Houlton-area school board signs off on 2011-12 budget

Posted June 03, 2011, at 10:31 p.m.

HOULTON — After four drafts and numerous budget meetings, the SAD 29 board signed off May 25 on a $12 million spending plan for the 2011-12 school year.

A public hearing on the proposed school budget, which features a sizable increase in local tax dollars from residents of Houlton, Littleton, Monticello and Hammond Plantation, will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 15, at Houlton Southside School. A target date of June 28 has been set to hold a districtwide referendum vote.

At $12,081,048, the gross budget is up nearly 2 percent from last year’s figure of $11,854,184.60.

“I’m relieved that we finally have a final budget figure,” said interim Superintendent Ray Freve. “The gross budget is not that bad, but the local costs are the concern.”

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According to Freve, SAD 29 will receive $8,471,791 in state funds for the 2011-12 school year. That figure is up $139,701 from the $8,332,090 it received this past year. However, in order to get that full amount of state funding, the district needs to come up with $2,806,479, which is an increase of $372,849 over last year’s figure.

To determine each town’s share of the $2,806,479, a formula based on each town’s state valuation was used. As presented, residents of Houlton will be required to come up with the lion’s share of the budget at $2,075,952.52, a 16 percent increase from the previous year; Littleton’s share, $386,171.51, a 14.3 percent increase;  Monticello’s share, $297,206.12, an 11.01 percent increase; and Hammond’s share, $47,148.85, an 18.84 percent increase.

To help keep the tax impact at a minimum, the board plans to take $702,821.96 from the undesignated fund balance.

The board also slashed numerous positions during its budget workshops. On Tuesday, May 10, the board approved nearly $300,000 in cuts, including a part-time junior high music teacher; a long-term-permanent substitute teacher in the industrial arts program; a high school custodian (through attrition); a library ed tech; and a certified occupational therapist aide.

Numerous other cuts were made at subsequent budget workshops, including the district’s home school coordinator; a Reading Recovery teacher; a Title I computer ed tech; one-half of an ed tech III; an ed tech I; a high school math teacher; a high school study hall monitor; 4/5 of a junior high study hall monitor; and a pre-kindergarten teacher at Wellington Elementary School. Others who were hired this year as one-year positions were informed their positions may not be open next year.

“We have cut some positions and, according to our contracts, I had to notify the teachers’ association of potential cuts,” Freve said. “We will probably have to call some of them [positions] back, but those positions will be open to anyone.”

Before approving the budget at Wednesday’s workshop, the board unanimously voted to eliminate the district’s Title I coordinator position, a move that would save the district nearly $90,000. Freve said he did not recommend this course of action, as it would place a burden on incoming superintendent Mike Hammer, who takes over on July 1.

Several board members stated they felt the funds for that position could be better used to spare some of the cuts made earlier, which would have a more direct impact on students.

“Some of the cuts we have made may have been a rash decision,” said board Vice Chairman Sandra Wilkins.

“According to everything I hear, early education is where we have to have the people,” agreed board member Cynthia Hillman-Forbush. “I am very concerned. We should reconsider a cut that has an impact on almost 100 children.”

The position in question was an education technician at the kindergarten level who had a strong background in reading and math.

“I think we definitely need to look at some of the positions and consider putting them back in,” said board member Fred Grant.

“You [the school board] have the right to add or subtract to the budget,” Freve said. “But on the other hand, you asked us [the administration] to make recommendations about where we should cut. If you are looking to reinsert money, please allow us [the administration] to insert it where we think it is most important.”

The board directed Freve to prioritize those positions that were eliminated so they could then decide which, if any, of the proposed cuts could be reversed.

Board member Paul Cleary said it appeared as if the district was cutting some positions yet adding to the budget in different areas.

“We cut positions the other night but then added in an $89,000 alternative education program,” he said. “We’re cutting, but we aren’t saving anything.”

Cleary was referring to a proposal that would create an alternative education program at the middle-school level. The board has not taken any action on the recommendation to create such a program, but the funding is included in the 2011-12 school budget.

“We as a board have not voted to approve this project,” Cleary said. “I feel that money should not be included in this budget.”

Freve said the money should stay in the budget, so the project idea can be explored more fully during the summer months. If the board ultimately votes not to pursue that position, the funds would roll into the unexpended account to be used the next year.

Cleary also spoke of where the district ranked in terms of its cost per pupil compared with other school districts in the state.

“We are 212th in the state of Maine,” he said. “We spend $7,400 per kid. That’s pretty low. We have one of the lowest cost-per-pupil ratios. It’s too bad people make comments about the school system. I think we are doing pretty darn good for what we are spending.”

Freve later notified the board of several problems with Houlton Elementary School that should be addressed in the coming years, including a lack of available usable space; as well as furnace and roof deficiencies.

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