LEWISTON, Maine — Lewiston Public Schools now has a new budget, thanks to the city's voters who turned out on Tuesday.
At $101 million dollars, and a tax increase of $1.34, it’s three percent heftier than the current budget. Superintendent Jake Langlais told NEWS CENTER Maine that’s the bare minimum to have a functioning school system come fall.
A total of 70 percent of the budget pays for staff, he explained. And, while he prefaced by saying he appreciates working with the teacher's union, their collectively bargained salaries increase annually as teachers gain another year of tenure. The cost of insurance has also risen, Langlais added, and every district in the country now faces another challenge—the end of COVID funding.
Langlais was chosen as superintendent in September 2020, just months into the pandemic. Launching his new career in the midst of that, he now must face the drying well of lingering federal funds, distributed to schools nationwide to bolster building infrastructure, remote learning technology, meals, and other areas of need as communities struggled to stay in school.
To make ends meet, they’ll cut 61 faculty jobs. Langlais said two-thirds of the positions were already vacant, and many were already being phased out in anticipation of the dwindling COVID funds. But three-quarters of the cuts, Langlais said, he could hardly bear to lose.
Most of the cut positions are in special education and behavioral health.
"I believe we’ll be able to navigate with the budget that we have. I’m real concerned about any future curtailment in state funding," Langlais said.
Jaye Rich teaches at Lewiston’s McMahon Elementary and heads the local teacher’s union.
"We’re slowly transitioning back to how we were pre-COVID and how we’re not in a position to reach every learner sometimes," she shrugged.
She said Langlais has been in lockstep with the union on fighting for the district’s needs, and is relieved to see continued funding for programs like The Store Next Door offering food and clothing to unhoused youth.
But, she said, the same old problems persist in the profession at large: Low pay isn’t attracting applicants, and more burden is left for her and her peers.
"Some folks think that schools and teachers are greedy," she said. "However, I would argue that we are fighting for the best possible education of every student that walks into our building."
Langlais and Mayor Carl Sheline hoped the district can work in good faith to help displaced faculty find new positions.
"Cutting positions is hard. Cutting teachers is difficult," Sheline said. "I understand; I have a son who is a sophomore in high school."
Sheline echoed Langlais' thanks to taxpayers for adding to their burden.
Meanwhile, Rich and her peers prepared to shoulder the load at school come fall.