Referendum talk resurfaces
School funding remains a challenge for administrators and school board members
By Eileen Persike
As the School District of Rhinelander nears the end of its $4 million referendum to exceed the levy for operational purposes, the School Board met Monday, September 28 to consider beginning those discussions anew.
Many of the factors that lead to the 2013 voter-approved property tax levy increase continue to exist in the district today. Declining state aid, declining enrollment, being considered a “property rich” district with high poverty and low revenue limits per student contribute to a state school funding formula that does not benefit districts like Rhinelander.
“We have really been working hard to keep the community informed about our work in Madison, the initiatives we are trying to get moving,” Superintendent Kelli Jacobi told the board. “The funding formula is really a really hard thing to address; they have to start over, really scrap it to come up with an equitable solution. It’s daunting; we’re having a hard time getting buy-in from the legislators.”
Over the years the school board has made significant cuts to address the declining enrollment and reduced funding by the state to allow for a balanced budget, explained business director Marta Kwiatkowski. Between the 2002-2003 and the 2012-2013 school years, the board has made cuts totaling more than $11.5 million. Reducing health care costs, by changing insurance companies multiple times and developing an on-site clinic have allowed the district’s fund balance to grow beyond what it needs, which Kwiatkowski said will be drawn down some.
Based on the projected enrollment and budget the administration is looking at average shortfalls each of the next three years of just over $5.5 million.
Administrators are recommending a $5 million referendum each year for 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19; the rest of the shortfall would be taken out of the fund balance due to the increase in the last two years. School board member David Holperin said $5 million may be too much and that he “is already getting push back from the community on this.”
“I think it’s really important to look at the fact that the cliff we keep building gets higher and higher every cycle and if we ever drop off of it…now we’re at $5 to $5.5 million in cuts if we go over that cliff,” said board treasurer Mike Roberts. “It’s just not sustainable. We’re looking at every three years going back to our taxpayers and asking them, for lack of a better term, to save the district of Rhinelander because if they don’t…. well, $5 million is a huge chunk of our budget.”
Board members discussed ideas that are being presented at the state level, and how they might present their case for a referendum to voters.
“I don’t think we are in the same situation we were years ago where we are having to explain what a referendum is and why it’s necessary,” Jacobi said. “We can show what we have been doing and how we have been financially responsible.”
Business Director Kwiatkowski told the board and those in attendance that the amount of money they are asking for is not out of line.
“When Rhinelander asked for $4 million, Three Lakes asked for $3.2 million – we have 2,500 students and they have 500,” she said. “So if you put it in perspective, you’re really not asking for the moon, you’re just covering expenses. And you’re really not spending that much money compared with other school districts, either. There are a lot of factors that go into it.” Board president Ron Counter asked Superintendent Jacobi to draw up a list of cuts that would total $5 million each year, because “people need to be educated that their yes or no vote has consequences.”
In the past the cuts have included dissolving the charters at NCES and NCSS, increasing class size by reducing teaching staff and reduced spending on activities.
Jacobi and Kwiatkowski stated they will also have firm budget numbers to bring to the board at the next meeting, scheduled for October 12.