School referendum brings state funding formula into spotlight
Voters in the School District of Rhinelander approved a referendum on Tuesday that authorizes the district to exceed the revenue limits specified by the state by $4 million per year for the next three years.
While the referendum has been a contentious issue, at least two city officials welcomed the news of its passage.
As someone who feels it’s critical for young people to have the skills necessary to compete for jobs, Mayor Richard Johns is glad of the referendum’s approval. “With today’s economy, what happened in Rhinelander is positive,” he said. “We’ve got to take steps that are important to our community.”
Blaine Oborn, city administrator, noted that the referendum’s passage is particularly important in light of the sale of the paper mill. “It will be a positive image to anyone interested in purchasing the mill,” he said.
Concerns about higher taxes fueled opposition to the referendum, and as a result of its passage, property owners in the School District of Rhinelander will indeed see an increase in their property taxes.
But along with focusing on quality education and taxes, the debate over the referendum also put the state’s school funding formula back in the spotlight.
The school district maintains that the financial straits which prompted the referendum came about because of the state’s flawed method of determining how much aid to allot to schools. The state bases financial support to schools on a district’s property values, not its residents’ incomes. Because of an abundance of high-priced vacation homes, Oneida County is an area with high property values.
Therefore, according to the state, less aid is needed for schools here. It’s a situation that has caused funding problems not only for the School District of Rhinelander, but other area districts as well. The need to change the formula is a topic on which people on both sides of the debate agree.
But whether a grassroots movement among citizens to change the formula takes hold remains to be seen.
Currently, the Oneida/Vilas School Board Coalition, which is made up of 10 school districts from high property value areas, is dedicated to trying to change the way state aid to schools is determined. The group formed when several school superintendents in high property districts joined forces after a comment from a legislator that he hadn’t heard complaints about the state’s funding formula.
Because of the way the state calculates this formula, state support for school districts in areas with high property values decreases yearly, according to Roger Erdahl, School District of Rhinelander superintendent. The Oneida/Vilas School Board Coalition is comprised of the following school districts: Tomahawk, Rhinelander, Minocqua-Hazlehurst-Lake Tomahawk, Lakeland, Arbor Vitae-Woodruff, North Lakeland, Lac du Flambeau, Three Lakes, Northland Pines and Phelps.
“The purpose of the group,” Erdahl wrote in an email to the Star Journal, “was to create circumstances in which school board members had ready access and regular meetings with their state legislators.”
School board members from the 10 districts meet to discuss ways in which they can influence legislators to change the funding formula. “This is done through various means of communication including, increasingly, face-to-face meetings with our representatives,” Erdahl explained. “For example, in anticipation of the election last fall, the group held a candidate forum to exchange concerns and ideas with those running for office.
“More work needs to be done,” he continued, “and it would be most helpful if a supportive citizen’s group, perhaps also from these 10 districts, could be formed to support the local school board group.”
In the meantime, the school district will not continue to run without having to implement drastic cuts to staff and electives, nor will it have to close its charter schools. “The School District of Rhinelander will continue to economize wherever possible,” said Kim Swisher, community education coordinator for the school district, “and will continue our cooperative efforts with neighboring districts to change the current school funding formula.”