I had hoped to do something more dramatic for my first post here, but with the primary on Tuesday 2/20, I’m too busy (VOTE, tell all your friends to vote!).
Instead I’m doing the first blog entry of something I’ve been doing via email for the last few months. It is a compilation of news reports on districts in Wisconsin that are considering referenda. I think that it is very important for everyone across the state to realize that their districts are not alone in being forced to consider choices on the budget that range from difficult to unthinkable. The state school finance system doesn’t work and this is some of the evidence.
The stuff on SAGE in the last hits close to home (scroll down).
Bangor School District residents have plenty of reason to go to the polls for the primary election next Tuesday. Two school referendum questions on the ballot seek additional financing for the school system and funding for major improvements to the elementary school.
The first referendum question, if approved, would authorize the school district to exceed state revenue limits by $690,000 over the next three years. School administrators say the funds are needed to maintain existing programs.
The second referendum seeks authorization to issue $5.5 million in general obligation bonds for an addition and remodeling project at the elementary school that will add 23,000 square feet of space.
Improvements include the elimination of “the Annex,” adding nine new classrooms and a new gymnasium and major repairs to the roof and infrastructure of the school.
Should the referendums both pass, the estimated tax rate would be $9.68 per $1,000 of equalized home value for 2008, $10.07 for 2009 and $10.03 for 2010.
The answer to both Bangor school questions: Yes
Residents of the Bangor School District will head to the polls Tuesday to decide on two referendum questions.
Voters will decide if they want to allow the district to exceed revenue limits by a total of $690,000 ($115,000 in 2007-08, $225,000 in 2008-09 and $350,000 in 2009-10) and also will decide on whether the district should borrow $5.5 million to construct additions, remodel and renovate the Bangor Elementary School.
We support a yes vote on both questions.
In an effort to control property taxes, the Wisconsin Legislature in 1993-94 started to implement revenue limits on school districts. Each district has a maximum amount of revenue it may raise through state aid and local property tax, which is based on a formula that takes into account enrollment, inflation and the prior year’s revenue.
The effect has been successful in holding down and reducing property tax rates. Bangor’s tax rate has dropped from $18.38 per $1,000 of property value in 1992 to $9.68 for this school year.
But the cost of revenue caps has been deep budget cuts in districts across the state. Bangor, for example, has cut $600,000 in the past three years, eliminating some teachers and staff. The cuts also have delayed building maintenance and technology upgrades.
The solution for Bangor and other districts facing tight budgets is to ask the voters for permission to spend more than the state-imposed caps. The $690,000 over three years represents status quo – it does not replace any programs already cut. If the revenue limit question is not approved, the district will need to cut $690,000 from its budget over the next three years.
Bangor is not alone. In the past five years, according to the Department of Public Instruction, 174 school districts in Wisconsin have attempted to pass non-recurring revenue limit referendums. Eighty-three of those passed, including the area districts of Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau, Holmen, Onalaska and La Crosse. In addition, 129 recurring (additional monies that would be raised every year without an end) referendums have been attempted. Of those, 37 have passed, including one in Tomah last fall.
There are 28 revenue limit referendums before Wisconsin voters this February and April, including a $1.52 million question in nearby Alma Center Lincoln and $3.75 million in Sparta.
Clearly voters favor limits, which is why Bangor has the right idea to limit its revenue-limit override to three years. It’s hard to support a perpetual tax. After three years if Bangor needs more money, it has to go back to the voters.
The revenue limit question is reasonable and will take steps to assure that the quality of Bangor’s education is not diminished through further staff and program cuts. That’s also important as the district faces an out-flight of students due to open enrollment, having a net loss of 34 students in nine years due to open enrollment, including a net loss of 12 last year, which cost the district $70,608 in state funding.
That choice is also why the district is right to address its facilities needs. Since 1989, the district has housed students in what’s called the Annex. These are basically double-wide trailers that were already used when the district bought them. Putting children into trailers makes the choice a lot easier for parents shopping at other schools.
The elementary school’s other needs are typical of a building that is 40 years old. The roof needs replacing and there are plumbing, heating, electrical and other facility needs. The $5.5 million referendum would accomplish all of this, plus add 23,000 square feet of additional classroom, gymnasium and office space, along with improving traffic flow. The new nine classrooms would replace the Annex and leave some room for future growth.
The result would be a modern, up-to-date structure that would last another 50 to 60 years. It would also give the district the option of shuttering the gymnasium at the old high school, which has its own age and liability issues.
The final reason these two referendum questions deserve support is because the district is in a unique position to pay for them without breaking the bank. The district predicts that if both questions were approved, the tax rate would climb to $10.07 in 2009 and fall slightly to $10.03 in 2010 – the same level the district had in 2003 and 2004. The state will pick up about 40 percent of the new cost.
A no vote on the revenue limits question means more cuts in programs and staffs, which would be even deeper if the second question on facilities is rejected, because the money to fix the roof and the furnace would have to come from the existing budget.
Schools account for the greatest percent of our tax dollar, but they also represent an investment. Bangor residents have a long history of support and pride in their school system and their students. Two yes votes Tuesday will reaffirm that support.
No teacher layoffs ahead for Onalaska schools
By BOB SEAQUIST | Special correspondent
All Onalaska’s public school teachers will be given contracts for the next school year. Monday night, members of the Onalaska Board of Education agreed that its teachers are, in the words of Superintendent John Burnett, “impressive” and should all keep their jobs.
Almost two-thirds of Onalaska’s teachers hold master’s degrees, which Burnett said is impressive. He noted that the district has been able to be picky in its hiring and often selects more experienced persons to work in its schools. Of the district’s 219 teachers, 144 hold advanced degrees.
By law, school districts must issue contracts to teachers by March 15 and teachers have until April 16 to sign them. The district has up to May 15 to declare layoffs, but Burnett said he does not anticipate doing that.
A referendum approved by voters last April that lets Onalaska exceed its state levy cap by $500,000 per year for five years is responsible for keeping staff on the job without layoffs. Administrators noted there is no room in the budget, though, for expanding staff or programs.
School Board has $3.88 million question
The Board of Education of the Rice Lake School District approved motions to have a referendum question on the April ballot and the verbage that will appear on the ballot at its regular meeting Monday, Feb. 19.
The question asks district voters for authorization to obtain general obligation bonds not to exceed $3,880,000 for heating system improvements.
The board also approved A & E Services, an engineering firm affiliated with the DLR Group, to begin drawing up plans and ordering equipment so that if the referendum passes, the project can be put on the fast track.
Also approved was a resolution allowing the district to use fund balance to pay the school district’s unfunded pension liability directly to the Wisconsin Retirement System or to pay debt service for debt issued to refinance the balance.
Residents air concerns about cuts
Anna Krejci/Events (This one was very long and I cut much of interest — click the link above, TJ)
Town of Newport clerk Hiroshi Kanno speaks in favor of a proposed referendum allowing the Wisconsin Dells School District to exceed the state-imposed revenue limit. The referendum question could appear on the ballot as early as April.
By Anna Krejci
At an informational meeting and listening session on a possible referendum to exceed the revenue limit held by the Wisconsin Dells School District Board of Education on Monday, the public aired concerns about budget cuts.
Several of the about 100 people in attendance spoke in favor of a proposed referendum, with one person speaking against it, saying that he represented a “silent majority” that was opposed.
In the last four years, the district reports having made cuts of $1.1 million. Over the course of the next four years, the district predicted a deficit of $1.9 million if it wanted to continue the same level of services for its students. The week preceding the meeting, Wisconsin Dells School District Administrator Chuck Whitsell released a list of possible cuts that could be made to the school district’s budget. Included on the list was closing Neenah Creek School….
“Will we become a school in need of improvement if we lose the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education program (SAGE) and we turn to larger class sizes? What will happen to the quality of education that our children receive right now?” she said.
SAGE limits the size of kindergarten through third-grade classes to 15. The program is funded with money from the state. For every child that qualifies for a free or reduced price lunch, districts receive $2,000. The figure is expected to increase next year.
Whether Neenah Creek School remains open depends in part on whether the district continues to participate in SAGE.
“There’s only one way that Neenah Creek would be closed, and that would be that the district would have to end it’s participation in SAGE at both Neenah Creek and Spring Hill. I want you to know that not one of them (the board members), nor I, want it,” Whitsell said.
Whitsell had estimated that closing the school could save the district $205,000 in operational costs, but acknowledged that closing the school would hurt education.
Statewide, schools are making bad decisions, he said.
“They aren’t about what’s good for kids, or right for kids or necessary for kids. They’re making decisions on the basis of the dollars they have available. I hope that we don’t reach that situation here in Wisconsin Dells,” he said.
School board member Gisela Hamm said she is opposed to ending SAGE.
“It’s very important for us to continue with SAGE because we know it’s working. It’s helping our kids. It would be one of the last things that I would want to see go,” she said….