By Eileen Persike
Rhinelander school district parent Thomas Barnett is concerned about the
future. He lived through the steady decline of the small farming community where he lived prior to moving to the Northwoods and doesn’t want to do that again.
“Eventually the demographics changed and it got to the point that I didn’t want my kids to play in the backyard,” Barnett recalled. “I was hearing gun fire, and there were constant drug busts across the street.”
While the decline was not a result of a failed referendum, this story, he said, is not a scare tactic, but an “inevitability that the community will go downhill if the referendum doesn’t pass and we don’t support the schools.” Barnett’s first priority is to do what he can to make sure the $15 million school referendum passes February 16. Beyond that, he said he will spend the next three years working to change Wisconsin’s school funding policies.
“I started a petition online and my first goal is to try and get Gov. Walker to come to Rhinelander for a town hall meeting so he can see what the policies are doing to the town and the school district,” Barnett said. “I have been emailing him, writing him, calling his office pretty much every day to try and get him to come to Rhinelander to meet with his constituents.”
The last referendum, asking for $4 million dollars per year for three years, was passed in 2013 and expires June 30, 2016. A new referendum is needed to make up the difference in what it costs to educate each student ($12,350) and the amount the district will receive from state aid and property taxes ($9,357). For its part, over the past 12 years, the school board has cut more than $11.5 million in programs and expenses in the district.
“I’m just not willing to roll over and play dead, and hope and pray that a referendum will pass every three years.”
While he hasn’t heard so much as a “get lost” from the Governor’s office, Barnett said he hopes that if he collects enough signatures, Walker will have to address them.
“I’ve had people tell me I’m beating a dead horse, that I’m not going to get anywhere and I’m just not willing to roll over and play dead, and hope and pray that a referendum will pass every three years,” Barnett said. “If this doesn’t work at least I can say I tried to do something about it.”
A group of concerned taxpayers met Jan. 6 to organize a campaign in support of Rhinelander schools. Communications Specialist, Kim Swisher, outlined a public relations plan for the volunteers; a plan that included phone calling and engaging different community groups.
Among the proposed changes, should the referendum fail, are increased classroom size, reduced advanced placement courses and electives, reduced art and music classes, elimination of sports and other after school activities and most likely a loss of accreditation.
“One person cannot make this change, but a community willing to stand together as a united front can. One voice becomes thousands and that’s when the politicians start to listen and change can begin,” Barnett said during a recent community information meeting. “Then maybe we won’t have to be here again in three years worrying about how we are going to pay for our children’s education.”
Frequently asked questions and more information, including a schedule of community information meetings is available on the school district’s website, www.Rhinelander.k12.wi.us.