Since 2003, the Rhinelander School District has cut nearly $12 million from the district budget.
Despite their near-extreme efforts to “economize” and limit spending, the Board is once again facing a financial crisis.
After over a decade of doing everything in their power to achieve financial stability, state funding that is decreasing like clockwork has pushed Rhinelander toward one inevitable outcome.
The word that never fails to brings terror and gnashing of teeth to taxpayers may be the only recourse for a school district facing a $5 million annual deficit.
If successful, it will be the third consecutive referendum passed for the district. For those who don’t know, a referendum is a public vote, in this case to exceed the set revenue limit, aka increasing taxes.
The amount has not been officially decided, but the Operations and Strategic Planning Committee at their February meeting said they anticipate asking for around $5 million a year in additional taxes for three years.
Feb. 16 of 2016 is the earliest such a vote could take place, and that is the date the committee is aiming for.
“It’s going to be critical to the ongoing involvement—you have to pass it,” said Dennis O’Brien, board member, at the committee meeting. “I mean, it’s not like we’re asking for somebody to do something super special, this is about providing an education to the students that live here.”
One of the biggest problems for the Rhinelander district, according to Marta Kwiatkowski, director of business services, is the state funding formula.
Under the current design, the area is considered a “property rich” district—despite the fact that within city limits the poverty rate is very high. As a result, state funding is decreasing by 15 percent each year, a decrease that Kwiatkowski said won’t change any time soon.
The current revenue limit is at $9,352 per student. However, the expenditure per student for the 2014-15 school year is $13,645, according to Kwiatkowski. That leaves a defecit of $4,293 per student, which has only been overcome so far because of the previously passed referendum.
“We’ve done so many cuts already. We’re always looking at how can we be even more financially responsible,” said Kelli Jacobi, superintendent. “The fluff is gone. We’re at meat now… If we weren’t to get a referendum passed, we’re looking at 60 teachers, approximately… I’m not saying it would all be in staff, but to help you visualize what that amount of money is.”
Sixty teachers equates to about a third of staff in the district, and though as Jacobi said that wouldn’t necessarily be the outcome, to make up $5 million the board would have to eliminate a number of teachers that would be a serious blow to the quality of Rhinelander’s education system.
“I don’t want you to think that, because we’re talking referendum we’re not still looking for ways to economize, because we’re always doing that,” Jacobi said. “We continue to try to save money, but it’s not going to be enough. We’re hoping it’s enough so that we just have to go five million, instead of more.”
“Like I’ve said before, the only place you ever get to vote on if your taxes are going to go up or down is when the school district needs money,” said Mike Roberts, school board treasurer. “That’s the only time you ever get an actual say in it, which is why it’s hard to do. And it’s important that the community is educated extremely well, so they understand the needs.”