Residents of SAD 29 modify school budget to reduce tax burden

Posted June 16, 2011, at 10:07 p.m.

HOULTON, Maine — During a two-hour budget hearing that grew contentious at times, close to 60 residents of SAD 29 agreed Wednesday to modify the $12 million school budget in an effort to reduce the local tax burden on four member towns by nearly $250,000.

The proposed budget will now be put to a referendum vote in each community on June 28.

The budget modification involves the amount that each of the four communities has to raise locally to obtain the maximum state education subsidy.

Before an amendment suggested Wednesday night by Sue Tortello, a Houlton town councilor, the total local share for all four towns was $2,806,479. Following approval of the amendment, the local amount dropped $248,270 to $2,558,209.

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

As proposed, SAD 29 would receive $8.4 million in state funds for the 2011-12 school year, which is $139,701 more than this past year.

Using a formula based in part on each community’s state valuation and in part on student population, the state determined that SAD 29 member towns would have raise about $2.8 million locally to get the full $8.4 million state subsidy.

On Wednesday evening, however, Tortello suggested that SAD 29 take advantage of a law passed by the Legislature last year that allows school districts to raise only 82.2 percent of the required local share, and still get the full state subsidy. That will give Houlton time to build up its surplus account and better prepare for its school tax bill next year, she argued.

Jim Rier, director of finance and operations for the Maine Department of Education, said that the law was passed in response to the fact that the DOE still is not paying the 55 percent cost of education that was approved by voters in 2003.

“It has been in effect last year and this year,” Rier said Thursday evening. “It was meant to say that the state isn’t paying their fair share, so why should the locals? They are allowed to raise as low as 82.2 percent of the required local share and still get full state funding. There were 17 units statewide that took advantage of this proportional reduction in 2010-2011.”

But the law doesn’t eliminate the remaining 17.8 percent the school units owe the state, it merely postpones when it is due. The district may have to make up for what it didn’t pay this year in next year’s budget.

The proposed overall education budget is up nearly 2 percent over last year even though the district is to receive more state funding than last year, and despite the fact that a number of positions in the district are being cut. Those positions include 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. Cuts in staffing chopped close to $300,000 off the budget.

Despite those cuts, a number of town councilors during their regular meeting on Monday decried the impact of the school budget on Houlton taxpayers. Town Manager Doug Hazlett told the councilors that there was no way to prevent a mill rate increase if the school budget was passed as written. Some councilors said they would encourage residents to vote down the school budget.

During Wednesday night’s school budget hearing, Phil Bernaiche, a Houlton resident, said he didn’t feel the school board had done enough to control spending. He pointed out that the economy is poor and that families and senior citizens could not afford the escalating cost of education.

“You guys are overloading the budget,” he said. “And you are paying people more money and they don’t need it.”

Paul Cleary, who represents Houlton on the school board, took issue with Bernaiche’s remarks. He said the district spends $7,400 to educate each student, well below the state average of $9,600. Interim Superintendent Freve also was upset by Bernaiche’s comments and defended the school board.

The audience at the hearing, which was mostly made up of district staff members and their spouses, eventually voted to pass the amended budget.

As the budget is proposed, the tiny town of Hammond, which sends the fewest number of students to SAD 29 schools, will see an 18 percent increase in its local cost, or about $7,000 more than last year. Houlton will see a 15 percent increase or about $285,000 more than last year.

The referendum vote will be held in each town on June 28. The entire budget can be viewed at www.sad29.k12.me.us/2011school_budget.pdf.

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