We Are Not Alone #21

As Madison prepares to discuss a school operating referendum, it is important to remember that we are not alone.

In the past two years districts in Wisconsin have held over 150 operating and maintenance referenda simply to continue the quality and diversity of educational programming that they have had in the past. This isn’t because of local mismanagement; these referenda are a product of a school finance system designed to fail. The referenda aren’t about adding back things have been cut or expanding the good schools do by adding things like 4-year-old kindergarten, elementary foreign languages, more teacher training in things like differentiation or classroom management, support for college prep work for students not yet on the college track…(I could go on and on). These referenda are about not losing ground, about stopping the cuts and staunching the bleeding.

Many districts, like Madison, are simultaneously struggling with the annual cuts dictated by the state finance system and needs or desires for new schools (based on either inadequate facilities or population growth in areas without sufficient capacity). In La Crosse, this combination is reaching critical point.

In April the voters of La Crosse passed a five-year nonrecurring $4,175,000 a year operating referendum (5,701-4,993), but defeated a $35 million renovating and building referendum (5,144-5,417). The $35 million would have paid for a new school, allowed the district to close two schools and upgrade the “HVAC, safety, and security systems” in others (including new energy efficient equipment to create long term savings). Some of these upgrades were termed “urgent.”

“Urgent” needs don’t go away. Now the La Crosse district is contemplating what to do next.

On Monday July 8, 2008 the Board of Education voted 6-3 to take the “no referendum” option off the table.

President Christine Clair said the vote will keep board conversations centered on the administration’s other options, which include asking for the capital improvements sought in the April referendum, only separated into two questions, and addressing only the facility needs.

Board member Neil Drusky voted against eliminating the “no referendum” option:

He suggested closing two schools, which would take two to three boilers off line and buy the school district more time while the community gets involved. He also said he didn’t recall knowing about the boilers until the referendum process. [Ed Note: Those energy efficiency issues again.]

The administration will report back to the Board on July 21, 2008. Eight options (or combinations of options) are being analyzed:

  • Eliminate SAGE
  • Close a school
    • Most agree a school has to be closed, but there is disagreement about which one. It is estimated that closing a school would save about $410,000.
  • Close two schools
    • This would “eliminate the cost of replacing two to three boilers and other building repairs” but require “massive redrawing of elementary boundaries.”
  • Build a new North Side elementary school
    • “Consolidating Franklin Elementary School and Roosevelt Elementary/Coulee Montessori in a new building at the Franklin site would provide an improved learning environment and bring together the North Side community.” Maintenance issues at two of the district’s oldest — and neediest — buildings would go away, and staffing costs would be reduced by $410,000 or more.

  • April referendum — lite
    • “This referendum proposal for $21.5 million in capital improvements would address the same facility needs the board put forth in its April package, but without a new school. Safety and security equipment would be installed in schools, as would new heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Facility needs such as bathroom and locker remodeling, window replacement, kitchen expansion, and classroom, elevator and stair tower additions also would be addressed.”

  • A scaled-back referendum
    • “Some board members have deemed a few items on the facility needs list to be not as urgent as others. A $15 million facility needs referendum would address three-fourths of the total package with a reduced effect on annual property taxes”
  • Dip into fund balance
    • “Some board members have suggested the district dip into its $33 million fund balance to fix a few of the more “urgent” needs. They asked administration Monday to report back July 21 on the feasibility of using from $5 million to $10 million for repairs to reduce the amount potentially sought by referendum.” [director of business services Janet] Rosseter said in May that the money only should be used for unforeseen expenditures or revenue shortfalls, and the district’s needs — although deemed “urgent” and “necessary” — don’t rise to that level. She stood by that statement Thursday. [Ed Note: This is Ms Rosseter’s opinion and it is her job to share that opinion with the Board, but it is the elected Board’s job to make these kind of judgments. The DPI page of guidance on Fund Balances does not oppose or support districts employing Fund Balances in the manner being contemplated.]
  • Use instructional dollars
    • “School board members have said that without passing a capital referendum, instructional dollars are at stake because the budget is too tight.Without a passed building referendum, board member Connie Troyanek said, the board will be forced to close at least one school and raise class sizes because “we don’t have any money” to make the necessary repairs.”

Much to contemplate. Hard decisions, no real good options.  Without a successful referendum, Madison will face similar choices…larger classes, closed schools, programs eliminated…

A few final words from La Crosse to add to the mix:

From Board Clerk Mary Larson:

“There is so much going for this district. If we could just get our basic systems in order,” the district would be more appealing to outside families who want to take advantage of open enrollment.

I think that should be “if the state would allow us to get our basic systems in order.

From Board Member Deb Suchla who spoke of a:

“bidding war” between the school board and the community. Each time, the board comes back to voters asking for a little less money,…“That’s not … public policy, and that’s not how you do good work,” Suchla said.

Suchla is right, it isn’t how you do good work, it isn’t [good] public policy, but it is how we fund education in Wisconsin.

Governor Doyle? State Legislators? Are you paying attention?

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", AMPS, Best Practices, Budget, education, finance, Local News, Referenda, referendum, School Finance, Take Action, Uncategorized, We Are Not Alone

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