June 22, 2018
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Houlton-area voters reject $12.7 million school budget again

By Jen Lynds, BDN Staff

HOULTON, Maine — Voters in the majority of the four towns that make up Regional School Unit 29 on Tuesday rejected a $12.7 million school budget for the second time. Only 261 of approximately 5,125 registered voters in the district came out to cast ballots.

The final tally was 138 voters opposed to the budget with 123 in favor. The budget passed in Hammond, tied in Littleton and failed in Houlton and Monticello. The same budget was rejected by voters in June by a tally of 450-318.

The budget reflected an increase in spending of 1.78 percent over the previous year.
This school year, the district had two elementary schools, Houlton Elementary School and Wellington School in Monticello, as well as Southside School in Houlton, which serves as a middle school. Houlton High School is the district’s only high school.

This spring, the decision was made to close Wellington School because of declining enrollment, the age of the building and escalating costs, a move expected to save the district approximately $109,000. The Monticello school educates 66 students in pre-K through third-grade.

Mike Hammer, the district superintendent, said Wednesday that he was a bit discouraged that the voters rejected it again, and said that he couldn’t really put his finger on why.

“There is a lot of speculation out there,” he said. “We’ve heard it’s a mixture of voter apathy and people who were away or did not want to come out and vote on such a hot night, or still felt the budget was high, or were upset about the closing of a school or the plan to shuffle around students. But we haven’t really heard anything directly, and that is what is frustrating.”

The district originally drafted a plan to educate the Wellington students at Houlton Elementary School and shift the library and computer labs from the Houlton school to portable classrooms in order to make more room for the larger student population.

That would have eliminated the need for students to be taught in portable classrooms.

During a school board meeting in June, however, Hammer proposed a plan to move the sixth- and third-graders around. The superintendent said there was enough room at the school and a plan would be put in place to keep the students separate from the high schoolers.

“We have had some great meetings here with the parents of sixth-graders who are going to be attending school at the high school this year,” he said. “People have not been unduly upset, and if they are, they can come talk to me about it. There is always an open door to ask questions and express concerns.”

Hammer also said that the board is working with a bare-bones budget, and he has made big cuts in terms of fuel.

“I’m really gambling on fuel,” he said. “We are going to go back as a board at the next meeting and take another look at the budget and send it back to referendum towards the end of the summer when everyone is back from vacation and things, but I think we will be sending back pretty much the same budget that we did this time. There might by a few changes that the board makes.”

Hammer estimated that it costs between $3,000 and $5,000 every time the district sends a budget to referendum, in terms of staff time, attorneys’ fees and other costs.

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.

RSU 29 educates about 1,300 students.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the school budget was $12.9 million.

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