We Are Not Alone #23 – Wisconsin Referenda Roundup, Tuesday, September 9, 2008 votes.

[Updated with more video on Montello, Sptember 7, 2008, 11:45AM]

The number of school districts seeking sufficient funding via referenda this Fall (September and November) keeps growing. My count is 20 districts committed to 23 referenda questions (12 questions in September), and this does not inlcude the Madison referendum, which will become official on Monday, September 8.

Do we really need any more evidence that the way Wisconsin funds schools doesn’t work?  As Beth Sweeden exemplified so well in  “I Just Want to Be A School Volunteer Again,” (her open letter to the Joint Finance Committee a year and a half ago), too many good people  —  educators, parents and others — are putting too much energy into trying to address the structural budget gaps the system creates, energy that could and should be spent working to help educate and improve our schools.

Today I am mostly going to write about the operating referenda not related to new capital projects to be held next Tuesday, September 9.  I’ll get to the November 4 measures eventually.

The debt/building votes include two from Colby (see here and here for more); Poynette seeking $13.4 million to build and equip a new K-3 school; Rhinelander is asking for $23.575 Million for a variety of building and upgrade projects and related operational costs (in a second question); and Shawano is requesting $24.9 million to build “a new energy efficient Early Childhood through grade 2 school; [make] improvements [to] and [build] an addition to the Olga Brener elementary school to convert it to a grade 3 through 5 facility; and equipment acquisition related to said projects.” The Shawano Leader has some good stories (including “New school could be boon to economic development“).

That leaves seven operating referenda being voted on Tuesday.

Deerfield, after extensive community input and involvement, is asking for five year non-recurring authority to address structural operating revenue gaps in amounts ranging from $275,000 to $475,000 per year.  I liked this from the Community Advisory Committee’s Final Report:

Ideally, some time in the next 5 years the Wisconsin State Legislature will come up with a more sane way of funding K-12 education than pitting schools against homeowners. (We can always hope…).

I was also impressed with the district referendum web page.

Another Madison neighbor, Mineral Point, has a five-year nonrecurring referendum on the ballot.  The annual amounts escalate from $590,000 to $1 million.  The district’s referendum documents are here.  This is from the “Why a Referendum” document:

The Referendum Remedy

The revenue gap and the declining enrollment penalty are built into Wisconsin’s school funding formula. Together they ensure under funded schools.  State law allows school districts to exceed the revenue limit, but only by conducting a referendum vote.

Preserving Quality Education

School quality means many things to many people and Mineral Point has high expectations for its schools.

  • Quality means good instruction in core academic classes and Mineral Point students out perform students statewide on nearly all measures.
  • Quality means providing opportunities in the fine arts, world languages, career and technical courses, health, PE, and extra and co-curricular activities.
  • Quality also means providing program variety so that students of varying interests and abilities can pursue a meaningful educational path.
  • Quality means being able to attract and retain quality staff members who are highly skilled, motivated and hard working. And that means competitive wages and benefits, ongoing training, the tools to work with and reasonable workloads.

The only path to maintaining quality education is via referenda.  This has to change.

Montello will also vote on a nonrecurring operating referendum on September 9.  After three failed referendums in the last year or so, they are only asking for two years at $950,000.  Consolidation talks with Westfield continue and dissolution is very much on people’s minds.  Administrator Jeff Holmes broached the topic back in July, now Board Member John Sheller is “scared to death” about the possibility.  Here is a video report from WKOW-TV:

And another from WISC-TV.

If the referendum fails, we may have another Florence or Wausaukee to deal with.

It is nice to see the Madison media cover this story.  It would be better yet if they did more with the big story of how the way all districts are funded makes it extremely difficult to maintain quality education and they should place the pending Madison referendum in this larger context.

Neillsville had a failed referendum in 2006, now they are asking for a five-year non recurring authority in the amount of $300,000 a year.  According to the district fact sheet, because of declining enrollments and rising property values passing the referendum will still result in property tax mill rates going down in the district.  Video from WEAU on this one:

Neillsville, like all districts, is facing rising energy costs and would like to invest in greater efficiencies for long-term savings, but are unable to under the revenue caps. The referendum would not only preserve educational quality, it would allow them to take this important step.

The small Rubicon Joint 6 district is trying for a three-year nonrecurring at $150,000 a year.  In the recent past, they have eliminated World Languages and instructional aids, reduced Physical Education, Art, Music, Reading Specialists, Guidance, and Library services.  They have prepared the following cut list for consideration in the event of a failed referendum:

Eliminate Cleaning (currently 50%)
Eliminate Guidance (currently 40%)
Eliminate Secretarial/Tech support (currently 80%)
Eliminate Writing tech (currently 20%)
Eliminate PE (currently 60%)
Eliminate Art (currently 25%)
Eliminate General Music (currently 25%)
Eliminate Instrumental Music (currently 25%)
Eliminate Instructional Aide (currently 50%)
Eliminate Forensics
Eliminate Student Council
Eliminate School Nurse
Eliminate Athletics
Eliminate Librarian (currently 20%)
Eliminate Library Aide (currently 80%)
Reduce Administrator 40%
No new text books
Minimal Support Staff Salary Increase
Increase student fees $20/child
Increase Athletic fee to $40 per child
Reduce tech upgrades to $1,000 per year
No additional middle school lockers (currently more students than lockers)
No new English text books
Reduce classroom supplies

Is there any doubt that these cuts would harm the education of the students?

The Salem School District voters will decide on a $1.16 million recurring referendum on Tuesday.  In June a smaller four-year nonrecurring referendum failed by 34 votes out of 504 cast.  Major cuts loom there too.  Technical Education and Gifted and Talented may be eliminated, class sizes will increase up to 29 or 30, Chior and languages would be reduced, a total of 13 staff postions would likely be cut (see here, here and here for more details).  Insanity.

Last, but not least is Weston.  An April vote on a recurring referendum failed 395-364 (much more here).  The new proposal is nonrecurring at $210,000 the first two years and $575,000 the last year.  Like elswhere, the cuts have been going on for a long time and getting deeper each year.  Republican State Senator Dale Schultz (a favorite on AMPS) was quoted on the referendum in Weston and a possible future referendum in Reedsburg:

“It’s just a dirty shame people have to put so much time and effort into another referendum,” Schultz said…

Schultz praised Weston administration and school board for doing all they could under the existing system.

“They have done an excellent job being fiscally responsible,” Schultz said. “I don’t know what more people could expect from a school district.”

Maybe he read Beth Swedeen’s letter.  It sure sounds like it.

I wish all the districts well and hope they all pass.  Check back after Tuesday for the results and updates on the November referenda in the weeks ahead.

Thomas J. Mertz

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

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