Voters give Houlton area school district more money to avoid cutting positions 

2 weeks ago

HOULTON, Maine – In an emotional plea to help students, RSU 29 registered voters amended the Fiscal Year 2024-2025 school budget Tuesday night, raising the local contribution 63 percent to avoid cutting teachers and programs.

“Our spending per student is some of the lowest in the state,” said Houlton voter Mark Lipscomb, who led the charge to increase several cost centers in the district’s proposed budget. “The administrators, school board, teaching staff and support staff have done a spectacular job of running the school district on a threadbare budget. These cuts are a step too far.”

Nearly 300 people attended the district budget meeting at Houlton High School. In a 182 to 65 vote, the proposed $16.4 million budget was increased to $16.9 million, adding money into regular instruction, athletics and student programming. 

With the budget hike, the local contribution jumped to $1,222,782. The towns in the district are Houlton, Hammond, Littleton and Monticello.

HOULTON, Maine — May 14, 2024 — Houlton school district registered voters packed into Houlton High School for the district budget meeting on Tuesday night. (Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli | Houlton Pioneer Times)

Prior to the town vote, the school board had approved increasing the town’s additional share by $750,000, cutting nine positions, eliminating the French and Breaking Ground (planting and seed growing) programs and funding for several co-curricular activities to balance a $1.1 million deficit. 

“The increase gets rid of the nastiest cuts,” said Lipscomb.

During several public meetings prior to the district budget meeting, Superintendent Joe Fagnant explained that increasing town valuations, decreasing enrollments and less state dollars have made it a challenge to keep things afloat.

In a presentation to the Houlton Town Council on Monday night, Fagnant said that in two to three years the district will almost be out of business.

“I can’t cut anything more and still have kids show up and not have places to put them,” he said. “We need the town’s help.”

After the vote to increase regular education and other instruction, Fagnant said he would meet with the finance committee on Wednesday to discuss how the increased revenue affects staff and programmatic cuts.

Despite enthusiasm for the local revenue increase, several voters and the majority of school board members were opposed to raising it above the $750,000.

A Littleton woman said that while she supports the school and the students, the increase was not realistic. There are families who can’t afford to pay this, we are not a rich community, she said. 

HOULTON, Maine — May 14, 2024 — RSU 29 School Board member Tom Schools shared with voters on Tuesday night why he thought the district budget should not increase beyond what the board had recommended.  (Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli | Houlton Pioneer Times)

Newly appointed school board member Tom Schools of Littleton said that he was voting against the increase because it is not realistic. 

“If we stick to the $750,000 it is more sustainable for the future,” he said. 

In a volley of what some voters called the people who could afford tax increases and those who were opposed to raising the revenue above $750,000, the importance of athletics in a student’s life and how the school is the hub of the community was stressed. 

Houlton Town Councilor James Peters pointed out how much taxes would increase with the $750,000 local contribution and that if the local share goes up, so do taxes.

Houlton resident Josh Bennett said that if there are people who feel so strongly about supporting school athletics, they could write a personal check to the district and not raise the local share.  

The school district began trimming staff and line items last year 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. 

Tuesday night’s increase in revenue is a reflection of those cuts.

“I have five kids and I care about the school,” said Joshua Adamson of Houlton. “I have lived all over and the taxes here are low. This is our future. “