Wausaukee School District Votes to Dissolve

19 votes.

That was the margin by which the June 24, 2008 non-recurring, one year $575,000 school operating referendum lost in Wausaukee. 19 votes out of 1107 cast (number from the DPI site, the linked Peshtigo Times story appears to be wrong). Now according to the Eagle-Herald, the Wausaukee Board of Education feels that the best thing to do is to dissolve the district.

[In a story from WBAY (Green Bay)] School Board President Dennis Taylor says, “the choice is not ours. The choice is the taxpayers of this community. The community has to decide if they’re willing to spend an extra $180, in some cases $150 a year to keep a school open in this community.”

Blaming those who voted against a referendum, although accurate because they are the proximate cause, misses the bigger picture, the role of the state school finance system.

District Administrator Jan Dooley provided some of this:

She feels hopes for a state “bail out” are in vain. She said there are many districts in almost the same financial position as Wausaukee, and if the state lets one it will have to help them all. “I don’t see the state intervening by offering assistance to Wausaukee over and above what is offered ot all districts in the state, because then the floodgates would open. The only chance would be a change in the state aid formula.”

“We have cut, and we have cut to a level that we feel we cannot risk cutting more staffing without losing kids,” Dooley declared. “I think everyone in the district should be asking, ‘What do we want for the children of our district, and what do we need to do to bring that about?’ Our children don’t deserve to have more programs cut on them,” she declared. “This is about children and their futures! I am an educator at the core of my being and this resonates deep within me. Right now it’s the children that are at the forefront in my mind.”

She said Wausaukee is at a point where “We’re caught in what I call the death spiral. We have established what we believe is a sound education for our children. If we cut more, parents will say I want more, so they will take their children and put them into another district. If we cut more, we risk losing more students, which means we lose more aids, and have to cut still more programs. it’s a downward spiral that won’t end.”

“The children in the School District of Wausaukee deserve an education that is no less than any other children in the state,” she declared.

The failure of a referendum in February inspired a thorough discussion of the roll of state finance system in this sad turn of events. After that vote, people on both sides of the issue looked to our elected state officials for change.

[Gerry] Gerbers described the proposed referendum as, “Ill designed and ill conceived,” in that it offered no long-term solutions…

Gerbers cited figures showing that the district is property rich and income poor. Wausaukee School District residents have family and individual incomes below the state average. More than 10 percent of the population is at or below the poverty level. He and Kipp said residents cannot afford more tax increases.

Village President Clark Caine argued that the state kicks in and pays property taxes for poor households under the Homestead property Tax Relief law, “so that is really not an issue.” [Editor’s Note: In theory this is correct, but the Homestead Credit formula has not been adjusted for inflation, so many people who should qualify, don’t. — TJM}

Gerbers reviewed a bit of the state aid formula. Wausaukee, because of huge amounts of recreational properties which are rapidly rising in value, gets only 14.93 percent of its expenses reimbursed by the state. Peshtigo gets five times more aid per student than Wausaukee.

Gerbers is calling attention to the problems of the many high property value, high cost, low income districts in the state. These are described further in the Atlas of School Finance from the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future. Some believe that the current “Sparsity Aid” — ironically featured on the front page of the DPI website today (snap shot, here) — sufficiently addresses the needs of the districts. It doesn’t. Gerbers is right about this, but he was wrong to oppose the referendum because it isn’t a long term solution. referendum supporters had the right idea:

Ann Hartnell asked why not call for approval of this referendum, and use that approval anyway to buy time for the changes they plan to propose. She said the school board would not be obligated to levy the full amount authorized by the referendum.

Caine also urged approving the referendum, then pushing for change….

Trustee Hilbert Radtke said people in Madison and Milwaukee do not realize the difficulties faced by rural districts under existing funding formulas, and we don’t have enough votes here to change it.

A suggestion from the floor was to enlist the help of non-resident property owners, since they also pay taxes in the district. Get them to contact their legislators from parts of the state where there are enough votes.

Hartnell agreed, but said even a concerted campaign from all of Marinette County might make a huge difference.

I hope that despite the disappointment these plans go forward and that this situation catches the attention of the Governor and the Legislature.

What next for Wausaukee? Some people are already working for yet another referendum.

Resident Gerald Schimidt says, “the community has the potential to basically shrivel up, die, go away. We don’t want to see that.”

John May says, “it will be a shame for a small community like this to lose a big school like that.” His son Cody goes to school here, but the way things are going he may not be for much longer.

The school is now considering shutting down. It’s nearly $200,000 in debt and the board says it can’t cut costs anymore.

School board member Dave Kipp says, “the level of frustration is very high. We have done everything we can to cut costs to the bone without sacrificing a quality education for our kids. That’s the key point.”

The only way to potentially save the school is for taxpayers to step up. Which is exactly what John Guarisco is doing at this barbeque, collecting signatures to ask the school board for yet another referendum and another chance for taxpayers to save their school district.

Meanwhile the planning for a July 2009 closure has begun. If this happens, the students will be disbursed to five neighboring school districts — Crivitz, Pembine, Marinette, Wabeno, or Goodman-Armstrong Creek — all of which face similar difficulties under our state school finance system, a system designed not to educate, but to keep property taxes low and politics safe.

Please join the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools and others in working to enact a way of funding schools that puts education first. Please contact your Legislators and Governor Doyle and tell them this has gone on too long.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", AMPS, Budget, education, Elections, finance, Referenda, referendum, School Finance, Take Action, Uncategorized, We Are Not Alone

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