Teacher Nason Graham proposes an increase to the 2023-2024 RSU 29 budget to accommodate eliminated teaching positions on Tuesday night during the district budget meeting. Credit: Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — Houlton area residents increased the annual school district budget for RSU 29 before approving it late Tuesday night with the intention of preventing cuts to teaching staff.

Registered voters from Houlton, Littleton, Monticello and Hammond approved a $310,000 increase, raising the total funding for next school year to $16 million during the district budget meeting held at Houlton Middle High School. About 200 attended the three-hour meeting.

The school board had approved a $15.7 million budget, which is a 1.37 percent increase from last year, on May 1. Some of the cuts made to reach that budget amount would eliminate 11 teaching and five support staff positions, some of which would come from unfilled vacancies and retirements, Superintendent Richard Lyons said.

Reduced state subsidies and rising property valuations forced Houlton school district administrators to make tough budget decisions like cutting teachers and staff when preparing next year’s school budget, Lyons said. But some attending the meeting thought increasing the budget by the amount cut would keep teacher positions safe.

“I propose the increase for the purpose of reinstating reduced positions of staff,” said Nason Graham, a high school alternative education teacher whose position may be cut at the end of this school year due to budget trims. “Remember our budget reflects our priorities.”

Initially, the school district’s 2023-2024 budget came in at $16.6 million and included all contracted salary increases and benefits, Lyons said, adding that it raised the local assessment 44 percent with the lowered state subsidy,.

To pare it down, the budget committee reworked next year’s budget to reduce the taxpayer burden while still meeting the district’s educational needs, he said.

During Tuesday night’s district budget meeting, Graham also asked that voters consider a 50 percent reduction, or $310,000, in the superintendent’s central office budget to accommodate the approved increase that he said would retain the teachers.

Graham said that from the 2018 to 2019 budget until now, the central office expenses increased 56 percent while general education increased only 8 percent.

An emotional discussion by central office staff and other teachers weighed the pros and cons of Graham’s requested cuts and his motion did not pass.

Even though voters thought they were voting to keep teachers in the schools, it does not mean the positions will not be cut because the district cannot spend money it doesn’t have, school district business manager Wendy Bradstreet said.

The school district also canceled a $128,000 school bus purchase and a 50/50 contribution to the lacrosse team. It 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, Bradstreet said.

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, the four towns will have an 11.43 percent increased assessment of $331,632.49, according to Bradstreet.

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

While an increase does not necessarily mean a rise in property taxes, Houlton Town Manager Marian Anderson said last week that the elevated budget will equal an approximate 1.1 mill increase for town taxpayers.

The town’s current mill rate is $22.60 per $1,000 valuation, and with the new budget it would increase to approximately $23.60 per $1,000, according to town officials.

Lyons said the administration will meet Wednesday to determine what positions will be cut and how many teachers will not return next school year.

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Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...