By Eileen Persike
A special meeting of the School District of Rhinelander Board of Education Monday evening began with a few words from Superintendent Kelli Jacobi that board members haven’t heard lately.
Despite the unchanged state school funding formula, “we did see an increase in funding,” Jacobi told the board.
Following the passage of the state budget last month, the district will see approximately $500,000 in additional funds for the current school year and the same in the 2018-19 school year. This unbudgeted funding, together with a nearly $4-million increase this year in the district’s fund balance, was seen by Jacobi and district business director Marta Kwiatkowski as “significant enough” to call a special meeting to share the information they had gathered.
“I am so proud of the work that has been done by our board, by the administrators, by our staff that we are able to come to discuss our finances and have a very positive conversation about them,” Jacobi told the board. “We’ll talk through all of the different pieces to this puzzle because when we are talking budget and finances there are a lot of pieces and if we’re fitting them together well, we’re going to come up with something that works well for not only the school district but our community.”
To begin the puzzle, Kwiatkowski took the board back more than a decade when she said the district was “not in a healthy financial position,” due in part to heavy reliance on property taxes and short-term borrowing to pay the bills, with a fund balance under $4 million.
Today, she said that fund balance stands at nearly $20 million, due to “great decisions” and choices made by the board, along with classroom teachers and staff being “fiscally responsible.”
Saying that is a “great problem to have,” Kwiatkowski pointed out the fund balance, at $19.5 million, is higher than the board policy requires and may be used for “one-time expenditures, deferred maintenance, additional renovations, technology and other occasional capital improvements.”
Jacobi noted this was an initial conversation, but she suggested expenditures could include additional funding of the Post Employment Benefits Trust, spending $1.2 million to add two new classrooms to Crescent Elementary, and returning a sizeable amount, as much as $3 million, back to taxpayers.
“It’s important to me that the taxpayers know we have been working really hard to save money…I think the taxpayers should benefit from this,” Jacobi said. “This is exciting, we haven’t been in a position to talk about (this) – I can’t call it an excess of funds – but we’re in a better place than we’ve been.”
The 2018-19 school year is the last of the current referendum. In just over a year, school district voters will be asked to approve a referendum for another three years. But Jacobi said the district’s current financial situation would mean it would need to ask for less.
Board vice president Judy Conlin said it’s important that the Rhinelander community sees the district’s needs for such things as the classrooms at Crescent Elementary, which have been on a “to-do” list since 2010.
“I think it’s important that the community understands this doesn’t mean we don’t need referenda,” Conlin continued. “It just means for the next three-year cycle, we don’t need as much. And while we can give them that tax benefit, we will do that, but they have to understand, we will be coming back.”
Saying she wasn’t playing devil’s advocate, board member Mary Peterson questioned whether they would be giving away money the district would later need.
“If we kept that $3 million you are suggesting we use to reduce the future referendum, (are) there other things that we could do with that money that would definitely be cheaper to do it now than it would be to do it five, six years down the road,” Peterson asked.
“I think we’re in pretty good shape,” Kwiatkowski replied, “We’ve gotten into a regular maintenance schedule, and before, we just didn’t do maintenance projects. There is nothing that needs to be taken care of that we are postponing.”
“It would be good for us, whether it’s a million (dollars), to show the taxpayers that we’ve been very fiscally responsible, and we’re not throwing money away and thank you,” said board member Duane Frey. “That goes a long way, whatever our number ends up to be.”
Jacobi said administrators will talk with building principals and the supervisor of plant operations to find out whether there are other issues that should be addressed and then bring more information for another discussion.