Are superintendent costs hindering our fight against addiction?

I’m not sure when Governor LePage is more disappointing — when he is flat out wrong and sure he’s right or when he’s right, but communicates so poorly it doesn’t matter.

In his State of the State address, he brought up the issue of superintendents, their prevalence in Maine and their overall cost to districts. LePage is right on this one — Maine school districts should be making every effort to consolidate and share these administrative costs.

The best way to exemplify this reality is to look at one local school district, like Augusta, for example. In the interest of disclosure, I’ve worked in the Augusta School Department as a substitute teacher in the 1990’s and in the 00’s as an adult education teacher. Both my boys have gone to Augusta schools, and I along with my siblings, attended Cony.

My familiarity with the district spans decades and further includes having a mom who worked as a special education teacher in Augusta, too. I realize that I’m about to make some of the people familiar with my familiarity very uncomfortable with this post, but my intent is to offer a nuanced conversation.

Nuance isn’t our dear governor’s strong suit.

Here in Augusta we have a superintendent AND an assistant superintendent. Back in the day when enrollments were bigger, we managed with a single superintendent, so I’m not sure why we need two given smaller student bodies at our schools. The combined cost of these two administrators in salary and medical insurance is over $260,000. 

Augusta schools have 2300 day students, which means our cost per student starts at $113 in just superintendent costs. That’s not acceptable in a district our superintendent, James Anastasio, describes as on the edge of a financial “cliff.” The problem is that the Augusta school department keeps draining its fund balance account to make its school budget less detrimental to property taxpayers.

The proposed budget this year leaves little in that account for future years, and Anastasio is worried, but not worried enough to raise the idea of working with Gardiner, Hall-Dale or Waterville on sharing superintendent administrative costs.

The proposed budget includes cutting two Project Pride teachers in our elementary schools, and I’m worried those positions are more critical to our community at this time than a superintendent and an assistant superintendent. I don’t make that statement as a slight to either our superintendent or our assistant super, both of whom I know and like.

I say that statement as someone who understands the role schools play in fostering healthy communities and in supporting the development of healthy future contributing citizens. I say that statement as someone who has serious concerns about our schools’ ability to meet our most vulnerable students’ needs.

Project Pride is a program that intervenes with at-risk youth at two of our elementary schools in Augusta. These interventions may involve academics, social skills, life skills, behavioral coping mechanisms, as well as support for teachers and parents. Having witnessed the talents of Susie Dumont at Farrington Elementary, as well as other Project Pride teachers over the years, I can’t say enough good about the program.

Every school should have at least two Mrs. Dumonts. I didn’t want to put her on the spot by interviewing her for this post since her job is on the chopping block. If I asked her though, I’m sure Dumont could confirm that some of the kids she works with know hunger and others may be dealing with parents who struggle with addiction and other issues.

In other words, Dumont is on the frontline fighting the most dire crises facing our children. Dumont is the face of the prevention part of our fight against addiction. Dumont is the face of hope for the future for students who may not have hope at home or who may not have hope when they’re at school.

Not all her caseload includes children facing challenges like addiction or hunger at home, but no matter the background, the Project Pride room is a safe haven for students who access the program. It’s a place for children to learn to trust in authority, to develop life skills and coping mechanisms. It’s the kind of program that can deter students from developing addictions.

Given our state and city’s struggles with hunger and addiction, I don’t see the Project Pride teachers in Augusta as expendable. The cost of two Project Pride teachers is $82,000 — one third the cost of our superintendent and assistant superintendent, who I see as more expendable.

I hope our governor is able to work through his communication struggles enough to find support for consolidating superintendent expenses. Ideally, I’d like to see a day when Augusta is spending $260,000 on Project Pride teachers and only spending $82,000 or less on its share toward a superintendent representing a grouping of districts.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.