Scarborough school chief draws budget 'line in the sand'

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SCARBOROUGH — Superintendent George Entwistle III offered a sober outlook in a budget discussion with the School Board last week.

“We have the fiscal picture and the reality of what’s been happening,” he said on Feb. 16. “There’s a mindset that says ‘We’re making do.’ I say, sure, we’re making do. But we’re not doing just fine.”

Entwistle didn’t get into many hard numbers, aside from mentioning the nearly $1.4 million shortfall he predicts for the 2012-2013 school year and the 43 positions eliminated in the district during the past two years. 

Instead, he presented the board with a philosophical look at the effect cuts have had on the School Department.

“We need to really understand the results of underfunding that has been happening here for education in Scarborough,” said Entwistle, who was hired last year. “With new eyes I see it. I can look at the data.”

Student performance has flat-lined, he said. Holding students to a high standard has “either fallen out of focus or fallen out of reach.” Instructional quality is “inconsistent.”

To reverse course, Entwistle said the schools mus approach the budget from a point of view of how to meet students’ needs, not a point of view of looking where cuts could be made. 

“The line that we should have in the sand is the resources that would support incremental improvements and targets,” as outlined in his 18-month improvement strategy, he said. 

To that end, the department and School Board must see where cuts have been made so deeply that the schools no longer meet their goals, then incorporate proposals into the budget that work toward restoring programs or incorporating essential initiatives.

In other words, he said, the time for cuts in programs is over.

“It seems easy to make cuts and changes, but it creates a void and that void travels with us,” Entwistle said. “Every year something isn’t reinstated, we allow a cohort to move through that is less prepared than the ones who went before it.”

By way of example, Entwistle offered the foreign languages program. Cuts there, he said, have led to a watered-down curriculum that doesn’t leave Scarborough students as well prepared as students from other towns.

“Foreign language really concerns me right now because most of the colleges I’m looking at require five years of language,” which you can’t get at Scarborough schools, said Katherine Elliot, a Scarborough High School sophomore and student representative to the board. “That’s eighth through 12th grade.”

Entwistle said Scarborough needs a budget somewhere in between current spending, with new cuts every year, and a high-shooting budget that includes the schools’ wildest dreams and desires: a budget that meets the current obligations and advances an educational agenda.

“We haven’t had one of those for three years,” School board member Jackie Perry said. 

But focusing on restoring programs and meeting students’ needs doesn’t mean the district isn’t looking for ways to save money.

Assistant Superintendent JoAnne Sizemore is assessing the school lunch program, information technologies, and the central office, Entwistle said, to see whether the department is getting the most bang for its buck.

And at least one board member said that while stopping the bleeding is important, residents will want to see numbers soon.

“I don’t want the budget to necessarily dictate our ideals for Scarborough,” Aymie Hardesty said, “but people need to know we’re thinking about it going forward.”

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

Sidebar Elements

Scarborough school budget calendar

• March 1: School Board finance subcommittee meeting.

• March 15: Public presentation of superintendent’s budget proposal to the School Board.

• April 12: School Board public hearing on the proposed budget.

• April 26: School Board budget vote. 

• May 2: Town Council final budget reading.

• May 15: Budget validation vote.