Down to the wire
School District of Rhinelander administration and board members work to answer questions, clarify facts before Tuesday’s vote
By Eileen Persike
As community members filed into the multipurpose room at the YMCA of the Northwoods last Wednesday morning, Rhinelander School Board member Duane Frey and Business Services Director, Marta Kwiatkowski chatted about the eight previous community presentations, which began in December. This, the ninth, is the last. District voters go to the polls Feb. 16 to decide whether they will support the district in another three year operational referendum.
“Unfortunately, we are in a three year referendum cycle,” Superintendent Kelli Jacobi told the group. “Because of the way the state funding formula is set up, the state is telling us this is how to run the district.”
The current three year $4 million referendum ends June 30. The school board is asking voters to approve keeping that $4 million and adding to it $1 million more to help fund basic school district operations. The cost is $43 on a $100,000 home, per year, for three years.
One of the first questions from the audience focused on teacher and administration salaries. Jacobi explained that since the passage of Act 10, teachers and staff have been contributing toward their retirement and insurance. The board is required by law to offer salary increases to teachers equal to at least the Consumer Price Index. Additionally, board member Judy Conlin said it’s not as easy as cutting salaries.
“We have to find that delicate balance of trying to be fiscally responsible and putting the best available teachers in front of our students,” Conlin said. “There is, today, a teacher shortage. If we’re the lowest paying district in the area, they will get their experience here and be recruited by other districts to work at higher salaries.”
Getting the state funding formula changed is a priority for Jacobi, who said, “It’s going to be a difficult problem to fix, but there are a lot of smart people in this state, so let’s put our brains together and come up with something that works for all the school districts.”
School board members, as well as the Superintendent said they have made many trips to Madison, knocking on lawmakers’ doors, and Jacobi testifying at hearings involving the Rural Schools Taskforce.
“We need taxpayers to contact Swearingen, reach out to Tiffany and contact the Governor to say we support our kids, we support our schools and you have to make it fiscally possible to use the tax dollars more equitably,” would be one step to take, according to Conlin. The fix, she said, should include either changing the revenue limit that was set, or factoring in poverty.
“Being on the school board,” taxpayer Ron Biegel said to Duane Frey. “Are you looking at the next three years after? Because you guys better start planning.”
“It scares me,” Frey said. “The big thing is we’ve got to get Swearingen, and Rob’s a friend of mine, pinned down and say ‘what are you doing for us up here to make it work because it’s not fair.’ You’re absolutely right – it scares me.”
“In your opinion, are our area representatives, currently in office, servicing the needs of the K-12 district so that there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” audience member Rod Terzinski asked. “Or are they just staying silent on the issue?”
Those in attendance chuckled, as Jacobi chose her words.
“We’ve worked very hard and I don’t believe we’ve gotten anywhere,” She began. “Rep. Swearingen met with us in a discussion about the referendum and we shared all of our information and wanted them to be on board.
They didn’t come out in support, but Rep. Swearingen did put a link to the referendum information in his weekly newsletter. I’m counting that as a win.”
Terzinski concluded his remarks by indicating he doesn’t think Madison will be interested in changing the school funding formula as long as voters keep passing referendums.
“Because it becomes unnecessary,” he said. “The people that will support the referendum agree that it’s okay to take money from the people who can’t afford it so our legislature won’t fix the problem. Because they don’t have to.”
Students will, Jacobi said, have to attend school somewhere. And transporting them elsewhere may end up costing even more than what voters are being asked to pay for the next three years.
“The school district of Florence wanted to close the doors and hand the state the keys,” Jacobi recalled. “But the state didn’t do anything, and when voters realized it would cost more to send their children to another district, they decided to keep the district open.”
Overall, Jacobi said it was a great meeting, with great questions.
“I hope we clarified some points,” she said. “We realize that not everyone will be a yes voter, but we worked, and will continue to work – to get the information out.”