RSU 29 sends same budget to referendum vote

10 years ago

    HOULTON, Maine — With the opening of school just a few short weeks away, the RSU 29 school board is hoping the third time is the charm for its proposed $12.75 million budget for 2014-15.
A group of about 50 residents, including those on the school board, attended last Thursday’s district budget meeting and spent more than three hours debating various line items in the spending plan.

Another referendum will be held Aug. 27 with polls open in each of the four communities that make up the district. The poll times are as follows: Houlton, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Littleton, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Monticello, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Hammond, 4-8 p.m.
Presenting the exact same spending plan that failed at the polls in July, board members and Superintendent Mike Hammer stated they believed in the budget they were presenting and were opposed to making any more reductions to it.

“We have heard from people wishing to put money into the budget and we have heard from people wanting to take money out of the budget,” said board chairman Fred Grant. “And we have also heard from people who want to keep the budget where it is.”
Grant stated he had to clarify a statement he made in last week’s guest commentary in the Houlton Pioneer Times in which he stated the voters of Monticello voted to close the school.
“That was not accurate,” he said. “What the voters in Monticello voted on was if they wanted to pick up the expense of keeping Wellington open. It was this board that ultimately decided to close Wellington.”
Several residents from Monticello attempted to make changes to the budget. Monticello resident Laurice Grass-Bell attempted to change the wording of the first article (regular instruction), which would have created a pre-kindergarten class at the now-closed Wellington School, at what she believed would be no extra cost to the district.
“We don’t want to lose all efforts we put in to our school,” she said. “It would put a pre-K teacher in Monticello and it would save 4-year-old children from riding on the bus from Monticello to Houlton.”
She added some children could be on bus routes covering 40 or more miles from the northern edge of the community. Monticello is about 13 miles from Houlton.
Grant explained that the language in the warrant articles could not be changed in the manner she was suggesting and stated only the dollar amounts could be changed. He also stated the school district no longer owns the building, making such a change far more difficult.
It was explained that if additional money was added to any cost center or particular line in the budget, the board was under no obligation to spend those funds. Instead, it leaves that decision up to its administration. Any money left in each cost center at the end of the school year rolls into the surplus fund.
At least one resident expressed frustration over those comments.
“If you can do whatever you want, why are we here?” asked Ronnie Flewelling of Monticello.
Grass-Bell then asked to amend the cost center to add $10 with the purpose of transferring one pre-kindergarten teacher from HES to Monticello. Her request for an amendment failed 14 in favor and 39 opposed.
Barbara Brown and Flewelling also expressed concerns over small children riding on school busses with students of all ages. Flewelling noted that there is the possibility of several 3-year-olds also attending pre-kindergarten from Monticello this fall. In order to be eligible for public pre-school, a child must be 4 years old by Oct. 15. However, children under the age of 4 are not eligible to ride a school bus. Therefore, those students will either have to be transported to school by parents or guardians or wait until they turn 4 before coming to class, according to Hammer.
Bus director Joe Schneider added he had not finalized any of the busing routes yet and any parent that has a concern can contact him to discuss the matter. He can be reached by calling the superintendent’s office at 532-6555.
Later in the meeting, Mike Scott suggested a cut of $44,000 out of the “Student and Staff Support” cost center. That request failed to garner support.
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). Last year’s budget was $12,679,258.
The district has trimmed its budget so that it is now at what the state says is the level for “Essential Programs and Services (EPS)” and any further cuts to the budget would result in lost revenue from the state.
At the polls July 15, only 261 voters (5 percent) cast ballots. There are about 5,125 registered voters in the communities of Houlton, Littleton, Monticello and Hammond, which make up RSU 29. The $12.75 million budget failed with a close vote of 123 in favor and 138 opposed.
Earlier in June, voters rejected the original $12.9 million spending plan at the polls, 318-450. The board then came up with a plan to trim $150,927 from the overall budget, by eliminating an assistant principal position (which was a new position slated for Houlton Elementary School next year), at a savings of $72,000; eliminating a plan to lease modular classrooms ($48,312 per year); cutting $15,615 from the Houlton Southside School After-School Program; and cutting $15,000 from the heating oil account.
The elimination of the modular classrooms prompted the need to relocate grades in the district. The other option was to move pre-K to Houlton Southside School for one year, with the idea of moving the sixth- and third-grade classes in the 2015-16 school year.
Grant said that if the district were to cut any more from its budget, the district would be below the state’s EPS guideline and subsequently would see a reduction in revenue from the Department of Education. Essentially, for every dollar that the district removes from its budget, the state will take away a dollar.
That is not to say the district could not have still make cuts to its budget.
Grant added this year’s budget was a good example of how education costs are shifting from the state to the local level.
For the past three years, the district has not assessed any “additional local” dollars to balance its budget. In recent years, the district has used money from its surplus to cover those expenses. This year, the board cut its budget to meet the state’s EPS model.
The new fiscal year began July 1 and without a new budget in place, the district operates under the spending plan approved at the most recent town meeting, which would be the Aug. 17 gathering. It was previously reported that the district operated on last year’s budget.
There are about 1,300 students in the district. According to the most recent report from the Maine Department of Education, RSU 29’s per pupil cost for education is $8,236. The state average is $10,021.