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Bay voters to decide schools' future

Opponents say district needs plan before asking for tax increase

September 08, 2010 | 08:41 AM
Williams Bay — Sept. 14 is decision day for the Williams Bay School District.

Voters will decide whether to approve an increase in their school district's revenue cap, or require the School Board to go back, crunch the numbers, do some planning and perhaps make some cuts.

During recent public meetings on the referendum proposal that would raise the district's cap over the next three years, Williams Bay Superintendent Fred Vorlop has argued that without permission from the voters to increase the state-imposed cap, programs and teachers will have to be cut. The leverage created by the 2003 revenue cap increase is running out and the district is running deficits, Vorlop said.

Williams Bay schools rely heavily on property owners, with 92 percent of its funding coming from its property taxpayers. Less than 1 percent comes from state aids.

If nothing changes, by the end of the 2015 school year, the district's deficit will hit $1 million, and as many as 12 of the district's 50 teachers would have to be let go, Vorlop warned.

A citizens committee is helping the district spread the word for the cap increase.

Meanwhile, another group of citizens, now organized, is calling on voters to reject the request, and that the district should put together a plan before asking for a tax cap increase.

Called the "kNOw School Referendum Committee," the group says there is no hurry in raising property taxes this year. According to one of the committee's bright green fliers, the school district has more than $1 million in reserves that could carry the district through one more school year without increasing taxes. Vorlop has said that the schools started the 2010-11 school year with $1.17 million remaining in its reserve fund.

The committee isn't against the referendum because of the proposed tax increase, said Lois Morava, a former school board member and now a member of "kNOw."

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Rather, the referendum opponents are arguing that the school district can do a better job of planning and cost cutting than has been done in the past.

That $1.17 million could last one more year, Morava said. Within that year, the School Board and administration should be able to come up with a viable three-to-five year plan for the high school and elementary school, she said.

The district proposes raising the cap by $498,000 for 2010-11, $498,000 for 2011-12 and by $890,000 for 2012-13 and thereafter.

Based on a property with an equalized valuation of $250,000 (which would owe $1,612.50 in school taxes), the proposed revenue cap increases would raise school taxes on that property by $163.25 the first year, and by $163.25 the second year. On the third year, it would increase school taxes on that property by $245.75. The proposed cap adjustments would raise school district revenues by a total of $1,886,000 over three years.

"First of all, this was hurriedly done," said Morava. She said the campaign to raise the spending cap started about six months ago.

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"It's not that we're against a referendum with quality and purpose," said Morava. "But this is a stopgap."

She said the School Board has created an either/or situation for voters, threatening that if the referendum question is not approved, programs and teachers will be cut.

"There's no plan B," Morava said. Program cuts don't have to happen, if the district plans properly, she said.

The district needs a business agent who is adept at handling school finances, Morava said. She accused the school board and administration of resisting proposals that it seek expert financial advice and start planning for the district's long-term future.

Without planning, "in a few years, we're just going to go down the same path," Morava said. She predicted that even if this referendum question is approved, the schools will be back with another tax cap increase proposal by 2015.

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The "kNOw" flyer also refers to a recent engineering study that shows the elementary school needs at least $8 million in repairs and renovations. Parts of the building are more than a century old.

Vorlop has said that the School Board decided to take up the issues raised by the report after the referendum.

Morava said that's another example of poor planning by the board.

School district revenues increase with an increase in student population through the state's open enrollment program. It's the elementary school, with its programs and small classroom sizes that draw students to Williams Bay, Morava said.

Once youngsters reach high school age, however, parents and students want more options, particularly in sports, music and art, and they tend to leave the district, she said.

Concerns have been raised that the elementary school may also have problems with asbestos, mold and other health-threats. Morava said she was told the district plans to pay off the high school/junior high school building by 2015, and then deal with the elementary school.

That means for three years they'll be putting the elementary school children at risk, Morava said.

Morava said that the "kNOw School Referendum Committee" is a volunteer organization. Between 10 and 12 people have sat on the committee to coordinate its message and campaign for a "no" vote, Morava said. She said there are no officers or chairmen.

Finally, Morava said the district needs to do more cost-conscious negotiating with the teachers. She suggested teachers might contribute more toward their health insurance and retirement.

The district's current budget reserve was created in 2003, when school district voters approved raising the district's revenue cap by $398,000.

The plan in 2003 was to build a reserve that would last until 2007 and then determine what to do next. However, an unanticipated increase in enrollments allowed the district to conserve its reserves three years longer than expected.

One informational referendum meeting remains. It's scheduled for noon Sunday Sept. 12 in the auditorium of the Williams Bay Junior/Senior High School., 500 W. Geneva St.

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