RSU 29 eliminates 15 positions in 2023-2024 $15.7 million budget

HOULTON, Maine — Dwindling student enrollments and increased state property valuations reduced the state subsidy to RSU 29, forcing the district to cut positions in  next year’s school district budget. 

“If you lose pupil count, that’s bad. If the valuation increases that’s bad for the budget.  The state is saying because you have a greater value, you have a greater ability to pay,”  RSU Superintendent Richard Lyons said, adding that the district will be down about 50 students this year.

Initially, the 2023-2024 school district budget came in at $16,664,646, a $1.16 million increase over last year, Lyons said. That was prior to the district knowing about the state subsidy reduction. This budget included all contracted salary increases and benefits from the four employee bargaining units, he said.

Nonetheless, with the state subsidy reduction, the local assessment would have increased 44 percent, he said.

In February the budget committee began reworking the initial budget numbers to reduce the local taxpayer burden while still meeting the district’s educational needs. They whittled down the numbers, analyzing every item, and came up with a revised budget of $15.7 million, a 1.37 percent increase for the upcoming school year, according to Lyons.

Among the most difficult cuts were the elimination of 10 teaching positions and five support staff positions, Lyons said. Some of those slots will come from unfilled vacancies and retirements. 

The school district also canceled a $128,000 school bus purchase, a 50/50 contribution to the lacrosse team, and decreased the fuel allotment due to savings incurred from a new propane heating system in one of the elementary buildings, along with a reduced cost per gallon locked in at $3.17 per gallon for No. 2 fuel oil, according to RSU 29 Business Manager Wendy Bradstreet.

The state subsidy for the new budget is $61,037.61 less than last year, meaning the four towns in the district will see a 2.47 percent increase amounting to $71,689 in order to receive the full allotment of $11,645,780 from the state. With a 1.37 percent increase to the total school district budget over last year’s budget, the four towns will have an 11.43 percent increased assessment of $331,632.49, according to Bradstreet. 

That means Houlton’s assessment is $237,481 or 71.6 percent of the total local assessment; Littleton, $45,698, or 13.78 percent of the local assessment; Monticello, $41,553, or 12.53 percent; and Hammond, $6,897, or 2.08 percent. 

Still, an increase does not necessarily mean a property tax increase, said Bradshaw, adding some towns have reserve funds to support such increases. 

The budget committee and the board of directors on May 1 endorsed the revised budget and Lyons said they will ask for voter ratification on May 16.

The registered voters in Houlton, Littleton, Monticello and Hammond have the final say during the May 16 district budget meeting at Houlton Middle High School. Voters will either accept the budget as it is or vote to increase or decrease certain amounts, and the school district will have to find a way to make it work, Lyons said. 

For example, if voters decided to increase the budget, the district might not have to eliminate all 15 positions, but the towns would have an increased burden. If voters decided to reduce it even further, the school district would have to consider more cuts to make the new numbers work. 

Lyons and Business Manager Wendy Bradstreet presented an overview of the new budget to the Houlton Town Council during its Monday night meeting. 

Houlton Town Manager Marian Anderson said that the school district budget increase will equal an approximate 1 mil increase for town taxpayers. Anderson is calculating what that means to individual taxpayers, she said.

“That’s why it is important for folks to vote,” Anderson said. 

There will be an informational public forum at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, May 10, in the Houlton High School Library and attendees may ask questions in preparation for the May 16 public vote. 

The district budget meeting and vote is at  6 p.m. May 16, in the high school auditorium. 

“There will be a public forum and voters can get clarification and more information so you can be better prepared to come to the budget meeting, “ Houlton Town Councilor Sue Tortello said. 

“The district budget meeting is where the rubber meets the road, this is your opportunity, if you want to weigh in on the budget, to do so that night. When that meeting is over we will have a school budget. If you want to have your vote, that’s the night you need to show up. “