The Fennimore Community Schools Board of Education continued to discuss the possibility of an operating referendum later this year during its semi-monthly meeting Monday evening, March 9.
District Administrator Jamie Nutter shared the latest with the Board Monday night.
“The state right now is trying to get the budget balanced,” Nutter said. “One of the strategies that they are using to balance the budget is cutting money from schools and then trying to control property tax by not allowing the revenue limit to rise.
“In some school districts that may work, however, in Fennimore, it is going to create an issue for us in order to maintain the programs that we have.”
Gov. Scott Walker last month proposed a $150 per student cut in state aid for the first year of his proposed two-year budget. While the second year of the budget includes a $165 per student increase in state aid, the net result is a loss of approximately $135 per pupil over the biennium.
Despite a potential $150,000 in savings due to retirements following a limited post-employment incentive with a sunset provision offered to school district staff last month, Nutter still expects a $178,444 difference between expenses and revenue in the 2015-2016 budget.
Thanks in part to the $165 per student increase in state aid, Nutter expects a $86,050 difference between expenses and revenue in the 2016-2017 budget.
Robert W. Baird and Company, at Nutter’s request, has completed a budget forecast model for the school district. The model noted the school district’s fund balance is presently $2,283,544, but could potentially be $787,291 in the red by the 2019-2020 school year.
“You can see what happens if we don’t take care of this deficit; we will have that structural deficit every year,” Nutter said. “This is assuming you just keep the same expenses in place and you don’t increase your revenue, obviously you have to take from fund balance.
“If inflation went up at the average rate of inflation and funding continues in the way that it is going, you can see within five years our fund balance is down to nothing, down to negative. That is how quickly it goes if you don’t take care of it right away.”
Nutter Monday night reiterated a point he made to the Board last month. He is not letting his personal feelings cloud his judgment.
“I can have my personal beliefs of what I think should happen and what shouldn’t happen at the state level,” he said. “The bottom line is the state is saying, we can’t afford or we are choosing to not to provide [school funding]. Whatever the reason is, this is just where it is at. I can be upset about it, whine about it, or we can take care of the issue.
“Before we think it is really, really bad, we get funded this year at 76.5 percent, meaning 76.5 percent of our funding comes from the state and the state is saying they can’t afford that. If we move to an operating referendum we are going to go from 76.5 percent to 74.8 percent. So 74.8 percent of our funding is still coming from state sources in this particular case.”
What might a solution be?
“What I am recommending for the solution is a recurring referendum at $150,000, to help us get that base up, rather than looking at $450,000 non-recurring,” Nutter said. “Some districts will go non-recurring, but then you find yourselves every four years having to go back to the voters. And, then you are asking for $450,000 all in one lump sum, which really just hammers the taxpayers.
“But if you are looking at $150,000 and it is recurring, it builds that base up, we get the state aid on that the following year and we can get it incrementally rather than the mill rate jumping through the roof in one year and slowly coming back down.”
What does a “recurring” referendum mean?
“Some people fear recurring because they don’t always understand and they think recurring means forever,” Nutter said. “No, it is recurring that one year and recurring means it doesn’t get pulled back out of the base.
“Rather than looking at that large amount and pulling it back out, I think if we can put it in there and build off that base, it will be not only better financially for our district, but I think it will also be better for our community to not have to go through this every three or four years.”
Nutter cautioned the Board to tackle the school district’s deficit woes sooner rather than later.
“You don’t ever want to do have to do this, but I just know that if you don’t take care of a deficit right away, it doesn’t go away,” he said. “I think we can either decide to take care of the problem when it is this big or we can take care of the problem when it is bigger. The longer we let it go, the bigger the problem will be.”
Were the Board to pursue a referendum, it would be required by state statute to adopt a resolution no less than 75 days until the measure would appear on a ballot. With the April election less than a month away and election in November, a special election will be required.
When might the election be held?
“Our fiscal year starts July 1. I can’t really go into that not knowing where we are at,” Nutter said. “I can’t really go into next year with a deficit. I wouldn’t recommend that.
“I think we have to look at our next meeting and give ourselves 75 days out until June, so that we know where we are headed in July so we can start July 1 with a projected balanced budget.”
As the over 40-minute discussion wound down, Nutter shared his recommendation with the Board: a four-year recurring referendum for $150,000 each year.
“I really don’t think $150,000 is going to make up for the cut,” Board member Sheila Ruchti said. “ If we are going to move forward with this, let’s make sure that we ask for enough so we don’t have to do this again.”
Board member Herman Maier agreed.
“At the next meeting, bring an option with $150,000 and another with $200,000,” he said. “Then we can decide what will be best”
Maier and Board member Lyle Lang moved to allow Nutter the chance to pursue the resolution language for the operating referendum. The motion passed unanimously.
In other action, the Board:
• accepted a $250 donation from Peter James to offset costs related to an after-school science program at Fennimore Elementary School.
• accepted the resignations of third grade teacher Kristy Kleinhans and cross country coach Kacey Rindy.
Kleinhans and her fiancé will be relocating to McFarland, as her fiancé recently secured a job in Madison.
“I have genuinely appreciated the opportunity to be a part of this community and school district,” Kleinhans wrote in her letter of resignation. “I am particularly fortunate that Fennimore Community Schools has been the start of my career since my practicum semester as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
“My only regrets are that I will be leaving behind many exceptional teachers who have served as amazing mentors, and that I will not be able to grow into a professional and master educator here with Fennimore Community Schools.”
Rindy has recently taken on more responsibility, which has resulted in longer hours, at her workplace.
“I don’t feel that I will have the extra time to really focus on the program,” she wrote in her letter of resignation. “I have enjoyed my time and appreciate the opportunity that you and the school have given me.”