May 20, 2018
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Houlton-area residents vote down school budget

By Jen Lynds, BDN Staff

HOULTON, Maine — Voters in the majority of the four towns that make up RSU 29 on Tuesday voted against supporting a $12.9 million budget for the district.

The spending plan, which was finished at a May 12 meeting, reflected an increase in spending of 1.78 percent over the previous year. Residents in Houlton voted 332-215 against passing it. The budget also was defeated in Littleton, 35-29, and Monticello, 81-66. Only residents of Hammond approved the budget, 8-2. That resulted in a districtwide total of 450 votes opposed to the budget and 318 in favor.

Mike Hammer, district superintendent, said Wednesday that he was surprised the voters didn’t pass the budget.

“It was a lot of hard work,” he said. “We closed a school, we reduced some positions, and there were fixed costs. It was a challenge. But now we’ve been given a directive by the voters so we’ll have to go back and look at it again.”

RSU 29 is made up of the four communities and has two elementary schools, Houlton Elementary School and Wellington School in Monticello; a middle school, Southside School in Houlton; and Houlton High School.

This spring, t he decision was made to close Wellington because of declining enrollment, the age of the building and escalating costs, a move that is expected to save the district approximately $109,000. The district has drafted a plan to educate those students at Houlton Elementary School and to shift the library and computer labs at the Houlton school to portable classrooms to make more room for the larger student population. A suggestion to move sixth-graders from Houlton Southside School to Houlton Jr/Sr. High School and to move third-graders from Houlton Elementary School to Houlton Southside School in order to avoid having to use the portable classrooms and to deal with a projected increase of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students was rejected by the school board by a 6-5 vote on Monday evening.

RSU 29 will receive $9,240,465 from the state next year, an increase of $423,224 over the previous year. The required local share, which is the amount the district must raise to receive those state funds, is $3,192,008, an increase of $84,164.

Because the district’s surplus account has dwindled substantially and needs to be replenished, Hammer told school board members during budget negotiations that the district would not be able to take any money from that account this year to help balance its budget. In the past, use of that money has lessened the amount the district had to ask local taxpayers to contribute.

As proposed, the budget would have resulted in an assessment for Hammond of $64,173, up 10.5 percent over last year; Houlton, $2,501,461, or up 6.9 percent; Littleton, $473,929, or up 7 percent; and Monticello, $377,886, up 7.5 percent.

A number of Houlton town councilors said during past meetings they feared that the town’s property tax rate would have to be increased if the school budget was passed as proposed.

Council Chairman Paul Cleary noted on Monday evening that if the school budget was rejected by voters, the school board might come back with a new budget that would “save us a little and help us a bit” in terms of the tax rate.

Hammer said Wednesday that he would be meeting with the finance committee that afternoon to look at what additional changes could be made in the budget. A special board meeting will take place on Wednesday, June 18, and another district budget referendum will be scheduled on the revised budget.

RSU 29 educates about 1,300 students.

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