Q: Why can’t we use the District’s fund balance to cover budget shortfalls?
A: The fund balance has a couple important purposes. A healthy fund balance affects the bond rating of the district in a positive way but more importantly it reduces or eliminates the need for short-term borrowing for the payroll and other expenses during the year. The Chequamegon Board has made it a priority to build the fund balance to 30 % of the annual budget thereby eliminating the need to short-term borrow and thus saving the district those interest costs. The budget shortfall for 2011-2012 will be covered by the fund balance due to that late timing of the notice on the cut in revenue. If we continue to cover budget shortfalls through the fund balance, within a few years we will have wiped out the fund balance. Using it is a short-term solution but not a long-term answer.
Q: Why don’t we just cut sports to cover the shortfall?
A: If we cut all extracurricular offerings for students, sports and others, the total savings would be approximately $160,000. This is far below the deficit faced by the district and, as we all know, students who have a strong interest in sports may very well open enroll to another school district under the mechanism available to them under the law. If a few students move out of the district, the negative impact their loss would have on the state aid received would negate the savings. Students remain in school for a variety of reasons; and as you will recall when you remember your favorite areas of interest in high school, very often that did not involve a core academic area. Students who have an interest in technology education or family and consumer education or music or art or sports may be remaining in this district because of those very areas of interest. As we reduce those choices for students we may be encouraging their open enrollment out of the district to our financial detriment.
Q: I had 40 or more kids in classes when I was in school. Why can’t kids nowadays make the sacrifices and put up with large class sizes like I did?
A: Budget cuts will result in higher class sizes and reduced class choices for students at the secondary level. However many of us who can remember large class sizes tend to forget that the instruction was very often compromised because of the large numbers brought about due to the baby boomers passing through the grades. The instruction was given and those who did not “catch on“ were retained in grade for another year. Schools at that time did not have the legal obligation to educate children with special needs as is the case today and the expectation today is that the teacher utilize different instructional strategies to meet the students’ needs where they are. In most respects comparing class sizes then and now is an apples to oranges comparison. Our school district and board have made addressing student achievement a priority. If large class sizes became necessary, we would do the best we could in continuing to address student achievement. However, very high class sizes would make student achievement a challenge. With the recommended reductions addressed elsewhere in this newsletter, class sizes would increase in secondary level classes.
Q: Do we need a separate middle school? Couldn’t we save money closing a school?
A: Research is fairly clear that middle school age children learn better and achieve more when they are in an autonomous setting not part of the high school age population. Some of our lower test scores last year on the WKCE state exam came from our 10th graders, who were the last class to go through the 7-12 configuration when it was in place for a few years in the former Park Falls District. It makes sense from both an emotional and behavioral point of view to have these students set off in their own school. We are currently researching the cost implications of closing the middle school so that the information is made available to the public. Based on the consolidation agreement no closing of the Glidden campus could be considered until 2014-2015. However, even with gradual declining student enrollment, I do not think such a closing would be possible without some sort of addition being made to the Park Falls campus to accommodate the influx of students. As things stand now, it would not make educational sense, nor would it make practical sense to close the Glidden campus. It is a wonderful facility that is serving our middle school students very well. I also have a sense that talk of closing this school is seated in the Park Falls – Glidden resistance to consolidation that is still somewhat present in the two communities. It is not present among the students. They have embraced the new district. Because any such talk among the adults is counterproductive to the need we have to work together for what’s best for our students, I urge both communities to honor the past, as Bears or Cardinals, as just that, the past and to accept the fact that for the good of our students we all are Eagles now.
Q: Can we reduce the number of administrators?
A: Could we cut one of the principal positions? Yes, we could but there is considerable research that supports the idea of having effective principals in each school as being second only to the quality of teachers in the classroom as the factor having the greatest impact on improving student achievement. Unfortunately we have seen a negative trend district WKCE test scores at all levels over the last 3 years. I think addressing the student achievement challenges we face needs to be a top priority. Improved student achievement has been a focus for me with the principals even before I became aware of the test score trends. We have implemented a new assessment tool to help focus on areas that students need help in. We have implemented initiatives at each level to address student achievement and we have plans for additional initiatives to address this issue. To be successful in these initiatives I believe it will be crucial to have effective leadership by principals at each level. Educational research supports this is more crucial to student success than even class size. So if a principal were cut from the Park Falls campus we would continueto do the best we could to move forward with student achievement. However, the one remaining principal would be supervising a building of 581 students of very diverse grade levels. That number is a fairly high number for one principal to supervise in any school without the assistance of an assistant principal, but in this instance the age range and differing needs of the students and teachers would make it more of a challenge. I would envision that the remaining principal’s time would be spent for the most part in dealing with student discipline issues, especially at the high school level. The focus on student achievement would clearly become, not a less important issue, but a less demanding one and the principal’s time would be taken with more demanding issues such as discipline. So, could it be done? Yes, but because of the very negative impact I believe it will have on improvement of student achievement I am not recommending it at this time.
Q: Can we save money by switching health insurance carriers?
A: I realize many of you are reading that with changes in law school districts have been able to save large sums of money by switching health insurance carriers. The fact is this was done several years ago, even prior to the consolidation of the two districts, by switching to the Northern School District Trust, a self-funded consortium of CESA 12 schools. By doing so the district saved $450,000 in the first year on their health insurance coverage. The reason that so many school districts are switching health insurance carriers now is that changes in the law last spring gave school districts the ability to make such changes without union agreement. Our employees, when faced with the need of the district to find a way to save significant sums in the area of employee benefits agreed with administration, to their credit, to switch health insurance carriers because of the significant savings the district would experience. We continue to look at ways to further save district dollars on employee benefits while treating our employees in a fair way.
Q: Recently the District approved a plan for development and improvement of the Athletic Field Complex in Park Falls. Will this result in additional costs to taxpayers?
A: The Board approved the plan for the athletic field as a concept for future development only. The Board has not approved and has no plans to approve the expenditure of District funds for the completion of the approved plan. Both the city of Park Falls and the Chequamegon School District have approved the plan without an intention of committing any tax monies toward the completion of the project. The committee looking at ways to improve the athletic field felt that an approved plan for development would aid in acquiring donated funds or grant monies for the completion of the project over time. Approval of the plan meant only that the Board approved the ultimate plan for improvements. It did not mean that any taxpayer funds would be dedicated to the project.
Q: If the district comes to the public asking for more support through an operating referendum, will that increase our property taxes?
A: The district is considering going to the public with an operating referendum because of the way the state revenue cap has worked against the district’s ability to tax at the same rate it taxed last year. School district taxpayers paid approximately $9.00 per thousand of property value in the 2010-2011 school year, or $900.00 on a $100,000 home. This year (2011-2012) the district planned for a reduction in the tax rate to approximately $8.50 per thousand of property value or $850.00 on a $100,000 home. However, with state reducing state aid available to school districts by approximately $810 million, the largest reduction ever in aid to schools, the resulting loss in ability to raise revenue to the school district amounts to approximately a 15% loss of revenue from last year. The mill rate for the school portion of the property tax is expected to be approximately $7.38 per thousand of property value or $738.00 on a $100,000 home. This is good news for local taxpayers, at least in the short term, but a reduction of that magnitude means the district will have to make some pretty severe reductions in choices and programs available to our students as you can see in reviewing the proposed budget reductions elsewhere in this newsletter. If the Board decided to go to referendum for operating purposes, it would not be seeking an increase in the tax rate it would be seeking authority to return to something less than the tax rate last year and actually something less than the rate of $8.50 per thousand that we had earlier expected for this year. Without some restoration of revenue authority, some severe budget cutting will need to take place in 2012-2013 and beyond. The school board is carefully considering this and weighing the options since it is fully aware that economic conditions in the community and country may not be conducive to supporting a referendum at this time. This is the “rock and a hard place” you so often hear about.