HOULTON, Maine — A group of about 30 residents gave their approval to a $12,904,643 budget for RSU 29 during the district budget meeting May 20.
The spending plan went through numerous drafts over the past few months before being finalized at a May 12 meeting. The figure approved by residents at the district budget meeting is an increase in spending of 1.78 percent over the previous year.
“Every year, this is always a difficult process,” board chairman Fred Grant said. “A lot of people spend a lot of time trying to work on this budget. I thank the administration and staff for their help in going through this budget.”
RSU 29 will receive $9,240,465 from the state next year, which is 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).
However, unlike recent years, the district will need to come up with “additional local” money in order to balance its budget. Most school districts spend more than what the state says they should, which requires additional local funds to be raised in many communities to balance the budget.
For the past four years, RSU 29 has taken money from its surplus account to cover those additional local costs. Doing the same this year was not an option, Hammer said, as the district’s once large surplus account has dwindled and needs to be preserved.
Therefore, RSU 29 will need to come up with $150,170 of additional local funds to balance its budget.
A breakdown of the budget assessment for towns is as follows: Hammond, $64,173 (an increase of 10.5 percent); Houlton, $2,501,461 (up 6.9 percent); Littleton, $473,929 (up 7 percent); and Monticello, $377,886 (up 7.5 percent).
All of these increases come even though the district is going forward with its plans to close Wellington Elementary School in Monticello. Closing the school was originally said to save the school about $180,000, but that figure has since dwindled to $108,735.
A plan to add an art position for the elementary school was taken out of the proposed budget May 12 after school officials learned that an additional kindergarten teacher was needed. Next year, the district will have seven kindergarten classes to accommodate roughly 117 students.
“We had already added one kindergarten class (to Houlton Elementary) to accommodate the students from Wellington School, but now we will need another one.” Hammer said. “Knowing that, I couldn’t rightfully keep the new art position in the budget.”
The board also eliminated a music position at HES and will distribute those responsibilities amongst the district’s four music teachers.
During the May 20 meeting, resident Sue Tortello made several attempts to reduce the school budget so that no additional local funds were needed.
“We are receiving almost half a million more from the state than last year,” Tortello said. “We are closing Wellington School. Last year’s budget was $12.6 million, with a carryover of $100,000 expected.”
Tortello said she heard the district was taking $322,000 out of its surplus account to balance the budget, which would mean the true increase in spending was closer to $1 million over last year.
“I have to ask, ‘Why are we doing this?’” she said. “Clearly this is not sustainable. The district taxpayers can’t be expected to dig down deep to come up with this kind of increase year after year. I think it is time we stop this. We have to be realistic. There is a limit to how much money we are going to get from the state and how much we can expect the taxpayers to suck up and deliver each year.”
Tortello acknowledged putting the budget together was a difficult process, but insisted change has to take place.
“If history repeats itself, next year’s budget will probably go up another half a million dollars,” she said.
Resident Ben Drew said he too felt something needed to be done to rein in spending.
“As a person who moved here eight years ago, I have seen my taxes go up steadily over those past eight years,” Drew said. “It is hard to continue to pay the bills when a vast chunk of your monthly income goes just to property taxes, with a big part of that going to fund the school.”
At the district budget meeting, residents may add or reduce each article by a specific amount, but cannot state how those additions or subtractions will be made. It is the only time members of the general public are allowed to offer input on the school budget. The majority of those in attendance at the May 20 meeting were staff members in the district.
Each one of Tortello’s attempts to amend the spending plan failed to garner support with those in attendance and the budget was passed as presented. The general public will now have to approve the budget at a referendum ballot on Tuesday, June 10.