We are not alone #18

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Today’s entry in this series is about the Weston School District. Many of you may recall the tragic school shooting there in 2006. What I remember most from the news reports and conversations with people who knew the district, was how the community came together and found strength. They need that strength now.

Like Florence a couple of years ago and maybe Park Falls in the near future the insanity of our state finance system has the Weston district considering dissolution.

It looks like the future existence of the district hinges on an April 1 operating referendum vote. Some excerpts from three Reedsburg Times-Press articles tell the story (here and here and here).

Weston budget critically low

CAZENOVIA-The Weston school district faces another great challenge. If the school cannot solve its financial crisis, the district could be forced to disband, sending Weston’s students to one of its neighboring school districts, which include Reedsburg, River Valley, Ithaca, Wonewoc-Union Center, Hillsboro and Richland. This has happened to other districts in the state that were unable to overcome deficits.

Weston District Administrator Tom Andres and former district administrator Terry Milfred gave a presentation on this crisis to about 70 residents in the school library on an extremely foggy Monday evening. The presentation showcased the district’s current deficit and the larger ones projected each following year in the future that could bankrupt the school by the 2009-10. Without serious cuts or a cash influx, Weston’s administration projects the district’s fund balance to be more than $1.5 million in the red by the 2011-12 school year….

Both Andres and Milfred blame the state’s funding formula and revenue limits, established in 1993, for forcing the district to consider an operational tax funding referendum.

“The general fund goes up and down but typically costs go up,” Milfred said, noting that the cost of utilities has skyrocketed recently. “The legislature anticipated that we might have these kind of problems so they set up the option of having a local referendum. The problem with that is people are used to a referendum for a building or a roof. If people see a referendum for operation, they wonder what’s going on.”

Andres said the predicament has left the school few options.

“If you look at the numbers, you see what happens if we don’t,” he told the audience. “But before we make that step, what does this district want to do?”

Andres has put forward eliminating his own position as another option to cut costs. Andres, a former superintendent and guidance counselor, came out of retirement to help Weston after the 2006 school shooting and was eventually hired as district administrator…

“What we’re going to do is have one administrator for the entire district. That would cut back on some of the expenses going toward administration,” he said before encouraging audience members to air their views…

Support for a referendum

Several audience members spoke out in favor stopping cuts and passing a referendum.

“You are the custodian of the future generation. You shouldn’t be cutting anything,” Roderick Baker, a Cazenovia resident, said. “Somehow we’re going to have to bite the bullet to pay for their education. You know what’s going to hit the fan, and we’re going to have the ante up and pay the bill.”

Bob Smith agreed, saying that the inequality of the school funding system was the culprit.

“The rich schools get the money, the poor school districts don’t. This school district is dying a death of 1,000 cuts,” Smith said. “I have a firm opinion that the future of our country is in our children. There’s no reason why this district or any other district in Wisconsin can’t afford a good system. You need to go to referendum obviously to make up for the lost funds.”

Mitzi Hizel, who lives in the Weston district but works for the Reedsburg School District, said the money not invested in education might be lost on other expense.

“You can invest in kids now or we can pay for it in another way” she said. “It could be public defenders, the prison system and welfare.”

Weston voting on referendum Monday

Three options

The committee looked over three referendum options, but will recommend only one to the board. The district administration projects that the first two, one with allowing $390,000 additional property tax revenue each year and the second starting at $225,000 and rising to $400,000 over four years, will only sustain the district until the 2011-12 school year.

“Real bare minimum, doesn’t get us out of trouble for very long,” Andres characterized them. “Can we break out even so that at the end we don’t ask for more?”

So the committee is recommending a third option, which will raise the mill rate to 12.25 per $1,000 for the next two school years and then keep the mill rate pegged at 12 for the future.

“I don’t think we’re going to satisfy everyone, but I think that’s the best middle ground,” Tim Fichtel, a school board member, said.

Administration projects this will keep the school’s budget in the black at least five years, so the district will not have to return to voters for another operational referendum soon.

“That does keep the books and equipment in the budget year after year,” Kathy Stoltz, Weston’s business manager, said.

After having enough to get by the first two years, eventually this option will give the district some breathing room…

Unless a referendum passes, the district makes severe cuts or the state reforms its school funding formula, Weston will be bankrupt by the 2009-10 school year. The Department of Instruction would likely partition Weston among its neighbors, a fate met by other Wisconsin school districts unable to overcome their deficits.

Weston voters face referendum

CAZENOVIA-Voters in the Weston School District will have a tax limit referendum to vote on this spring. The School Board decided unanimously Monday to ask voters to OK an increased mill rate to keep the district’s finances solvent….

Although it was presented with four options, the board approved the committee’s recommended version of the referendum, in which the mill rate rises from 9.1 per $1,000 of assessed value to 12.25 for the next two years and then levels off at 12. According to the district administration’s forecast, this fourth option will stave off deficits despite continuing enrollment decline.

The first two options would result in a negative fund balance by the 2011-12 school year and the third option would leave only $711 in the district’s fund balance by that year.

“I think on this scenario four, we’ve got our tails covered. We can’t go over that, but we can go less,” Norman Klingaman, a board member, said. “Scenario four gets us what we need but is fiscally responsible.”

If approved the referendum would raise $1.88 million over four years. In the first two years, an owner of a $125,000 home would pay an extra $393.75 per year. In the third and fourth year, that total would dip to $362.50.

Board members especially liked the predictability of the mill rate, including Tim Fichtel and Stan Dugenske.

“Farmers can then budget in a long range,” Dugenske said. “Security is a good draw.”

A lot at stake

Assuming no change is made to the state’s school funding formula and the board does not begin making significant cuts again over the next few years, the administration predicts the district will have both a deficit and a negative fund balance by the 2009-10 school year. This pattern would continue until the district’s fund balance goes into the red by more than $1.5 million in 2011-12.

Meanwhile, our distinguished Governor Jim Doyle continues to all but ignore the obvious failings of school finance in the Wisconsin, instead using his State of the State speech to promote unfunded mandates for third year high school math and science and an undefined merit pay plan for teachers. I am sure the people of the Weston District will welcome his bold action.

Thomas J. Mertz

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

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