LEWISTON — Emotions boiled over at Thursday’s 3 1/2-hour School Committee meeting where another round of discussions began for changes to the school budget since voters rejected it for the second time Tuesday.

No official changes were approved at the meeting but teaching coaches were on the chopping block.

Superintendent Jake Langlais proposed more cuts to the current $110.34 million proposed budget. In addition to the previous cuts, he proposed to cut several staff positions in various departments and various schools. He also proposed further cuts in transportation, technology and other cuts — all adding up to more than $3.4 million.

Jake Langlais, Lewiston Superintendent of Schools, stands in May 2021 in front of the Dingley Building where he has an office in Lewiston. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file

Langlais had previously warned that any other cuts to the budget would likely directly impact students and staffing.

The first roughly $1 million cut from the original proposed budget, $111.47 million, was not enough to get the majority of voters to approve the budget. He “anguished” over the list of cuts while sitting down to draft it ahead of Thursday’s meeting.

“I’m not proud of any of these items on this list — really not,” he said. “… I don’t like any of these, I want to be really up front about that. … This is me saying ‘I don’t know what else to do.’”

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After almost 2 1/2 hours of discussion among committee members, where many of them presented their own suggested cuts, there was a short break in the meeting so Langlais could come up with budget figures related to cutting six of the 11 teaching coach positions currently funded through the local share of the budget.

There are other teaching coach positions funded with state money that were not under consideration to be cut.

Langlais came back with a plan that would cut a family liaison position, move one student resource education technician to being funded under grant money, cut a grade teacher at Robert V. Connors Elementary School, remove a new proposed school resource officer position, reduce four teaching coach positions, use $300,000 from fund balance to further offset taxation and cut $200,000 worth of staff positions that are currently vacant.

He also proposed reducing the budget by an additional $400,000 through suggested cuts from management, suggesting that they could approve that amount to cut at the meeting Thursday and then he would later inform them about what areas those managers decided to cut funds in.

The plan of all of those suggested cuts amount to roughly $1.53 million.

Mayor Carl Sheline spoke up at the meeting against the idea of approving $400,000 worth of reductions to be made by management without knowing exactly what those cuts will be, he said. He stated that the City Council is going to want to know specifically what those cuts are before they approve suggested budget reductions if they meet next Tuesday for a school budget workshop.

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There were no approved changes to the proposed budget during the meeting. Instead, Langlais will meet with administrators and school managers in the days after the meeting to gather their suggested cuts and the committee will meet again Monday night.

CUTTING TEACHING COACHES

Five of the nine School Committee members supported cutting several teaching coach positions in schools across the city.

In previous meetings, committee members Janet Beaudoin of Ward 2 and Meghan Hird of Ward 6 have questioned the effectiveness of teaching coaches. At the meeting, they supported cutting funding for those positions over cutting funding in other areas of the budget. Beaudoin suggested using them to fill vacant teaching positions.

However, school administrators have defended teaching coaches, stating that they support teachers in a variety of ways, including helping teachers develop plans to better teach students certain curriculums and support first-year teachers.

Langlais said eliminating teaching coach positions is a short-term budget fix that will impact instruction across every school.

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Connors Elementary teacher Kennedy Raymond drove to the meeting Thursday night after listening to the discussion around teaching coaches to speak about them.

Classrooms at Connors are already at or beyond legal capacity, she said, and she sits down with coaches at the beginning of each school year to help plan for the upcoming year. She implored them not to cut staff supports in a school that is already has full classrooms.

“The coaches are experts in their craft and while they may not hold specific degrees to instructional coaches, they do take advantage of (professional development) and a number of opportunities that make them experts,” she said. “… I’m just really, really concerned that there are a lot of people speaking to coaches who don’t see the work that they do every single day in our schools.”

Another idea discussed at the meeting was using several million dollars in the school department’s fund balance to offset the financial impact on taxpayers, which did not seem supported by the majority of School Committee members.

Chair Megan Parks made two different motions during discussions to use money from the fund balance, first $2 million, then $1.5 million — both of which failed by a 5-4 vote. There is currently $11.1 million in the fund balance, with roughly $5 million of that being used in the current proposed budget to offset taxation but there is still an additional roughly $6 million that could be used.

TENSION RUNNING HIGH

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There were several people who spoke at the meeting about what they feel should be cut from the budget and how they feel about the quality of education in city schools.

School Committee member Janet Beaudoin’s voice shook as she spoke about how Lewiston Public Schools has supported her daughter through to her graduation this year.

Resident Janet McCarthy had an emotional outburst during public comment when she could not finish speaking after she was told that her three-minute public comment period was over.

Beaudoin gave an impassioned speech about the struggles and triumphs her own daughter experienced growing up through the Lewiston public school system. She decried the notion that low standardized test scores are an accurate reflection of the school system’s work with students.

“I just want to say to anyone out there who wants to tell me again that this school district doesn’t deserve a fighting chance, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “There are kids every day that thrive. We definitely have kids that make bad decisions but we have a lot of parents that make bad decisions and that should not be a factor as to whether or not we can have a school budget to support our students.”

McCarthy began her public comment at the meeting asking Langlais if his wife was a teaching coach at one of the city schools and became frustrated when he did not immediately respond. Parks reminded McCarthy that it is not customary to respond to questions during open to the public. Langlais later confirmed that his wife is a teaching coach.

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She spoke at the meeting about what she described as a failing system that her young grandchildren struggled in, she said. She spoke out against teaching coaches, calling them “babysitters.”

She tried to speak beyond the allotted three-minute public comment period and became irate when parks cut her off telling her to sit down. She yelled and talked over Parks and other committee members when they told her to sit down — prompting her husband to escort her from the podium while she continued to shout.

Others shared similar sentiments to McCarthy’s though they did not become as heated while they gave their public comment.

Teacher and Lewiston Education Association President Jaye Rich thanked the committee for continuing to fund the school system on a mostly united front during what she described as a budget season that is “not normal,” she said. She mentioned disparaging comments made by the public online and at meetings and how she takes them personally.

“I am not just a teacher,” she said. “Sometimes I’m a nurse, sometimes I’m a counselor, sometimes I’m a case manager and sometimes I’m a mom, and all of these things I do gladly and I will do everyday because my students need it and deserve it. I love my students like they are my own and I know my colleagues feel the same.”

She spoke about how many cuts to staff, reading recovery specialists, teaching coaches and other supports would negatively impact her students.

In a statement Friday, Sheline said he is ready to consider what the School Committee and administrators will come up with for further budget cuts.

“Emotions were clearly running high on Thursday night,” he said. “I understand that with two failed votes to date, the pressure is on to get this budget across the finish line. While we didn’t get a vote during the meeting, the administration and the school committee left with a plan and I’m eager to hear the final details.”

The School Committee will hold another special meeting Monday at 7:30 p.m.

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