A new development within Regional School Unit 13 may leave student-athletes with little to cheer about.

The Rockland District High School cheering program has been unquestionably the top program in the Midcoast over the past two decades, winning numerous conference championships along with a state Class B title. However, the cost of the program and RSU 13’s mission to trim the budget appears to have intersected, meaning what could be the end of the road for one of Rockland’s most successful sports.

In a nutshell, if the proposed budget for RSU 13 passes, the cheering program at Rockland District High School will be cut.

RSU 13 is facing a $3.5 million gap in the upcoming year between what it has in revenues and what its expenses are. The school board told superintendent Judy Lucarelli to come up with a budget that will not raise taxes in the community by more than three percent from last year.

Lucarelli’s proposed budget, which she will present to the school board Thursday, April 1st, includes the elimination of the Rockland cheering program, among other sporting programs, including jayvee baseball and softball at Georges Valley High School.

The board will spend the next several weeks debating the budget, and a vote will likely come in May.

“I was actually shocked,” said veteran Tiger cheering coach Becky Howard of when she heard the news. “We’ve had a steady program, and I realize that in the last couple years the numbers have been down, but we’ve been working extremely hard to bring those numbers back up. I mean, look at the banners in the gym. That just shows you what kind of program we have.”

Rockland has been a juggernaut in recent years in Class B cheering, winning 10 Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference championships, including eight straight 1996-2004. The Tigers also won Eastern Class B crowns in 2003 and 2004, along with the Class B state title in 2003.

“It’s shocking that they would want to cut such a strong program,” said Howard.

Rockland District High School athletic and student activities director Jim Leonard estimated that between middle school and high school programs, with coaching stipends and travel, RSU 13 stands to save roughly $10,000 if the cheering program is cut.

The district also purchased new middle school and high school uniforms along with new mats for the program last year, which cost a combined $12,000, according to Leonard. The mats and uniforms are not a yearly expenditure.

While nothing is official, both the middle school and high school student-athletes are well aware of the situation and are “very worried about it,” Howard said.

“A lot of these kids don’t play any other sports,” said Howard. “Some of these kids need some kind of motivation to make it through school and if this is their motivation, why take that away from them? If this is their motivation to go home and say, ‘I need to get my homework done so I can cheer,’ why make it that much more difficult?”

The high school cheering program has been on a downswing over the last two years, with the Tigers unable to field a varsity cheering squad for league, regional or state competitions for the 2008-09 school year. The team returned to competition this year at both the league and regional levels.

Leonard said he is saddened by the events that led to the cheering program potentially being cut, and is working on other ways to save money in an effort to salvage the program.

“There are some extremely difficult decisions being made throughout RSU 13,” said Leonard. “The elimination of extracurricular activities is just one of many of those decisions. I’d love to protect every extracurricular program from elimination and keep those opportunities for participation open to the students. Given the current financial picture, that’s just not possible right now.”

Leonard is going down many different avenues in an attempt to save the program, such as eliminating only fall cheering so they can keep the winter competition season, or ideas to hold fundraisers to cover coaching stipends and travel expenses.

Howard’s argument is that the expenditure that RSU 13 took on last year for uniforms and mats is not an expenditure this year, and outside of the coaching stipends, their cost this year will be minimal.

“We can fundraise for [transportation], and we fundraise for our routine already,” she said. “[Rockland District Middle School cheering coach] Andrea [Curtis] and [assistant varsity coach] Heather [Brown] and I have been working together to arrange fundraisers and we’re going to do clinics and a full week of camp. We’ve got some stuff in mind of how we can come together and raise some funds.”

Another aspect of the potential axing of the program is the upcoming school consolidation between Rockland District High School and Georges Valley High School, with many students currently enrolled in Thomaston schools excited about the prospect of finally having their own cheering program. GVHS and Thomaston Grammar School do not offer cheering programs.

“[Thomaston Grammar School parents] are really upset,” said Howard. “As it is right now they don’t have anything at Georges Valley and were really excited that their kids could have something to do.”

“I’m trying to do the right thing for these kids and keep them off the street and rebuild the program,” she said. “But we have to face obstacles like this.”

Howard said many of the members of the community she has spoken to about the program potentially being axed are disappointed as well.

“They like to see the cheerleaders on the sidelines, they like to see the routine at the basketball games and we’ve got people that aren’t even tied to cheering that go to the competitions just to watch us,” said Howard. “For some of our kids, it’s like a second family.”

Howard cheered for the Tigers from 1993-96 and then cheered at Husson College (now University) from 1997-99. She added that cheerleading, much like many team sports, is a building block for life and that students learn many lessons through the world of cheering.

“It helps them with their confidence,” said Howard. “If they’re not confident then it shows. It teaches them teamwork, determination, everything you need to succeed in life is taught through cheering. If you can’t stand up in front of someone and speak then it’s hard to get a job. It’s hard to do anything to support yourself. I can think of five people that came to me that were very shy and by the time they graduated, they were holding their head high and were confident people.”

Howard said that she plans to have many people at the April 1 school board meeting, including fellow coaches, student-athletes and parents from throughout the RSU 13 community in opposition of the cheering cuts inclusion in the budget.

“Anyone that wants to come out and say something, the school board meeting’s the perfect place,” said Howard.

Village NetMedia Associate Sports Director Mark Haskell can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by e-mail at mhaskell@villagesoup.com.