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11/1/2012 7:30:00 AM
District talks massive drawdowns for 2013-'14
Filling $3 million shortfall could 'decimate' district

Marcus Nesemann

School District of Rhinelander (SDR) administrators painted a gloomy picture Monday as the school board began preliminary discussions on possible cuts for the 2013'-14 school year.

The district is facing a $3 million shortfall for the 2013-'14 school year.

To jump-start the discussion, the administration distributed a list of possible cuts for the board, community and faculty members in attendance to review and contemplate.

The list included having the district stop participating in the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) Program, cutting electives, closing the two charter schools, reducing spending on athletics and activities, and cutting full-time equivalent employees (FTE).

None in attendance appeared happy with any of the suggested cuts, but Board President Ron Counter said with all the district has had to cut over the last decade, this is all that is left.

"Administration has outlined some potential cuts and I know that these may not be palatable but we're at a point where there's nothing left," Counter said.

Superintendent Dr. Roger Erdahl concurred, noting that going through with any of these cuts could result in irreparable damage to the district.

"In order to get to the $3 million cut, all of our past cuts from the last several years were, in most cases, very difficult decisions but this list is the DNA of the school district," Erdahl said.

"Not having SAGE, not having electives, slashing programs that are fundamental, basically, to our ability to succeed will get us to the $3 million, but it will be at a cost to the district that could be irreparable, at least for many, many years to come.

"We put them on the list because it's a school board-level decision to contemplate because these are costly programs where you could glean big chunks of money out of the system."

The board and Erdahl pointed out many times that the list is simply a jumping off point for the discussion and that items could be added, changed, and removed as discussions move along.

Hearing that, Rhinelander High School (RHS) faculty member Lori Hatlen, echoing a sentiment from many in the audience, said she didn't feel the list took into account all options on the table. Specifically, she said she wants to see consideration of possible cuts at the administration level and the possibility of a higher amount cut from athletics and activities.

"I'm not advocating for any kind of cuts, obviously, but if this is what taxpayers are going to look at to decide whether a referendum should be passed or not, I don't see any cuts to administration and very little to sports," Hatlen said.

The list provided by the administration suggested looking into cutting $25,000 from the activities budget, which includes athletics, drama, debate, and other activities. After hearing comments from many in the crowd indicating that it appears the district is favoring sports and activities over academic programs, the board changed the amount to reflect the entire activities budget which is about $700,000.

The board said it will now use that figure as the discussions roll on.

RHS faculty member Heidi Preul agreed with Hatlen. She said it appears the list is full of cuts that no person would agree to. The district needs to focus on cuts that are realistic, she said.

"When I look at these things that are on this list, some of them ... seem a bit drastic to me and not realistic," Preul said. "We haven't really talked about viable solutions that ... don't have to do with program cuts and maybe that won't make up a significant amount and, of course, the referendum is the elephant in the room right now and it just seems to me, like, let's not talk about something we're not really willing to do and let's talk about things we are willing to do because you cannot tell me that we are going to cut all the electives at the middle school and you cannot tell me that we are going to cut all the electives at the high school ... so let's start talking about some of those viable options."

The subject of holding a referendum was not on the agenda so Counter forbade any school board member from discussing, or even mentioning, that possibility, but that didn't stop those in attendance from bringing it up.

NCSS faculty member Neil Rumney wanted to know what the cost of a referendum would be for taxpayers.

According to district Business Director Marta Kwiatkowski, if a new referendum is approved, it would add approximately $60 per $100,000 of equalized value to a taxpayer's bill.

"So, when do we start discussing a referendum, then?" Rumney asked.

No one responded to the question.

No longer participating in SAGE

The first suggestion on the cut list is for the district to discontinue its participation in SAGE.

SAGE is a program that works with elementary schools to lower class sizes and improve professional development and staff-evaluation policies.

"$778,835 is what we estimate (we spend) on SAGE, but we would go from 18 students to close to 30 students in pre-K through third grade," Erdahl said.

SAGE is not just about keeping class sizes small, however.

"It also includes a number of teaching strategies and school building management strategies that we think are moving the academic needle steadily (in the right direction)," Erdahl said. "Without specialized strategies, small class sizes by itself did not necessarily mean high test scores, but if you combine it with these other techniques that we've implemented here in the last several years, we are seeing progress. I think it's a big part of our efforts to move the district forward."

Board member Judy Conlin concurred.

"It's not just having fewer kids in each classroom, it's what our teachers do with having these lower class numbers," Conlin said. "Our teachers now have individual data on every single child and they are looking and saying, 'What does the student need?' ... and 'How do we need to immediately change instruction rather than waiting for those gaps (between struggling students and excelling students) to grow?'"

Dropping out of SAGE would eliminate 20 FTE positions, something that Crescent Elementary School Principal Teri Maney said would completely undo all of the progress that has been made since the district joined the SAGE program.

"We can't do it without SAGE," Maney said.

Additionally, Erdahl said SAGE plays a role in graduation rates and making sure students are ready for college or the workplace after graduation.

"We hear about, on a regular basis, graduation rates, preparing kids for school beyond school, and preparing kids to go directly into the workplace and a lot of the pressure for that always seems to fall on the senior high, but ... (the elementary schools are) where we start getting kids ready for college," Erdahl said. "Our dropout prevention program and our improved graduation rate program and our getting kids ready for college and the workplace all starts (at the elementary schools)."

Cutting electives at RHS and JWMS

The next two items on the list call for eliminating electives such as music, technology education, family and consumer education (FACE), art, and foreign languages, amongst others, at RHS and James Williams Middle School (JWMS).

The move would save $483,755 and cut 6.22 FTE at JWMS and save $892,923 and cut 11.2 FTE at RHS.

As the discussion began, Erdahl talked about the importance of electives for middle school-aged children.

"One of the major themes of the middle school concept is to try things outside the standard classroom fare, to get involved in all these other programs," Erdahl said.

JWMS Principal Paul Johnson is not in favor of cutting electives and kept his statement on the subject short and sweet.

"What is there to say? These keep all the kids that are otherwise not engaged in school engaged," Johnson said.

RHS Principal David Ditzler also spoke out in favor of electives at the middle school.

"If you want to absolutely decimate the School District of Rhinelander, these are the things that we're going to have to consider to make the $3 million cut, but these are the very things that are going to gut the high school," Ditzler said. "Even if you only touch SAGE or the electives at the middle school, the net result is, when these students get to the high school ... they will not be high school-ready children. (At the high school, we) desperately need children to come out of elementary school classrooms where they get every fighting chance at the best education. The high school staff needs students coming through the intermediate and middle school programs with quality educational offerings supplemented by high-quality elective offerings which spark their interest, keep their hope, inspire them."

Counter added that eliminating the electives would also hurt area businesses, as kids would not be as ready for the workplace as they would be after taking things like technology education.

"The board, for the last several months, has been working with the manufacturers of Rhinelander to give kids that may not go to college the experience needed to get a job in Rhinelander when they finish high school," Counter said.

"Not only that, our manufacturing people are having a very hard time finding employees. They've recruited outside the area, they've exhausted most of those means, and it's now becoming very expensive to bring someone into Rhinelander to work at the mill or at Printpack and so on and so forth. So, this is a new project and it's starting at the middle school level. Basically, this cut here would wipe it out. Manufacturers spending money to bring people into Rhinelander will only last so long. Almost every one of them right now could double in size if they had the employees. Unfortunately, they don't have the employees."

Conlin looked at it from a different perspective, wondering if cuts like this would actually end up costing the district money in the long run.

"While we may be cutting to meet our dollar amount, we may end up losing students ... because with school choice, families can choose to go elsewhere," Conlin said.

Erdahl concurred, noting the administration and board "do have to be concerned about the reputation of the district."

The proposed high school cuts were then debated.

"Similar, across-the-board cuts of the electives that quite often make ours a distinctive senior high compared to some of the surrounding communities," Erdahl said, in describing the proposal. "These are programs that, as far as I know, probably go back to the founding of the school, at least in some form or another."

Board member Mike Roberts brought up the same argument for the high school cuts as Conlin did for the middle school cuts.

"There's no doubt ... if we have to make these cuts, we're going to lose even more money because we are going to lose students," Roberts said. "There's no doubt. That's just the reality of it."

Eliminate art and music at elementary schools

Continuing on the theme of cutting non-core studies, the group them discussed eliminating the art and music programs at the elementary schools.

"These programs have already been drawn down over the past years. This is all that's left of them," Erdahl said.

The cuts would eliminate 3.55 FTE and save the district $324,959.73.

The discussion initially revolved around whether the state requires these programs to be offered.

It turns out, it does not.

According to Director of Curriculum Kelli Jacobi, the programs must be offered at the middle school and high school levels, but are only recommended for kindergarten through fifth grade.

Brian Carpenter, who teaches art to kindergarteners all the way up to eighth graders, said there is far too much data supporting the academic advantages of art and music to cut them.

"There are statistics out there that show the kids involved in art and music do much better than those that aren't," Carpenter said. "The more classes they're involved in, the better they do."

Closing NCES and NCSS

Transitioning from cutting programs to cutting entire schools, the discussion turned next to the option of closing the two charter schools - the Northwoods Community Elementary School (NCES) and NCSS.

Closing NCES would save the district $716,942 and eliminate all FTE positions.

Closing NCSS would save the district $398,750 and eliminate all FTE positions.

The kids at the charter schools would be integrated into their corresponding schools.

Many of those kids, however, would probably leave the district to be home-schooled or to attend a different school, Erdahl said, while adding that moving NCES to a different location is not an option as it would slash the savings and still result in kids leaving the district.

Erdahl also pointed out that NCES is the best performing school in the district, according to the recently released State Report Cards.

"It's the highest scoring school in the district," Erdahl said. "It's a school full of students who transferred from other attendance areas and, in some cases, from outside the district. It's with extreme reluctance that this is on there, like all the other drawdowns, because I do think we will lose students from that school. Those are parents who are highly engaged and are a big part of the operation of that school."

Cutting FTE at RHS, JWMS

The discussion ended with the consideration of cutting four FTE from both RHS and JWMS.

The cuts would save a combined $640,000.

This move would create larger class sizes, which Conlin said would seriously hinder the ability of teachers to achieve what the board and the district requires of them.

"If we are going to go to huge class sizes, (teachers) couldn't do what we're asking (them) to do and that's critical to our kids being successful." Conlin said.

Reduce spending on activities/athletics

The drawdown list initially called for a $25,000 cut to the activities budget, but after the board received a lot of negative feedback from people in the audience about the low dollar amount when compared to the other cuts, the board and the administration agreed to increase the amount.

The total budget for activities and athletics is about $700,000. The board will use this figure for future discussions.

Other options

At the end of the discussion, board members were asked for their opinions on what was discussed.

None were happy about any of the options and some brought forward other options to consider.

Board members said cuts to administration need to be on the table and insurance coverage is another area where possible savings may be found.

The board also wants more options that may have smaller dollar amounts attached to them but also carry less of an affect on the educational programs in the district.

Board members said they hope more community members show up to the budget meetings in order to gauge their response to the proposed cuts.

The next budget meeting will be on Nov. 13 at 7 p.m.

Marcus Nesemann may be reached at

Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, November 16, 2012
Article comment by: Chris Hansen

I just love the private/public sector comparisons. Are you proposing that we should hire private companies to perform the work that public workers do now? This would include law enforcement, fire protections, and school teaching? How would they be held accountable? You would rather have a private company, concerned only with their bottom line, do law enforcement in your community? Instead, I would rather have an elected Sheriff, who selects deputies based on recommendations from a civil service commission. I would rather have the elected county board members negotiate their wages. I would rather have elected county board members hear their grievances. That is truly representative democracy.

Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2012
Article comment by: Chris Hansen

Loralee, I appreciate your passion, but your information is wrong. You can't blame this school board or administration for closing those schools. They were forced to make cuts because referendums didn't go through. It is cheaper to operate one building than three, that is a fact. I suggest you go sit down with the financial officer for the school district so she can explain the problems to you, because you obviously don't understand. Cuts have to be made, now we must decide what we are going to cut. Everyone will defend their favorite programs without offering a viable alternative. It's the classic "I'm all for cuts, as long as it doesn't affect me." It's going to affect all of us in some way. Are we going to cut even more teachers and their benefits so that we have morons teaching our kids? Are we going to cut the electives and leave our kids unprepared for college? Or are we going to pay more out of our pockets to get the results we want? Those are the questions to be answered.

Posted: Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Article comment by: Kevin South

Gee - I thought he was "evil management." I just wonder what his Golden Parachute is, you know his separation benefit, the buyback of the remaining sick leave and vacation pay. Just like the private sector rich CEOs, but I guess since he is yours it's OK with the taxpayers picking up the tab rather than in the private sector where the customer determines whether or not to reward a company by buying its product (with many choices or alternatives), because it satisfies a need.

Posted: Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Article comment by: LoraLee Jensen

First of all, the school district would not have the problem of over crowded classrooms if they would have kept some the schools open instead of closing buildings and selling them or letting them sit. Plus the district would not have had to spend money on adding on to buildings because of their own mistake of closing those other school buildings in the first place. They wasted money doing that and now the hundreds of thousands dollars they don't have now, they are finding themselves in a bind because of their own mistake. Plus, if those buildings were still open, you would have smaller classroom sizes and would not need a program like SAGE thus saving more money.
To cut programs like art, music,and even sports (and by the way we as parents do pay a fee for our kids to participate in athletics) is totally insane. I would bet that the community would not allow this at all because most of us grew up learning something in those type of classes. These are the classes that many entertainers and famous athletes came from. The junior high and high school is where kids get excited to be in because of those electives. These give them a chance to experience something different and something they might enjoy for the rest of their lives. I have a son who is in both music and sports and he is excited about these things and it makes his day go by better because it breaks up the normal classroom experience and gives him a chance to express his other talents. I'm sure other students feel the same. Look at drama...the high school has influenced many kids in that department. Some have gone on to Nicolet drama and have majored in the arts at universities and have gone on from there. Classes like shop...look at the houses these kids have made for our very own community. That is "real" learning. Plus, many of these students have gotten great jobs in our very own community. Kids from auto shop now work on your cars and do a fantastic job. These classes boost our economy.
To cut any elective that has been around in the school district for many years is a shame. The ridiculous extra spending the school district has spent with the taxes we as the community pay every year is a shame and now they want to cut the things that really matter in a child's life? My vote is a definite "no" for cutting these programs.
Like I said before, if the other buildings were still open (some that just got remodeled the year prior) the district would have saved some money and would not be looking at over-filled classrooms and extra programs so that now kids can get individual attention in learning. These kids could have gotten all that with smaller class sizes with these other buildings still being open. It worked when we went to school in our day and the teachers were able to help us learn both on an individual basis and in a class setting and it would have still worked today. Foolish spending in the schools is frowned upon and will come back to bite them and for the district it has.
As an added note: I for one love going to see the kids in their band and chorus concerts and many in the community do too plus the drama productions pull the public's interest as well.

Posted: Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Article comment by: Chris Hansen

I guess Kevin expects employees to work for free. You could cut the benefits of every employee and it would not make up the $3 million. As far as finding out the information, go get it yourself and let us know. Why does someone have to do it for you? Did you ever think that Erdahl worked somewhere else first? That's why he only has 11 years here. At least you can't blame the union this time.

Posted: Monday, November 12, 2012
Article comment by: Kevin South

It would be nice to know how much taxpayers are on the hook for Dr. Erdahl's pension and healthcare benefits going forward. I'm sure most in the private sector would also enjoy this level of compensation at separation of employment. After all, 11 years would be a career in most working fields. Once again, the 1 percenters gain on the little people. I'm sure this information is available from public documents and should be published, if for nothing less than to shut up the "anti-education" crowd.

Posted: Sunday, November 11, 2012
Article comment by: Chuck Brack

Thanks Gov. Walker. It's not working.

Posted: Saturday, November 10, 2012
Article comment by: Lauri Millot

The budget situation in Rhinelander is dire and cutting electives and/or co-curriculars will not solve the problem nor is it good for children. Moreover, it is shameful to pit electives against co-curriculars since both are essential to preparing a student for the "real" world. Electives are required in order to be admitted to both two and four year colleges and/or for the immediate employment of RHS students. Co-curriculars, which are less than 2.5 percent of the budget and include academic-based and fine art-based activities, are essential to teaching students communication skills, problem solving skills, teamwork and how to respond to adversity. We need to solve this financial problem in a way that recognizes not only the fiscal constraints of our community, but also our responsibility and commitment to educating our students.

Posted: Saturday, November 10, 2012
Article comment by: Danielle Wunrow

How about cutting some administration and sports. If you want your kids to be in sports, then help raise the money. And have a fee to play in the sports program. But to cut teachers and add more kids in a classroom is very disturbing. Also, to cut electives such as: art, FACS, band and chorus is disheartening. Some kids do those, because they might not be athlete. I wouldn't be opposed to my taxes going up some. I know that might not be an option for many people though.

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