Houlton school district proposes cutting 9 positions and French program

1 month ago

HOULTON, Maine — Balancing the Houlton School District budget for the upcoming fiscal year will require more teacher cuts and a large increase in the local contribution, according to officials. 

The proposed RSU 29 budget of $16.4 million for fiscal year 2024-25 is up from last year’s $16 million to cover a $1.1 million shortfall.

To balance deficits, the district’s finance committee proposes increasing town contributions by $750,000, cutting nine positions, eliminating the French and Breaking Ground (planting and seed growing) programs and funding for several co-curricular activities. The towns in the district are Houlton, Hammond, Littleton and Monticello.

“Unfortunately our current budget situation is causing us to eliminate programs and staff members. It is nothing we take lightly,” Superintendent Joe Fagnant said over the weekend. “We had to look at enrollments and the fact that as the grade level classes continue to be reduced, we see gaps in teachers’ schedules for music and physical education, and we knew we had to become more efficient.”

Last year, the district began trimming staff and line items by eliminating 17 positions and cutting $1.2 million from the budget. This year, they are cutting nine more positions in addition to other student programs, for a total of more than $1 million in budget cuts. That’s a two-year reduction of 26 positions and $2.2 million, Fagnant said. 

The current state funding formula is no longer sustainable for RSU 29, he said, adding that valuations have gone up, enrollment is trending down, and the mill rate set by the state was lowered again.

“We are now at a point where we need our communities to support the budget with additional funding,” he said.

The 2024-2025 state appropriation of $11.7 million and a required local contribution of $2.9 million in order to receive that state funding reflects a 4.51 percent increase of $708,901. But that is still not enough to cover costs, according to Fagnant.

“Like any business, the cost of doing day to day operations has risen, including

health insurance, fuel, contracted salaries, contracted services and supplies,” he said. “In order to make ends meet, we are asking for an additional local [contribution) of $750,000.”

Some of the eliminated positions are absorbed by retirements and open positions, meaning four of the nine will not result in an actual job loss: A special education position is covered by a retirement; 4th grade teaching position is absorbed by a 1st grade opening; a Houlton Middle High School math teacher slot is absorbed by a middle school science retirement and a transfer reduces one open HMHS social studies position. 

Still, five staff members will not have jobs next year: one K-12 music teacher; one K-12 physical education teacher; a quarter-time English teacher; one HMHS French teacher along with the French Program and Breaking Ground Program the teacher runs; and an HMHS tech ed woods and metals position. 

“These are challenging times for our district and we have made very difficult choices that have cut our staffing and programs deeply,” Fagnant said. 

Other proposed cuts include reducing programs and co-curricular activities by $135,000 and administrative and building expenses by $209,428. 

The State three year valuation average of $21,699,999 is a 5.09 percent increase over last year. Valuations are based on town property values. Both Houlton and Monticello recently revalued town properties and in Houlton, some property values doubled.

Based on those valuations, the Maine Department of Education believes the towns have more money to put into education, Fagnant said. 

The full school board will vote on the proposed budget Monday night and the town voters will make the final decision on May 14.

“If the vote does not pass on May 14, we will have to look at eliminating more staff and programs,” Fagnant said. “We can only hope that the investment in education that is needed is the focus of Houlton, Hammond, Monticello, and Littleton voters.” 

The upcoming budget meeting schedule is: 6 p.m., May 6, School Board vote on the budget at Summit Academy; 6 p.m., May 7, Public Budget Information Session at Houlton Southside Cafeteria and the RSU 29 District Budget Meeting at 6 p.m., May 14 at Houlton Middle High School Auditorium for a town vote on the matter.