The School District of Rhinelander will take a three-year referendum totaling $12 million to the voters in February.
The Board of Education approved a referendum question Tuesday requesting that voters authorize the district to exceed revenue limits by $4 million per year for the next three years.
The resolution was passed unanimously.
In February 2010, taxpayers approved a referendum that has them paying $63 per $100,000 of equalized value to fund construction projects and other needs of the district. That referendum is due to expire this year. If approved, this new referendum would add approximately $105 per $100,000 of equalized value to that amount.
It has been widely reported that the district is facing a $3 million budget shortfall for the 2013-'14 school year, which has caused members of the public to question why the board is wording the referendum to ask for $4 million.
Business director Marta Kwiatkowski presented information Tuesday explaining the district's reasoning.
According to her report, while the district is facing a $3 million shortfall for next year, that shortfall is estimated to increase to a little over $4 million for the 2014-'15 school year and a little over $5 million for 2015-'16, bringing the total shortfall for the next three years to a little over $12 million.
"Our overall deficit estimate for the next three years is about $12 million so if we divide it out over three years, it comes to $4 million per year," Board President Ron Counter said.
It has also been reported that the district would be asking for a recurring referendum that would be in effect until changes are made to the state's school funding formula.
After hearing from the public Tuesday, the board changed course and approved a three-year, non-recurring referendum.
Cassian resident Kelly Herman was one who spoke in favor of a three-year referendum instead of a recurring one.
"I'd like to ask the board to consider going for a non-recurring referendum rather than a recurring (referendum)," Herman said. "The reason I ask that is because I think that going for a recurring (referendum) creates adversity, more adversity. I've had people come to my house and also call me saying that they would not support a recurring referendum, but they would support a non-recurring referendum. I, for one, would support a non-recurring referendum because it's giving the community and myself an opportunity not to vote forever, but to vote for something that I recognize as a need right now."
Herman, who has been a vocal opponent of previous referendums, argued the best way for the board to earn the public's trust is to go with a three-year referendum.
"I want to support this and, yes, I'm proud to support this, but I'm asking you not to ask (the community) to go forever," Herman said. "Trust that our community values an education and that, in three years, if it's needed again, that we will value that and support another referendum. Board members have said, have expressed the concern that in the past, our referendums have failed, but this is a different situation. We have a need, a great need, and me being one of the most vocal opponents to the two previous referendums, I support a non-recurring referendum."
Others in the audience echoed Herman's remarks.
"I just wanted to say that the opinion of everybody that I've talked to is they don't like the recurring (referendum) because it seems to be an open thing that's never going to stop and there is so little trust with the people and the school board because of past stuff and if you go for the non-recurring (referendum), we can always bring it back," said Marilyn Zwaard.
Dan Brunette also favored a three-year referendum over the recurring option.
"Having a referendum go on forever, I think, is the wrong message that you want to send because you are asking the taxpayers to commit those dollars for an indefinite amount of time," Brunette said.
Some of the board members also said they believe there is community support for a more short-term referendum.
"I think (three years) is the right way to go. That's the feedback I'm getting as well," said board member Grady Hartman.
Counter pointed to Eagle River as an example of unsuccessful recurring referendums.
"Before Eagle River started becoming successful with their referendums, back in April of 2006, they tried to fix it all with one big referendum and it failed. I think the system's designed for short-term referendums," Counter said.
Board member Merlin Van Buren pointed to the cuts that were approved Monday (see related story) as the reason the board should go with a three-year measure. This referendum has to pass, for the good of the student body, and the three-year option had the best chance of voter approval.
"None of us want to make the cuts we voted for (Monday) because that's just going to destroy our district, so we have to pass a referendum and we have to have a referendum that's going to pass. We can't fail. So, I think going for three years has the best possibility of passing," Van Buren said.
Mike Roberts, who initially proposed the recurring referendum last month, said he would support the three-year option, but warned that the board would have to continually communicate with the public about how it is using the money during the three years. He also said there's a high probability that another referendum will be necessary after this one expires.
"All these same problems will be here (until the state funding formula is changed)," Roberts said.
"If we're looking at $4 million-plus worth of cuts (for 2014-'15), we'd have to go even deeper than we did (Monday). Everybody needs to know that and we need to keep talking about it. The more we talk about it, the more educated the people will be about it and people will understand that this isn't a problem that's going away unless we force the issue at Madison."
The voters will decide the fate of the referendum Feb. 19.
Marcus Nesemann may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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