BAR HARBOR — Barring an unexpectedly quick end to the coronavirus threat, the schools in the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS) will remain closed for the rest of the school year.
That is to say, the school buildings will stay closed, but remote learning, which has been going on for a few weeks now, will continue.
Last week, Gov. Janet Mills and Education Commissioner Pender Makin strongly recommended that all public schools in Maine stay closed. MDIRSS Superintendent Marc Gousse told the school system board, meeting via YouTube on Monday, that he will heed that advice.
“Given our priority of ‘safety first,’ we think it is the prudent thing to do,” he said.
Board member Robin Sue Tapley asked why the decision to cancel in-school classes for the rest of the year has to be made now.
“Given what the scientists and medical professionals are telling us, I don’t see us coming out of this quickly,” Gousse said. “With safety and health as our foremost priority, I can’t in good conscience make a recommendation that we even begin to consider coming back to school until…we can make sure that our students and our staff are not vulnerable to the virus.”
He said he is not aware of any public school in Maine, or nationally, that is considering re-opening its buildings this school year.
“As hard as this is for our kids and staff and families, if we don’t do this the safe way, everything we’ve done in the last four or five weeks pretty much goes out the window. If we let our guard down too soon, we will pay the consequences down the road.”
One of the multitude of considerations before school administrators these days is the uncertainty of their financial situation. So far this spring, school budgets for the coming year have been approved by voters in only two MDIRSS towns, Swan’s Island and Cranberry Isles.
The other town meetings, at which budgets are voted on, have been postponed indefinitely. If town meetings aren’t held before July 1, the start of the new fiscal year, then schools will continue to operate with the same level of funding that voters approved for the current fiscal year. Depending on how long that lasts, it could put some schools in a bind, in part because teacher pay raises will go into effect July 1.
“We have collective bargaining agreements in place with our teachers and the (Conners Emerson School) support staff, and we will certainly honor those,” Gousse said.
The 2020-2012 MDIRSS budget of $2.1 million for the superintendent’s office and shared professional services includes a raise for Gousse of 2 percent, to $150,278. But he told the school board Monday, “I can’t in good conscience accept a salary increase for this coming year.”
He announced that Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield has informed him that health insurance premiums for next year will go up 5.83 percent, after having remained flat for the past three years. The schools routinely budget for a 10 percent premium increase, just to be safe, so a hike of roughly 6 percent wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem. But it could become a problem if voter approval of next year’s budgets is delayed too long.
To make sure the schools don’t find themselves financially strapped, Gousse said he is recommending that each individual school committee place a temporary hold on plans for new programming or new staff positions, with the exception of positions required to provide government-mandated special education services. He said the temporary hold would apply to pre-kindergarten programs.
Mount Desert Elementary had planned to start a pre-K program this fall in partnership with Mount Desert Nursery School. Pemetic Elementary and Tremont Consolidated School had planned to collaborate on a new pre-K program.
Gousse praised the school system’s teachers, principals and support staff who, he said, “have all stepped up and done an extraordinary job in the last several weeks in meeting the needs of our students.”
“This is exhausting; it’s overwhelming. We’re all doing our very best to get this right.”
Gousse also thanked students’ parents and families for “the incredible flexibility they have exhibited during this very difficult time.”