Taxpayers in the Rhinelander School District will once again be faced with a referendum, not only to close a $3 million gap in this year’s budget, but for years to come.
At a special school board meeting held last Tuesday evening that drew more than 200 students, teachers, parents and citizens, the school board voted to have their lawyers draw up the language for a referendum question that will ask taxpayers to approve $4 million “in perpetuity” or until the state’s school funding formula is fixed.
The language for the referendum question will be looked at and probably approved at their next meeting Dec. 4. Then a special referendum election can be held by Feb. 19. When a school board requests a referendum be held, by law, 73 days have to pass before it can be presented to voters.
At the special meeting, the board presented what is slated to be cut if the referendum fails. Included in those cuts are: eliminating the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program at a cost of $778,835; $181,930 worth of electives at James Williams Middle school; $335,810 worth of electives at Rhinelander High School; $122,211 in electives at the elementary schools; closing both charter schools, saving the district $1,115,692; cut $235,050 on activities and athletics; and cut full-time staff at the high school and middle school to save $240,690. That totals $3,010,218 in spending just for this year.
Marta Kwiatkowski, the district’s business director, gave a presentation explaining why the district is in such financial straits. The primary reason is the state funding formula. “The formula takes into consideration that property values are high due to lake homes and not because of the income of residents of the county,” she said. “The formula only looks at property values.”
One graph that was included in the presentation outlined the drastic decrease in state funding over the years and the consequential increase in the amount of money taxpayers had to provide to keep schools operating. For example, in the 2000-01 school year, state aid provided 52 percent of funding while for this year, state funding will only provide 17 percent.
The amount of revenue a school can raise through taxes is calculated by multiplying the amount per student and average enrollment taken over a three year period. Rhinelander’s revenue per student is currently calculated at $9,202. This is one of the lowest among neighboring districts. In comparison, Lakeland Union High School’s revenue limit per student is $12,563.
Another factor that has put the district behind financially over time was a mistake that was made back in 1992-93. That was the year the board under-levied $1 million. The following year, a state-mandated revenue limit was implemented based on the 1992-93 school year. That has resulted in a loss of $1 million over the last 20 years. In addition, the district will face an even bigger shortfall in years to come because this is the last year for $1.5 million that was included in the budget from a $4.5 million referendum that voters approved three years ago.
After Kwiatkowski’s presentation, audience members were allowed to speak. There was a large turnout of students who attended the meeting, imploring the board to reconsider cutting electives such as music, tech ed, language classes and athletic programs. “Electives are what keep most students engaged in and outside the classroom,” said Lindsey Lieck, a senior and also the student representative for the school board. “Cutting electives will affect every single student, no matter what their interests are outside the classroom. Elective courses are what make high school a higher level of education and they are what make us the people we become.”
Another student implored the board to consider the future of students not necessarily planning on a higher education. “Not everyone is college bound,” she said. “There are many students is this school that rely on elective classes to achieve their potential.”
Close to 20 students spoke about the importance of keeping many of the programs the high school provides and then the floor was open for adults to speak. “I can’t possibly top what these students have expressed here tonight,” said Kevin Rossier, a parent and grandparent of several children attending schools in the district. “I’m sitting here looking at no band, no language classes, no sports, yet we have 12 administrators that work at this school that, combined, make over $1 million.”
Everyone spoke for keeping what the school district provides students and no one spoke against making cuts. “We are preaching to the choir here,” said one audience speaker.
After public comments were considered, the board agreed to look at the possibility of a referendum. “I agree with every person here,” said Ron Counter, president of the board. “We need to go to referendum and not for just one year.”
The board approved two motions. One was to develop a resolution for a $4 million recurring referendum which would be kept in effect until the state’s funding formula is revised, allowing the district to balance its budget. The second motion was to adopt the budget reductions in the amount of $3,010,218 and consider administrative staff cuts as contracts will allow, as well as insurance benefit savings in case a referendum fails. “No one favors cuts, but if that’s what the community wants, that’s what we’ll do,” said Dave Holperin, board member.
Jim Winkler also expressed doubts about a referendum’s success. “We need a referendum, no doubt,” he said. “But I’ve talked to people in the community and they say to me, ‘not now, Jim.’ I don’t want to see the community divided. Eighty-five percent of the people in this community don’t have children in school.”
School district superintendent Roger Erdahl also spoke about the need for a referendum. “We are not asking for a new gym or reconstruction,” he said. “We are down to bare bones here.”