Houlton councilors rankled by school budget increase

Posted June 14, 2011, at 6:04 p.m.

HOULTON, Maine — Town Councilors on Monday evening made it clear that they could not support the proposed $12 million SAD 29 budget and they are encouraging residents to attend a public hearing Wednesday to voice their opposition.

The hearing begins at 6 p.m. at Houlton Southside School. A target date of June 28 has been set aside for the districtwide referendum vote.

SAD 29, which serves the towns of Houlton, Hammond, Littleton and Monticello, educates about 1,300 students in four schools.

This year’s budget is up nearly 2 percent over last year, and each of the four communities will be asked to contribute more toward the local share of education.

SAD 29 will receive $8.4 million in state funds for the 2011-12 school year. That figure is up $139,701 from this past year. In order to get that full amount of state funding, the district has to put forth locally $2,806,479, which is an increase of $372,849 over last year’s figure.

The commitment from each town is calculated using a formula based in part on each community’s state valuation and in part on student population.

If the budget is approved, Littleton will have to pay $386,171.51 of that $2.8 million, a 14.3 percent increase over last year; Monticello’s share will be $297,206, an 11.01 percent increase over the previous year; and Hammond’s share will be $47,148, an 18.84 percent increase.

But it is the figure that Houlton will have to pay, in concert with other factors, that rankled councilors during their hour long meeting on Monday evening.

If the budget is passed, Houlton will have to pay $2,075,952, which represents a 16 percent increase from the previous year.

Town Manager Doug Hazlett said on Monday evening that the school budget increased even though the district received more state funding than last year, and despite the fact that a number of positions in the district were cut. Those positions included a part-time junior high music teacher, a long-term-permanent substitute teacher in the industrial arts program, a library ed tech and a certified occupational therapist aide. Also eliminated were the district’s home school coordinator, a Reading Recovery teacher, a Title I computer ed tech and a pre-kindergarten teacher at Wellington Elementary School. Cuts in staffing chopped close to $300,000 off the budget.

“With an increase of that size that we were seeing, it would be virtually impossible to reduce our own budget to compensate for it,” Hazlett said. “It would have an impact on the mill rate.”

He estimated that the tax rate would increase by approximately one mill, which would cost homeowners $1 more in property taxes per $1,000 in assessed property value.

“Go to the meeting [tonight] and make an informed decision,” he advised taxpayers.

The school board elected to take $702,821 from its undesignated fund balance to help the tax rate, but several councilors said they felt the district should bring more money forward to lessen the financial blow.

Councilor Sue Tortello said she could not support the budget as written, saying she felt that the district should use more of its surplus to offset taxation, which Councilor Nancy Ketch agreed with. Councilor Mike Jenkins also said he didn’t think it was fair to pass such a significant increase on to taxpayers.

“This proposed budget is going to raise our mill rate by about 1 mill,” Councilor John White said. “I encourage people to vote no.”

Elizabeth Anderson, chairman of the SAD 29 school board, said Tuesday that the district has approximately $2 million in surplus, but that it wouldn’t be wise to use additional money from the undesignated fund to offset taxation, because the district expects they will need it both next year and in the future.

To obtain all of the state funding they are offered, the state requires each district contribute a certain amount of its own money. The money that SAD 29 was required to pay increased this year, and Anderson said the board expects the amount required locally will increase even more significantly next year.

“If we use more surplus money this year, it will just create a bigger cliff next year,” she said. “The money we will have to put forward to access state funds is just going to keep going up. We also have a number of buildings that are aging and equipment that needs replacing. Houlton Elementary School has several problems that should be addressed in the coming years, including a lack of available space and problems with its furnace and the roof. We can’t ignore those problems.”

The entire budget can be viewed by logging on to: http://www.sad29.k12.me.us/2011school_budget.pdf

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