HOULTON, Maine — Area residents questioned the school board about possible cuts, ideas for savings and transportation concerns during a three-hour Regional School Unit 29 budget meeting Thursday night, but ultimately approved for referendum a $12.75 million budget unchanged from the proposal that was defeated at the polls in July.
The Aug. 27 district-wide validation referendum will mark RSU 29’s third attempt at passing a budget for the 2014-15 school year.
Turnout for Thursday’s meeting at the Houlton High School auditorium was low, with ten school board members joined by roughly 30 people consisting mainly of current and retired school and municipal staff in the four towns served by the district — Houlton, Hammond, Littleton and Monticello.
Residents of those towns first rejected by a vote of 450 to 318 a $12.9 million budget presented to them at referendum in June. Then in July, the validation vote was 138 to 123 against a revised $12.75 million proposal.
Superintendent Mike Hammer explained in a recent interview that the school board opted not to make any additional cuts to the budget presented in July because it already was “bare bones.”
He believed that the second proposal was defeated because the district simply had not done a good job of getting the word out about the budget and the validation vote. He said the board also felt that a lot of voters may have been away on vacation, at their camps or had simply forgotten to come to the polls.
Only 261 of approximately 5,125 registered voters in the district cast ballots at the July referendum.
The superintendent and board members expect to better publicize the next validation referendum on Aug. 27 and they anticipate more residents will be around to vote with teacher workshops scheduled that same day and school starting the following Tuesday.
On Thursday evening, a bulk of the discussion centered on the RSU’s decision to close Wellington School. The move — expected to save the district $109,000 a year — was made because of declining enrollment, the age of the building and escalating costs. The Monticello school educated 66 students in pre-K through third-grade.
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. School administrators eventually decided that they had the room to cancel the portable classrooms, shift the sixth graders to Houlton High School and send third grade students to Southside School in Houlton.
Among the various changes suggested Thursday to the 14 articles on the warrant, a Monticello woman proposed bringing a pre-kindergarten teacher to the community to spare local pupils the 13-mile one-way bus ride to Houlton Elementary School every morning. She maintained that it could be done at no extra cost to the budget, but the plan failed to get the adequate number of votes.
Another man suggested cutting $40,000 off the budget, but that too failed.
Hammer acknowledged problems with bus transportation in response to a question from a Littleton resident, who said that his children sometimes find the buses so crowded that they cannot get a seat and have to stand up. Hammer said that RSU 29 needs to allocate money to purchase more buses to alleviate that problem, and he is working with the transportation and facilities coordinator to cut “ten to fifteen minutes” off the ride time from Monticello to Houlton.
Board Chairman Fred Grant told the crowd that the board was happy with the budget they had presented.
“The board believes in this budget,” he said Thursday evening. “We stand by it.”
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.
The budget reflected an increase in spending of 1.78 percent over the previous year.
In the end, meeting participants agreed to send out the budget as proposed to be validated at referendum.
Polls will be open on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. at local polling locations in the four communities.