiston should look at 20 kindergarten students per class.

“If we put the stress on the teacher to teach in a classroom where there are too many students for them to teach effectively — and then evaluate them based on their performance in that classroom of too many students — aren’t we setting a stumbling block there for them to fall over and fail?” Shannon said, to applause from a few parents.

During the upcoming budget season, officials must look at increasing positions as well as harnessing property taxes, Shannon said. The overcrowding won’t be fixed with redistricting. “You fix this with more classrooms and more teachers,” she said.

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Lewiston School Department Chief Academic Officer Sue Martin explained that when school started on Aug. 28, 65 kindergarten students who had not registered showed up. The high number of kindergarten students was “not something we projected,” Martin said.

Handy asked McMahon Principal Tom Hood if there was enough space at the school for another class. Hood said there was.

City Councilor Kristen Cloutier asked if some of the extra projected $200,000 in the budget being generated by an unexpected turnover of staff be used to hire another kindergarten teacher.

Potentially yes, Cloutier was told.

Handy then proposed the superintendent give them a plan for a new kindergarten classroom at McMahon. That report will be considered on Sept. 22.

McMahon parent Janet Beaudoin was grateful.

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“I want to thank all of you so much,” Beaudoin said. “It’s exactly what I want to hear as a parent of a kindergartener at McMahon.” 

She asked committee members to look at the number of students being redistricted, stating that the problem is created by too many students being bused from downtown.

“We could eliminate the need for another kindergarten or another ed tech by taking the out-of-district (students) and placing them back in the schools where they belong,” Beaudoin said.

That’s something the new redistricting committee will look at, Handy said.

Parent Chandra Sasseville said she was also happy to hear the committee’s intention. The day before school started, she pulled her daughter out of McMahon and enrolled her in a private school.

“When I learned the class sizes, I couldn’t believe it,” Sasseville said. “It broke my heart to hear what was happening.” Learning that committee members are  unhappy about the large classes “is really a relief.”

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