We Are Not Alone #5

Part of a series of posts on school finance and referendums around the state.

Too many referendums and too much news to cover it all. Just a once over this time.

Shell Lake and Spooner have referenda questions on the ballot. The Shell Lake superintendent described the familiar situation:

Superintendent Jerry Gauderman said Shell Lake’s school expenses, as in other school districts, are rising at 4 percent a year while revenue is increasing at only 2 percent. And like many districts in Northern Wisconsin, Shell Lake has experienced a declining enrollment which affects the revenue limit based on student enrollment.

The Spooner business manager explained their situation

The money will be used, primarily, to keep existing programs in place, said school officials. They noted earlier this year that a casulty of a failed referendum may be the elimination of 20 positions, at least three-quarters of them teaching jobs.

Andrew Sarnow, district business manager, projects that without additional funding the district will experience deficits of $1.01 million in the 2007-08 school year; $1.62 million in 2008-09; $2.273 million in 2009-10; and $2.996 million, 2010-11.

The district plans to cut roughly $200,000 in both 2007-08 and 2008-09.
Along with the cuts, if the program maintenance referendum passes, the district will accrue a surplus in the first two years that will cover the larger deficits expected in 2009-10 and 2010-11.

Oconomowoc has a different problem. They are growing, but the rolling average employed to calculate the revenue caps hurts growing districts.

Barry said most of the districts that are struggling are districts with declining enrollment and therefore declining revenue, although their costs are somewhat fixed. In districts where enrollment is flat, so is the revenue.

“Yet their costs are going up; health insurance for example. That scenario should not be unfamiliar to anybody in Oconomowoc. This district struggled with flat and declining enrollment for 10 years, and it obviously weakened the district’s balance sheet substantially over that period,” Barry pointed out.

“As we look forward to next year, we have a different scenario. Unlike many of our neighboring districts, and unlike almost 70 percent of the districts in our state, Oconomowoc has increasing enrollment, and in our case we have rapidly increasing enrollment,” the assistant superintendent said.

Despite, or because of that advantage, a new circumstance arises that requires prudent planning.

“Our challenge is that the revenue formula, the three-year rolling average, by definition, lags behind your actual enrollment year to year.
“Therein lies the difficulty for us. Our revenue has not caught up to the size of the district and the size of the staff to support the district,” Barry said.

“The problem this year is can we, in the budget, earmark enough revenue for the additional staffing that we need? It’s a growth problem, not a cutting problem,” Barry said.

In Baraboo, school board candidates are talking referenda (and private financing)

The “R word” made an appearance in a question over whether the candidates would support a go at another referendum. All said they would. It’s perhaps surprising that an anti-referendum candidate didn’t surface when about half of the district’s voters opposed both attempts last year to increase its levy and there was organized opposition to the measure.

Maxwell, who ran on an anti-referendum platform three years ago, said his experience in the trenches of the district’s operations and finances have changed his perspective.
“I sat on this stage before and fought my personal demons on the word ‘referendum,'” he said. They’ve made the cuts the “no” votes forced upon them and became more efficient, Maxwell said.

“I see no options for this district based on the cuts we made in the past, the priorities we’ve set and the goals we want to achieve,” Vodak said. “I wish it didn’t have to come to that.”

Anderson said if the state’s school funding formula doesn’t change a referendum will be inevitable.

“We need to stop voting for state representatives that don’t listen to us and say take care of it at the community level,” Hovde said.

All candidates also agreed that cuts to the music program last year should be reinstated and that such a vital piece of the district’s educational offerings shouldn’t be left to private fund-raising.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under AMPS, Budget, Elections, Referenda, School Finance, We Are Not Alone

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