Following multiple straw votes spread out over a series of meetings, the school board overseeing Camden Hills Regional High School has informally trimmed approximately $400,000 from its 2010-2011 budget, keeping most academic programs intact and refusing to eliminate most extracurricular sports and clubs.

The most recent Finance Committee review of the school’s $11.5 million proposed budget took place March 29 in the chorus room of the high school. The two-hour meeting followed similar meetings during which the committee, joined for the most part by the rest of the Five Town Community School District School Board and student board representatives, plowed through four tiers of suggested spending cuts.

The Finance Committee will meet again on Wednesday, April 7 at the high school prior to the regularly scheduled full board meeting. At that committee meeting, it is likely that members may revisit certain proposed budget cuts, given that some were absent at the March 29 meeting.

The process began on March 3, when administrators presented a list of approximately $1 million in proposed tiered cuts to the Finance Committee, proposing reductions that ranged from eliminating teaching positions to cutting specific sports, such as swimming, track and lacrosse, and then the entire athletics program. Revenue-producing ideas were also tossed on the table, such as charging parking, transportation and pay-to-play fees.

By March 29, the committee had agreed to cut $400,000, reducing some teaching position hours, mostly due to pending retirements; trimming food service; recalculating fuel costs; and reducing some maintenance and equipment purchases. Some votes were unanimous, while others were split. In the end, the committee did not reduce the size of its front office at the high school, despite the urging of some citizens that the school no longer needed one principal and two assistant principals.

Administrators had countered that the number of principals mirrored schools of similar size in other communities in the state, and committee members voted not to  cut their positions, nor add more furlough days to their schedule, other than what had been approved earlier in the process. One teacher also spoke in support of keeping the one principal, two assistant principals leadership team intact, maintaining that the school climate had improved over the past several years and students were being held more accountable.

Nor did the committee favor cutting any sports programs, although it did support having the board pursue over the coming year a restructuring of how sports are funded at the school. The committee voted against instituting a pay-to-play fee, and voted almost unanimously against charging students a $25 per-semester parking fee.

The spending cuts evolved from an especially severe budget season for a school district that faces a $1.3 million reduction in state and federal funding, down half from the $2.5 million state aid the Maine Department of Education committed to the Five Town CSD in 2009-2010. Despite the various revenue sources, such as tuition from out-of-district students or rental of the high school’s Strom Auditorium, taxpayers of Appleton, Camden, Hope, Lincolnville and Rockport still faced a $1.1 million increase on their part to pay for the high school.

At the March 29 meeting, Superintendent Pat Hopkins told the board and citizens that while enrollment is shrinking, the school had already begun reducing its expenses over the past several years by not filling vacant positions, including 1.5 teaching positions in the English department over the last two years.

The tiered cuts were proposed to mitigate the tax increases. The budget remains under discussion as it continues toward final public approval, or rejection, in June.

The five towns send 658 students to the high school, constructed in 1999. Enrollment has dropped from its high of approximately 745 in 2002 while its budget and number of staff have increased. Enrollment, however, is expected to begin decreasing after the incoming freshman class arrives next September, a class that school officials anticipate will be among the largest. After that, the number of students at Camden Hills is expected to again drop.

In 2003, the high school budget was $9.8 million; the current proposed budget is $11.5 million, a number that has held steady for the past two years, even showing slight decreases.

On March 3, just prior to the Finance Committee meeting, the superintendent’s office received word that the Maine Department of Education and the governor’s office were restoring $20 million in funding to school districts across the state, and promising $97,000 more to the Five Town CSD.

The proposed 2010-2011 budget of $11.5 million includes a 10 percent increase in anticipated health insurance costs. It does not include salary increases for teachers or administrators. Teachers and some staff are currently in contract negotiations and the outcome of those talks is not expected to be made public until April.