On Tuesday, August 18, 2008 the voters of the Wausaukee school district will for the third time in six months vote on an operating referendum. The first two failed. This time a failed referendum will likely mean the end of the Wausaukee school district.
Advocates for school finance reform in Wisconsin often refer to the current system of funding education as a “going-out-of-business plan.” Opponents may deride this as hyperbole, but it is literally true. Wausaukee is in critical condition, many other districts are in intensive care. Even districts in no immediate danger of dissolution annually suffer through divisive program and service cuts or the pain and strain of referenda, sapping the health from the hearts of our communities.
The Peshitgo Times has again done a great job reporting on all the dissolution, referendum and budget news in Wausaukee. Most of what follows is from their most recent report.
On the dissolution front, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Elizabeth Burmaster has appointed the Boundary Appeal Board members who will decide the fate of the district. Starting in August and ending in November, the Board will hold four hearings and review information on transportation, facilities, finances and more.
If the Boundary Appeals Board decides the school should be closed, the ruling will become effective Sept. 1, 2009. Students, assets and debts of the district, along with the properties that support the school, will be allocated to neighboring school districts. Those assigned districts will be allowed, without referendum, to raise their tax levies enough to offset the costs created by the influx of new students.
The Board will continue their work regardless of the outcome of the referendum, but a successful referendum will make dissolution unlikely.
The district has a very good fact sheet posted. Here is how the Times explains the vote:
Tuesday’s referendum asks Wausaukee School District voters to allow the board to levy $675,000 over the state levy limits in school purpose property taxes each year for the next 10 years. If approved, the increase will cost the owner of a $100,000 property approximately $102 in additional taxes for each of the next three years. After three years the school building debt will be paid off, which will result in a savings of approximately $102 on a $100,000 property, bringing the levy back down to current levels. There appears to be no way to estimate tax increases that could be caused if the district is dissolved and reallocated.
Like many in the state, district officials and others in the community are also working to fix the state finance system so that others don’t have to go through this. District Administrator Jan Dooley, along with officials from neighboring districts recently met with representatives of Marinette County Association for Business and Industry to discuss school funding. On October 6 and 7, in conjunction with the Northwoods Summit Dooley will join other educators and business people to talk about the need for school finance reform. As Dooley noted, this is something that everyone needs to get involved in: “As the school goes, so goes the community.”
For those who think that the school funding has not hurt the quality of education in our state, some numbers in Wausaukee might serve as a reality check.
During the 2007-2008 school year the union support staff was reduced by 3.5 full time equivalent positions. Teaching staff for the 2008-2009 school year will be reduced from last year by 8.245 full time equivalent positions. The 38.875 FTE teaching positions is down from slightly over 56 positions in 2000-2001. In addition, teachers have accepted a two-year wage freeze and agreed to pay 10 percent of their health insurance costs. New hires will pay 20 percent of their insurance costs.
That’s a 17.5% reduction in teachers in one year and a 30% decrease since 2000-2001! Also note that even with pay freezes, health care cost reductions and other concessions that very few unions or individuals would agree to (and none are legally obligated to make) , the district still cannot balance their books without a referendum.
The cut that probably will resonate most with Madisonians is the elimination of the SAGE class size reductions. I’ve written before about SAGE as an underfunded program and the choices this forces districts — including Madison — to make. In Wausaukee they decided that they could not afford to keep their partially funded small classes for the early grades. DPI has extended the deadline in case they reconsider, but that does not appear likely.
The board decided to end the program because added cost exceeded the amount of added state aid, Dooley said, but that could change if there would be a large influx of students eligible for free and reduced lunches when school opens in fall. However, restoring the program even if that happened would mean they would either need to double up on some of their special classes or hire additional staff, and they could end up with three teachers to be laid off the following year. Despite the potential problems, she declared, “I want to walk with this.”
Research on the benefits of small classes for the early grades has met the test time and time again. If you want “research-based,” “data-driven” best practices, this is about as good as it gets. Unfortunately, the way the SAGE program and school finance in Wisconsin are set up this is increasingly becoming a practice that districts cannot afford to implement or keep. Sad. Shameful.
I hope that the referendum on Tuesday passes, that the district remains intact and that our elected officials are paying attention to what is happening with our schools in Wausaukee and around the state.
Thomas J. Mertz