Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

Fate of schools left to district residents

by Chris Schultz

February 10, 2011

In the end, voters in the Williams Bay School District will have to approve increasing the school district’s revenue cap.

Or the School Board will have to cut programs and teachers until the school district is unrecognizable, and perhaps unsupportable.

Those basic choices came out of a special public hearing Monday at the Williams Bay High School. Nearly 200 parents, students and voters crowded into the school assembly hall to hear about 70 written questions answered by the School Board and to add their own questions and comments later. The meeting started 7 p.m. and didn’t wrap up until 9:30 p.m.

The purpose of the meeting was for the School Board to communicate with district residents about the nature and level of the changes, and why some changes might hurt more than help.

According to proposals brought to the School Board by Vorlop, up to 8.5 full-time-equivalent positions and $609,000 would be sliced from the Williams Bay School District budget next school year.

Among those cuts, in grades 7 to 12, social studies will drop one elective, physical education will drop one unit of team sports, in art one period of basics will be cut, two sections of English per grade will grow in size and in science there will be one less section in biology.

Vorlop said the decision to cut staff must be made before the April 15 deadline when teachers must be notified of staff cuts for the next school year.

More cuts would be needed in subsequent years, Vorlop said.

When the district might go to referendum is unknown, said Dianna Woss, school board member. She said the district missed out on putting a question on the April 5 ballot. The deadline was Monday.

If it felt the community was behind a referendum effort, the School Board could hold a special election, which would cost about $2,000, she said.

During public comment, Kyrstyn Ong, a freshman, said the learning loss from cutting teachers “would be irreplaceable,”

Grant Luberda, a senior, said that students come to Williams bay for educational opportunities and “its strong academic core.” If academic options are removed, it removes the attraction of the district.

Williams Bay has one of the highest-performing school districts in southeastern Wisconsin, with small class sizes and high test scores. More than 80 percent of its graduates go on to four-year colleges; its students score well on ACT tests and on the statewide WKCE tests.

Even if the community decides it can no longer support a school district, there’s no easy answer about what might happen to the students. The state isn’t keen on turning K-12 districts into K-8 districts, Woss said. The closest K-12 district Williams Bay could merge with is Elkhorn, she said.

But also during the public comment, a district parent wanted to know “what’s the plan?”

If the community gives the district a $600,000 boost to balance its budget, it will only start to lose money, she said.

“The plan is to see how the community feels about the school district going back to referendum,” said Pete Miller, School Board president.

“So the plan is to pass the referendum,” the parent persisted.

“Yes,” replied Miller. “But cuts will be made.”

Miller said that in 2003, when the School Board first went to the voters to increase the district’s revenue cap, it was made clear that the deficits faced by the school district would not go away.

Once upon a time, Wisconsin school districts didn’t have budgetary problems like the one facing Williams Bay, Vorlop said. School boards were allowed to unilaterally raise property taxes to meet budgetary shortfalls.

However, in the past 30 years, the state Legislature has enacted rules to cap school districts’ income. Tax increases must now go to the voters in the form of referendums.

The only other way to gain income is to increase student enrollments through either students moving into the district, or attracting open enrollment students from other districts, Vorlop said.

When the last referendum was passed on 2003, the School Board made it clear that the fund balance created by the revenue cap increase would last just four years, Vorlop said. Instead, the fund balance lasted eight years. In part, an increase in district enrollment through open enrollment transfers and the creation of a 4-year-old kindergarten helped conserve the balance, he

The School Board’s goal for this year is to cut about $600,000 out of the budget without cutting key teaching positions, Vorlop said.

Williams Bay High School has seven advanced placement (AP) classes that draw students from out of the district, Vorlop. To lose those AP classes would probably hurt any gains the district made in open enrollment, he said.

It could well lead to a death spiral, said Vorlop, with the district losing income through a loss of enrollment, having to cut more and more programs, that lead to more loss of enrollment and more lost income.

While the board has yet to decide on most of Vorlop’s proposals,

Starting Jan. 24, the company that provides the Williams Bay schools with their hot meals cut three positions in the schools’ lunch lines (two cooks and a cashier). Food choices were reduced and the cost of meals increased by 30 cents, to $2.40 per meal for grades K-6 and $2.50 for grades 7-12.

Those adjustments will save the district $55,000, Vorlop said.

Among other changes is the retirement of Dan Bice, high school and junior high school principal. Vorlop has also offered to resign, to open up more potential savings for the district.

However, the board has yet to decide how to restructure its administration.

Among other cuts to be considered by the School Board are:

n Save $173,000 by eliminating two primary grade teachers and one health-remedial math position in the grade school.

n Save $153,000 by cutting 1.5 full-time-equivalent teaching positions in grades 7 to 12. Proposed cuts are: a two-thirds social studies position (vacated by retirement); and cutting one-sixth positions in physical education, industrial arts, art, English and science, Two teacher aide positions would also be cut.

n Smaller savings could be made by reducing field trips ($14,000); cutting the seventh-grade incentive program ($3,500); eliminate outdoor eduction ($6,000); increase student fees for grades 7 to 12 to $75, an increase of $11,000 in income.

n Other reductions would include reducing the athletic uniform budget by $2,000; reduce school salary costs by $2,000 and reduce teacher requisitions by $6,000.

On Sept. 14, 2010, the voters turned back a request by the School Board to increase the school district’s revenue cap over the next three years.

The referendum asked voters to approve spending cap increases by $498,000 for the 2010-11 school year, $498,000 for 2011-12 and $890,000 for 2012-13 and thereafter.

Complete returns showed the Williams Bay district electors refused with 698 voting no, and 411 voting yes.