2013-03-22 / Front Page

Hockey players ‘fight for their life’

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The South Portland High School hockey program could be cut next season if the board of education accepts a budget proposed to them by school administrators.

Superintendent Suzanne Godin presented the proposal to the board at a meeting on March 11. Eliminating the hockey program not only would save the school department $34,000, it would be part of a number of cuts the school department would need to make to accommodate the city council’s request to increase the rate taxpayers pay for the school budget by no more than six-tenths of a percent.

Those additional cuts would include the elimination of seven positions, including guidance jobs at the middle school and high school, an academically gifted English and language arts teacher, and a high school learning lab teacher who works with one-on-one or in small groups with students needing additional support.

Godin told board members the reason for the proposed cut is the hockey program’s struggle to field enough players over the last two years. South Portland High School Athletic Director Todd Livingston said the cost of the program is another reason for the proposal.

“It’s obviously the most expensive program that any school department hosts, and a lot of that is driven by facility costs,” Livingston said. “The other aspect, when you do a breakdown of per-participant cost, it’s more than double any other sport you might have.”

The South Portland High School hockey team practices off campus at the Cumberland County Civic Center and plays its home games at the Portland Ice Arena.

Tony Guignard is president of the South Portland Hockey Boosters, which funds the middle school hockey programs, some equipment costs and fees for local tournaments or camps. He said the boosters have consistently lost funding over the last few years, and can’t afford to pay any more than the current $30,000. Guignard’s son, Christian, is a varsity hockey player at South Portland High School.

“As much as I love the sport, I love it even more being able to watch my high schooler play. Already my son is a junior. I’m dreading the thought that after next year, I won’t have that any more,” Guignard said. “It’s even greater that I may have already seen his last game and not know it.”

However, Livingston said even if the school department does eliminate hockey from the budget, that doesn’t mean hockey is dead in South Portland.

Last year, Portland High School absorbed hockey players from Deering High School for the first time when the Rams didn’t have enough interest to field a hockey team. Livingston has been in preliminary discussions with Cape Elizabeth High School about a similar arrangement if hockey is ultimately cut out of the South Portland school budget.

The school board has yet to make a decision on the final budget and will hold workshops to analyze each line item through the end of March before making a final presentation to the city council Wednesday, April 3.

Godin presented an alternative, “needs-based” budget to the board at the March 11 meeting which, she said, would not impact students in the school system. The budget consolidates services and leaves some open positions unfilled to save costs, but increases last year’s overall budget by $3.2 million. That means property tax payers in South Portland would see an 18-cent increase per $1,000 of valuation, or 1.79 percent on last year’s school tax rate, thus falling outside the council’s guidance.

The budget cuts are necessary this year, Godin said, because of various cost increases the school department is scheduled to take on. Those additions include $991,000 in salary increases, $600,000 to cover teacher retirement costs that would no longer be covered by state funding under a proposal by the governor, and, most significantly, a $2.37 million bond payment on the new South Portland High School.

The school department is scheduled to see an increase in state funding this year of $1.8 million, but that figure would be partially offset by the transfer of retirement costs from the state’s responsibility to local municipalities. Additionally, Godin said she is not confident that level of funding will remain consistent as legislators in Augusta go through their own budget process.

“I am very uncomfortable with this number. I am not confident it will remain at this level,” Godin said.

Members of the South Portland Hockey Boosters were scheduled to present a letter to the board at its Thursday, March 21 workshop to argue their case and explain their financial position. Guignard said enrollment numbers in the middle school and hockey participation numbers are both increasing, setting up a bright future for the high school program despite the recent lag in participation.

“I feel bad for all the hockey families. This isn’t the first time they’ve pretty much had to fight for their life,” Guignard said.

“Hockey is an easy target, but we’re just as passionate as anybody is about their music program, basketball program or football. Hockey is very easy to pick on, but we’re passionate and we’re fighters.”

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