Lewiston School Committee Mark Cayer, left, discusses the proposed school budget with the City Council on Tuesday night. To Cayer’s right is Superintendent Bill Webster. In the foreground is Mayor Kristen Cloutier.  Sun Journal photo by Bonnie Washuk

Lewiston School proposed budget for 2019-20 Bonnie Washuk

LEWISTON — Nearly a third of all students at Lewiston High School are chronically absent, Superintendent Bill Webster told the Lewiston City Council on Tuesday night.

New positions in the proposed schools budget are there to fight a growing trend of too many students missing too much school.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as a student missing 10 percent or more of school — 17.5 days or more — of Maine’s mandated 175 school days.

At Lewiston High School, 31 percent of students are chronically absent, compared to 17 percent at elementary schools and 20 percent at the Lewiston Middle School, Webster said.

Maine’s truancy laws traditionally have look at excused versus unexcused absences, but a new emphasis is taking a harder look at chronic absenteeism.

“At the end of the day, it’s not whether an absence is excused or not. It’s whether someone’s in school or not,” Webster said. “This measure has been proven to be the most accurate measure of who will graduate from school.” The absenteeism rate “is a big reason why we only have a graduation rate between 70 to 80 percent,” Webster said. The budget hopes to tackle those two problems, he said.

Meeting with Lewiston City Councilors on Tuesday night, School Committee Chairman Mark Cayer and Webster presented the school budget, which seeks a property tax increase of 1.5 percent.

The proposed $86.5 million budget would require a $24 increase in the annual property tax on a property valued at $150,000. More state money for education is expected for Lewiston when the state budget is passed. If that happens, Cayer said, that money will go toward reducing the tax burden, which could mean property taxes increase less than 1%.

New to the budget are 20 positions, not including special ed positions that increase or decrease based on new students this fall. Of those 20 positions, 11 that would provide more help to students: Six classroom positions, a school resource officer for the new Connors Elementary School and three school counselors.

Also new to the budget: Seven custodians at Connors Elementary School, busing for former Longley students who will have farther to go to school, an accountant and an assistant director from the English Language Learner program.

With a student population of about 5,600, Lewiston is one of the few school departments in Maine where enrollment is growing. With a lower birth rate, student populations are decreasing in many districts. Also increasing in Lewiston: The number of students with social and emotional needs, students experiencing homelessness and students from families in poverty.

“More and more students are coming to school not prepared to learn,” Cayer said. “They’re not getting the support they need at home, such as being fed properly.”

Eight years ago, there were no food pantries in Lewiston schools, except for the high school’s Store Next Door. Now almost every school has a food pantry, Webster said.

There are six ways to improve graduation rates and reduce absenteeism, and one is addressing poverty issues, Webster said. The district is addressing poverty with a new poverty awareness subcommittee that first meets Thursday.

Other ways include enhancing school safety, which would be done with a new school resource officer; reducing classroom sizes and adding social-emotional support for students, which would be done with more classroom positions and school counselors and more-engaging programs.

In the fall, three existing alternative programs will be house at the Longley Elementary School, which is closing with the new Connors Elementary School opening.

The alternative programs are important for students who do not do well in a big-school environment.

“In the past, if a Lewiston High School student did not fit what a student needed, a student dropped out,” Webster said. “We’ve changed that mindset. We’ve got to better meet students where they are.”

After hearing the budget presentation, City Councilor Michael Marcotte said Lewiston has seen tax increases for bigger school budgets over the past four years.

“The burden becomes more and more,” he said. Other than allowing $110,000 more in the budget, “I can’t support anything more.”

Councilor Alicia Rea, the council’s representative on the school committee, said she supports the spending plan because it is investing in students.

“I’m so proud of this budget,” she said.

The City Council is expected to discuss the school budget on April 23, before voting on it May 7.

A local referendum on the school budget is scheduled for May 14.