People of the Week: School District Employees' Good Deeds

Maine school district avoided 7 layoffs after employees made a sacrifice.

Feb. 13, 2009— -- Mark Eastman, superintendent of the Oxford Hills School District in western Maine, learned in December that he had to cut $500,000 from his budget.

"I was incredulous because we're in the middle of a budget year," he confessed. "We were in a difficult spot. My hope was not to do any layoffs in the middle of the year. We scrimped, we cut maintenance, we cut a lot of things, substitutes and things like that, and we got to $400,000."

But he could find no more cuts and knew the only place to make up the $100,000 shortage was to lay off seven employees.

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Jim Thornton, a fifth-grade teacher and the local teacher's union president, wanted to find a different solution.

"I heard a yearning of 'How can we save these jobs?' And it was from that and brainstorming that we were able to put this idea together," he said.

The solution was to ask every employee in the district to give up one day of pay. Eastman proposed the idea in a letter to his staff that quoted from President Obama's inauguration speech: "The selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job, which sees us through our darkest hours."

Thornton received an overwhelming response. More than 60 percent of the school district's 605 workers (375) said yes. Some even gave more than a day's salary.

Elementary school principal George Sincerbeaux was one of them. "What I really was surprised about was the amount of people who jumped in on it," he said. "It was administrators, teachers, ed techs, custodians, bus drivers, everybody chipped in," he said.

Within two weeks, Eastman said, they were within a few thousand dollars of their goal. And by the end of three weeks, they had exceeded it .

Jean Smart, a teacher's aide who would have lost her job, described the other employees' sacrifice as a gift.

"I am very grateful, I really am," she said. "Because it means I can pay my bills and even save a little money maybe."

No one in this community was surprised by the generosity of its people, least of all Eastman.

"I've used the Chinese proverb which I think is wonderful here: 'It's better to light a candle, than to curse the darkness.' And we've got a lot of candles that have been lit in this district."