Referendum: Rhinelander school officials hold info sessions
By Eileen Persike
When Brenda Peltier moved to the Northwoods with her husband and children four and a half years ago, they shopped around for a school district that would meet the family’s needs. They chose Rhinelander.
“I’m really happy we chose Rhinelander because I have seen a lot of good things here in the district and would like to see them continue,” Peltier said. “My youngest was in kindergarten and with the result of SAGE and the small classrooms, we really got to see her grow.”
She told her story to about ten people who attended the school district’s first referendum information meeting last week. The school district is asking taxpayers to approve $5 million dollars per year for three years, in a referendum vote in February and is holding community question and answer sessions. Superintendent Kelli Jacobi and business director Marta Kwiatkowski outlined the history of Wisconsin school funding formula, and why the district is in the current situation of having to ask voters for more money. One part of the funding formula that is not kind to Rhinelander is property values.
“The Rhinelander School District is classified as a high property value district,” according to Kwiatkowski. “In high property value districts, the state shifts the cost of education to local taxpayers.” As state aid to school districts continues to decrease, property taxes will increase, she continued, adding that even though the area has high property values, more than 60 percent of elementary students qualify for free and reduced lunch.
Crescent Elementary Principal, Kelley Huseby, spoke about potential impacts of a failed referendum, foremost which would be overcrowding if the Northwoods Community Elementary School is closed.
“Most of the school year we have been full at second grade and almost full in first and third grades,” Huseby said. “By full, I mean under SAGE (Student Acheivement Guarantee in Education) where we have 18:1 students to teachers in single classrooms and 30:2 in double classrooms.” Two of the double classrooms are by choice, one is by necessity.
For an example, according to Huseby, absorbing even half of the NCES students would strain Crescent’s facilities.
“We are scheduled up to the minute in getting our students art and music one time a week and phy ed two times a week,” Huseby explained. “Some of our kids connect with art and music and phy ed and to think of a reduction, I don’t know what that would even look like for our children.”
James Williams Middle School principal Tim Howell echoed Huseby’s assessment and said that larger class sizes at the middle school would mean the end to many of the positive behavior and technology initiatives. Howell said another option would be to cut extra curriculars.
“We all know the after school activities are one of the best ‘at risk’ program we have,” Howell continued. “Would have to be a choice, academic or athletic.”
Former RHS English teacher Julie Bronson asked why anyone would believe the cuts would be more than just a threat this time around. What, she wondered aloud, is the difference this time?
“The district has made $11.5 million in cuts in the last decade.” Superintendent Kelli Jacobi responded. “There isn’t a lot left to cut. It would be extreme because we are looking at $5 million per year for three years. $5 million is a large number; you’re looking at 40 teachers ,which means options are going to diminish for students.”
Small class size, not available; all the electives and AP and foreign language classes, unsustainable, according to Jacobi. “There is just no way we can sustain all of those with 40 teacher cuts. It will require the school board to balance co-curricular cuts with academic program cuts.”
School Board member Judy Conlin told the audience that about ten years ago, several elementary schools were closed due to a failed referendum. “If people say it isn’t really going to happen, all I can do is remind them of what really did happen,” she said.
“Are cuts in class size or co-curriculars more important? Or some of the other things like languages…” Board member Duane Frey questioned. “But when you’re looking at cutting five million dollars a year, and our income goes down and costs go up even though we are doing our best to keep them down, it’s a very gruesome thing to look at and as a board member, I am not looking forward to that.”
The board will meet in January to prioritize cuts for each of the next three years, should the referendum fails. The next information meeting is December 16 at Northwoods Community Elementary School.