CAPE ELIZABETH — The School Board focused Tuesday on challenges facing the schools, not numbers, in its first budget workshop of the year.
“Some … are universal and some are very specific to Cape Elizabeth,” interim Superintendent of Schools Howard Colter told the board.
The board in December decided that instead of starting the annual budget process with a budget overview, it would start by discussing the district’s needs.
Colter on Tuesday said he started by asking school staff and faculty for ideas and requirements, but the list quickly became overwhelming.
“It was way beyond what (the School Board) would find to be acceptable and what the voters would be willing and able to support,” he said.
Colter instead started by presenting what he said are “obvious needs.”
“I know it’s not very exciting, but it’s important that we have buildings that are acceptable and presentable,” he said. “But we’re shy of basic staff for cleaning schools.”
The interim superintendent said the district is also lacking support staff for teachers, especially at the elementary school.
“We have fewer people supporting teachers at Pond Cove than any of the schools we compare ourselves with,” Colter said.
He said the district also needs to develop a stronger math curriculum and work on students’ reading proficiency so everyone is reading at grade level.
“We’ve got to really stress literacy and the support for that as early as we can,” Colter said. “We need to really hone in on that.”
Colter said the district needs to continue working on proficiency-based diplomas, curriculum alignment, and extended learning opportunities. He said he wants students to be aware of the alternative education opportunities they have.
“I think there’s lots we need to be doing and thinking about under extended learning opportunities,” he said. “It hasn’t been tapped nearly enough to the degree that it should.”
Cape Elizabeth also places too much emphasis on testing, Colter said. Although Cape is a high-achieving school district, relying too much on getting good test results can be damaging, he said. Rather, the district needs to experiment more in how success is measured.
“There’s a risk of being reluctant to take risks,” Colter said.
Colter said he understands some board members or school faculty may be afraid of what risk-taking will do to test scores, or how it will affect parents’ opinions of the district. He said those can’t be main concerns, though.
“I wouldn’t be too concerned with preserving a reputation,” he said. “I’d be more inclined to create a new reputation.”
Colter noted the district’s mission states the schools are “exceptional and innovative,” but said the vision isn’t being met. There are challenges the district needs to overcome to reach that level, Colter said.
“One of them is to inspire your students and to inspire your teachers,” he said. “That’s the first thing that came to my mind.”
Keeping students’ stress at a reasonable level is also important, Colter said, adding he’s been hearing from students who say they are experiencing an unhealthy level.
“There’s such a thing as unnecessary stress, there’s such a thing as too much stress, and we need to help our school community realize that enough’s enough,” Colter said. “Let’s be sure that we’re taking that seriously.”
Considering the current political climate in the country, Colter said it’s important to reassure students that “we’ll get through this and be fine.”
“I think another challenge is to beat back this general feeling out there of fear, of negativity, of uncertainty, of turmoil,” he said. “It’s only gone up in the last week, and I think it’s a serious issue. For children, believe me, they’re watching this stuff. They’re reading it.”
The School Board, which is scheduled to meet six times between now and April to finalize the budget, will have another workshop Feb. 28 to continue discussing needs.
No budget numbers have been put on the table, but Colter said he doesn’t expect any cuts.
“We don’t see any obvious places where reductions are justified,” he said.
Keeping the budget increase as low as possible is a priority, though, Colter said.
“(The budget) is going to come in well below what would be there if we weren’t concerned about the reality of what’s a reasonable increase,” he said.