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The Northwoods River News | Rhinelander, Wisconsin

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home : news : county/state news November 25, 2015

2/2/2013 7:30:00 AM
Electives to take big hit if referendum fails

Marcus Nesemann

If the proposed $12 million referendum fails Feb. 19, the daily schedule for children in the School District of Rhinelander will look a lot different next year, school officials say. Students can expect larger classes, fewer teachers, fewer activities, and less opportunities for classes outside of the core subjects of math, science, English, and history, district administration has promised.

The Board of Education approved a referendum question in December requesting that voters authorize them to exceed revenue limits by $4 million per year for the next three years.

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.

District spokesperson Kim Swisher recently sat down with The Northwoods River News to outline what a failed referendum means for the electives and co-curricular activities the district offers.

The River News had hoped to speak to district teachers and coaches to get their perspective on the possible loss of electives and co-curriculars, but the district would not make them available for interviews. Swisher said the administration does not want teachers to feel as if they and the subjects they teach are being pitted against each other.

"We don't want staff to feel like they're competing against coworkers," Swisher said. "It's not about Mr. Smith or Mrs. Jones, it's about the district. We still have to finish this school year no matter what happens and we don't want staff to feel cutthroat, I guess. I don't know how else to put it. We're really concerned about that and that's why we want to keep it focused on the district rather than individual teachers."

The elementary schools

If the voters reject the referendum, electives would be drastically reduced at the elementary level (Crescent and Pelican Elementary Schools and Central Intermediate School) as separate art, music, and physical education classes would be eliminated and incorporated into the regular classroom.

The cut would eliminate seven full-time equivalent employees (FTE).

Swisher said a move such as this might have been fine 50 years ago, but it isn't conducive to what the district is trying to accomplish today.

"If the (approximately $1.3 million in proposed cuts to electives) go through, art, music, and physical education will be incorporated into the classroom. Instead of having separate teachers for those subjects, it would be incorporated into the regular classroom," Swisher said.

"The argument becomes, 'well, my grandfather or my father would say that we did it with our teacher,' but what I would say today is that our educational needs have changed a great deal in the last 10 or more years. In the 1960s, our schools were focused on career and consumer education. In the '70s, we were focused on character and environmental education. In the '80s, we were focused on business and in the '90s, health education was a strong focus. Today, our teachers, principals, and administrators are focusing on important things such as progress monitoring, social and emotional learning, school safety, individual educational plans, and a litany of other things. This is all part of No Child Left Behind. We've already placed our teachers in a position where they have to do more and they've been doing more and these cuts would just add to that. In addition, the cuts would mean larger class sizes, so not only will the teachers have to do more, they'll have to do more with more kids."

The loss of the electives would be equally damaging to students, Swisher said, adding that electives and co-curricular activities are needed to provide students with a well-rounded education at all levels.

"All of our co-curriculars and all of our electives provide students an enriched educational experience," she said.

"In addition to the core subjects that we teach, music, art, physical education, and many other electives provide students an enhanced learning experience. They get to see things that they might not normally be exposed to. It grows their creativity. It nurtures creativity. Many students aren't necessarily a mathematics major or excel in science, but they're extremely creative and music and art are subjects that enhance that, that give students another opportunity to explore possible future career opportunities."

In answer to those in the community who say standard classroom teachers should be able to handle the added duties, Swisher emphasized the many other responsibilities already placed on teachers' shoulders.

"I'd come back to the demands and mandates that are placed on our teachers today," she said. "We have issues that our teachers are dealing with, for example, 13 percent of our student population has special needs and they range all across the board. Some of the things that our teachers are dealing with are reactive attachment disorder, the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, and others."

"These are issues that we have not really had to deal with in the classroom in the past 30 years. Our teachers are at the forefront of our social and emotional learning and the things that are being dealt with everyday in the classroom," she added. "So, when you have a teacher that has to work with each individual at their pace of learning now having to deal with more children and more topics within the classroom, it's just not a good scenario for a successful educational system."

James Williams Middle School

Students at James Williams Middle School (JWMS) would also have fewer electives and co-curricular activities available to them, if the voters reject the referendum.

The art department would be reduced by .35 FTE, "which would reduce us to one offering for art versus the multiple offerings we have now," Swisher said.

The music department would be reduced by .8 FTE, "which would eliminate individual and small group lessons during the day and result in larger class sizes," she added. "There are other electives that would be affected at James Williams as well, including foreign language, computer literature, technology education, business education, and Family and Consumer Sciences."

While the importance of electives can be seen at all grade levels, Swisher said they are especially important for coming-of-age middle schoolers.

"This is an important grade level for student learning, not that the other grades are not, but when you start getting into the sixth through eighth grade maturity levels, some of these classes really affect the foundations that we're building for the future," Swisher said.

"These types of classes really help students gain personal confidence, self-esteem, so that as they're facing the peer pressures that will come to them, they have a basis to refer back to."

Rhinelander High School

A failed referendum vote would have a similar effect on Rhinelander High School (RHS) students.

Art, music, physical education, foreign language, business education, technology education, and Family and Consumer Sciences would all see cuts that would result in larger class sizes, fewer offerings, and the elimination of FTEs.

Just like at the middle school level, Swisher said these classes are important because they start students down a path that often leads to a career.

"Many of us might have made those decisions while we were in college, but today we're putting a greater pressure on our students to come out of (their) high school career and/or college ready. That's our state superintendent's theme, that we have students that graduate with a pretty clear picture of what they want to do for college or a career," Swisher said. "These electives and these co-curriculars all help to give the students a glimpse into the future, a taste of what really intrigues them and engages them for future aspirations. I think all of us can relate to something in school that really interested us, that really challenged us and motivated us for the future."

In that same vein, Swisher said cuts to Advanced Placement classes would be just as detrimental.

"Another cut is also the Advanced Placement classes. These are college prep classes for students that know they want to go on to a four-year university, that know they want to have a higher education and our Advanced Placement classes are a critical part of that for them," Swisher said. "Plus, we just received national recognition for our Advanced Placement classes and now we have to look at potentially cutting those thereby reducing students' ability to go into college ready for that part of their academic career."

Sports and activities

The effects of a failed referendum would be felt far beyond the classroom, Swisher said. Sports and athletics would see funding dry up as well.

The sports and activities budget will see a decrease of $235,050, if the referendum fails. This would increase the activity fee for high school students to $90 per child, per activity, and raise the activity fee for middle school students to $50 per child, per activity (an increase of $30). It would also eliminate one away non-conference event for all athletic teams, as well as eliminate the Activities Secretary position.

Furthermore, it would eliminate assistant coach positions for football (two positions), boy's tennis (one position), girl's tennis (one position), track (two positions), boy's hockey (one position), mock trial (one position), and drama (one position).

Finally, all co-curriculars would be responsible for funding their own personal service line items, i.e. ticket sellers, crowd control, timekeepers, and bookkeepers.

"Athletic activities, as with any co-curricular, offer students an opportunity to develop team-building skills, personal confidence and self esteem, and life-long relationships," Swisher said. "Rhinelander is proud to offer more than 67 after-school activities, including more than 40 athletic offerings, to students in grades four through 12. Personal growth through involvement in athletics and other co-curricular offerings is an essential part of students' academic success."

It's about the future

In the end, Swisher said this referendum is about providing the children of this community with the tools they need to become productive members of society.

"When we really start to talk about the cuts that we're looking at, we need to think about how this is going to affect our students' futures and our future students," Swisher said. "Many of our students stay in Rhinelander after high school and their career opportunities are limited by their education, so we want to make sure that these co-curriculars give them the chance to try things out now at this level so they can be better prepared when they graduate and move on - whether it be to Nicolet or a state college or a career."

Not just about 2013-'14

The proposed cuts, along with the other changes to programs and staff, are to be implemented to close the budget gap for the 2013-'14 school year.

If the referendum fails, those programs, electives, activities, and staff will be eliminated in order to balance the budget just for that year.

According to school board member Judy Conlin, the district's financial problems will only increase for the 2014-'15 school year.

"People need to understand that once these cuts for 2013-'14 go through, it's done. We can't cut those again. Then, we'll be facing another budget shortfall of around $4 million for 2014-'15 and there's just not much left to cut. So those out there looking at the cuts we will make, thinking that we can live with that, it's going to be a different story next year and the year after and it's going to continue until we can get the state funding formula changed," Conlin said.

A failed referendum would see the district facing a shortfall of around $4 million for the 2014-'15 school year and around $5 million for the 2015-'16 school year.

Marcus Nesemann may be reached at

Reader Comments

Posted: Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Article comment by: Jean Miazga

I am a retired elementary school teacher who taught in a neighboring district. It always amazed me what the children were able to do as a result of art, music, and P.E. classes. I saw them blossom in these areas as they grew up. Some of these students had difficulties in the classroom, but were able to shine in the non academic areas. What a blessing for them to have the arts and the physical/sporting opportunities. Even though I would have done my best to teach music, art, and P.E. if I would have been asked to, I shudder to think of the results. This referendum must pass, not only for the sake of our Rhinelander children, but for the community as well. If you are still thinking of voting against this, or are undecided, please become informed, go to the various meetings being held, and rethink your position. Thank you.

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