I have had the privilege of working for the School District of Rhinelander since February 2011. Since I began my position, I have greatly enjoyed being around the children, and I have learned much about the terrific work our teachers and staff do every day. Coming from the business world, I knew very little about what really goes into teaching. I knew even less about how our schools are funded.
I, like many of you, would open my annual property tax bill and groan. It usually comes in December, and it’s not a welcome sight. I’m a last-minute shopper, so I’m juggling the monthly bills while trying to make sure I select the perfect gift for family members. An additional bill, and a big one at that, isn’t what I really want to see.
I never really understood what the property tax bill meant other than these taxes fund our schools and municipalities. As I now sit in meetings where discussions are held about cutting programs, services and jobs, I realize that it’s about much more than that.
I would like to share a few things with you that I have learned about school funding. Back in the 1992-1993 school year, the budgets were lean as we had a fiscally responsible school board that worked hard to keep property taxes down. Unbeknownst to them, the State of Wisconsin was considering a revenue cap (otherwise known as a revenue limit). The revenue cap was eventually passed, and our District’s revenue limit base number was set and determined future state aid.
In addition to property values, school funding and state aid are based on student enrollment. Since the 1979-1980 school year, the school district has seen a decrease in student numbers. Since the 1998-1999 school year, our enrollment has decreased 28 percent.
As enrollment declined, and property values increased, our state aid declined. In the 2000-2001 school year, 52 percent of our budget was funded with state aid. Last school year, only 19 percent of our funding came from state aid.
As the state continues to shift the school funding to property taxpayers, the school board has remained focused on being fiscally responsible.
With the reduction of state aid came budget cuts. In nine years, the school board was able to reduce $11,286,165 from the budgets. This was done through tough decisions-closing and selling buildings including the maintenance shop at the old Pelican School, the administration center at the old Curran School, the West School, the Newbold School and the Pine Lake School. Most recently, the school board voted to close and sell the old South Park School.
Reductions in operations, programs and staff also resulted from these budget reductions.
Since the 2002-2003 school year, administration has been reduced by 45 percent.
Since the 2007-2008 school year, the district has reduced support staff 23 percent, and the teaching staff was reduced by 13.3 percent.
However, the cost of educating a student has steadily increased. In the 2003-2004 school year, the district spent $9,209 per student. In 2011-2012, the District spent $11,762 per student. The revenue limit is $9,202 per student. This $2,560 shortfall creates challenges and district staff has remained committed to meeting students’ needs. To date, the shortfall has been met by applying for grants and continuing to reduce expenses.
Throughout all of the budget reductions, the district has maintained high standards. Our average ACT scores place us in the top two in the state, second to Medford. Of district students taking college admissions and placement tests (AP Exams), 80.3 percent scored 3 or above, far surpassing area school districts. Our graduate rates continue to rise-89.6 percent in 2010-2011, increasing from 87.2 percent in 2009-2010.
We continue to implement Response to Intervention in all of our schools. This systematic approach will ensure that all students have equal access to supports that will ensure their long-term success.
As the district works to meet the educational goals needed to ensure our children are ready for a college education and for the workforce, the challenges continue. Rising costs in utilities, fuel, salaries and insurance pose future challenges. In order to attract motivated and talented teachers, the district must be competitive in wages and benefits. As a service industry, our major expense will always be our staff. We must be focused on ensuring we have the best teachers and support personnel providing the best services to our children.
As the school board continues to work to reduce expenses and maintain a balanced budget, I hope this information helps you to better understand the annual bill that we will receive in December. Our investment in our school district is an investment in our community. Quality schools will produce educated students. These students will go on to provide our future medical services, keep our community safe with law enforcement services, and provide vital business services that continue to keep Rhinelander a thriving community.
Kim Swisher is available by calling (715) 365-9700, ext. 5701, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.