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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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Wausaukee School Referendum Defeated

Issue Date: February 20, 2008

Wausaukee School District voters flocked to the polls Tuesday, Feb. 19 to defeat by more than a three to one margin a referendum proposal that would have raised their property taxes by $4.125 million over otherwise legal limits during the next four years. Total vote was 1,334 against the referendum proposal and 394 against.

The only close "vote" was in Porterfield, where no votes were cast for or against the referendum. In Silver Cliff and Athelstane where a registered Political Action Committee (PAC) was organized to oppose the referendum, vote was more than eight to one against.

The school district has been facing budget shortfalls of more than $354,000 a year. Its once healthy general fund balance is now projected to be over $700,000 in the negative by the end of the 2009-2010 school year if nothing changes. The specter of closing the school looms on the horizon.

Nevertheless, voters in every one of the geographically huge district"s eight municipalities rejected the proposal. The referendum asked that the school board be authorized to exceed the revenue limit under state statutes by $1.125 million for 2008-09, and $1 million each of the next three years on a non-recurring basis.

Vote in the Village of Wausaukee was closer than in any of the towns where votes were cast, with 56 in favor and 115 against the referendum. Margin was wider in the towns, where Amberg tallies were 69 in favor, 253 against; Athelstane 25 in favor, 211 against; Middle Inlet, one in favor, six against; Silver Cliff, 25 in favor, 180 against; Wagner, 82 in favor, 201 against, and Town of Wausaukee, 136 in favor and 368 against.

The opposition PAC, organized in Silver Cliff and Athelstane under the name, "Citizens for Sustainable Education," claims adherents from throughout the district. At half a dozen meetings since Feb. 6 spokesmen urged rejection in favor of a shorter term referendum tied to budget reforms not yet specified.

Organizers on a prepared informational packet are listed as Gerry Gerbers, Bill Woger, Bill Kipp and Bruce Mueller.

At the Wausaukee Village Board meeting Wednesday, Feb. 13 Gerbers described the proposed referendum as, "Ill designed and ill conceived," in that it offered no long-term solutions.

He and Dave Kipp urged rejection, saying that if nothing else changes after four years of higher taxes the district would be faced with the same problem it faces today: not enough income to cover the budget the board has determined as necessary to carry out operations. They favored coming back with a 2-year referendum proposal with lesser increases to pull the district through while some changes are made.

Gerbers cited figures showing that the district is property rich and income poor. Wausaukee School District residents have family and individual incomes below the state average. More than 10 percent of the population is at or below the poverty level. He and Kipp said residents cannot afford more tax increases.

Village President Clark Caine argued that the state kicks in and pays property taxes for poor households under the Homestead property Tax Relief law, "so that is really not an issue."

Gerbers reviewed a bit of the state aid formula. Wausaukee, because of huge amounts of recreational properties which are rapidly rising in value, gets only 14.93 percent of its expenses reimbursed by the state. Peshtigo gets five times more aid per student than Wausaukee.

Norbert Van Den Elzen, speaking from the audience, declared the PAC spokesmen were advocating a "no" vote, followed by a second referendum of lesser proportions, "but you don"t have a recommendation on how to achieve a solvent school district."

"We believe we do," Gerbers replied. He said details of their plan will be presented at school board meetings starting immediately after the referendum vote.

"We can"t keep spending more than we get," he declared. "There are management problems here and we want these issues resolved. We are willing, and we think able, to be part of the solution."

Ann Hartnell asked why not call for approval of this referendum, and use that approval anyway to buy time for the changes they plan to propose. She said the school board would not be obligated to levy the full amount authorized by the referendum.

Caine also urged approving the referendum, then pushing for change.

Gerbers asked Caine what he felt was the possibility the referendum would pass. "I think it was designed to fail," Caine responded.

"If by their own figures we are insolvent after the third year, where is the solution?" asked Gerbers.

June Caine said at the Amberg meeting Gerbers had suggested Wausaukee should become a charter school. That, she said, had been tried a few years ago and was rejected by the state.

Trustee Jeff Townsend hoped people would realize the damage loss of the school would cause to the village economy. The real solution, he suggested, "is to get more students." He said people need to sit down as professionals and figure out how to improve the schools so parents will move to Wausaukee because they want their kids attending school there.

Kipp agreed entirely.

Townsend said another issue is the number of home schooled students in the geographically huge district. Gerbers said he met with District Superintendent Jan Dooley recently and one suggestion he made was that parents should be contacted whenever a child is removed from the school to be educated at home to find out why their decision was made. "Our district is broken and we need to fix it," he declared. From the entire 108 square miles of Silver Cliff, only 26 children are sent to school in Wausaukee.

Caine did not feel property taxes would go up even if the referendum passed, and charged members of the PAC "are going around scaring people by saying they are." Later discussion indicated taxes on a $100,000 property would go up about $169.

Gerbers disagreed, and said time is needed to work on the problems. There have been some significant changes in the administration and board and no continuity in management.

Gerbers said the one thing the referendum accomplished was to bring the issue to everyone"s attention.

District Resident Kipp, a candidate for school board said he has spent over 40 hours a week for the last six months trying to solve the school"s financial problems. "I can assure you, if the referendum passes and nothing else is done, in four years we"ll still have the same problem."

Gerbers said Dooley also sees the need to work together and solve the school district problems as a community.

Caine said he had talked to Dooley and some board members about ways to cut costs, "and they"re not interested."

"I talked with Jan a number of times and I never got the idea she doesn"t want to cut costs," Kipp declared.

Trustee Rosie Figas asked Gerbers what his group was doing to influence the state to change its school funding formula. Gerbers said the 48 "northern lake districts" in the state are all facing the same financial problems. He said members of their group met several times with Sen. Roger Breske, but the northern districts don"t have enough votes to force change in Madison. He said Crivitz is in almost the same position as Wausaukee, only a little behind. "They"ll be where we are next year," he predicted.

Questioned again about solutions, Gerbers suggested, "If we cut back to just the necessities, everyone will be interested in fixing the district." He said no one wants to lose the district.

June Caine objected to "all the negative publicity" generated by a group of outsiders. "My grandparents homesteaded here," she declared. "There has been so much negative publicity that nobody is talking about all our accomplishments. You"re so tied up with tax dollars you don"t see what we"re doing for the kids."

"I have grandkids in the district too," Kipp declared.

Caine said if the district is dissolved properties will be assigned to other school districts, mostly Crivitz.

Trustee Hilbert Radtke said people in Madison and Milwaukee do not realize the difficulties faced by rural districts under existing funding formulas, and we don"t have enough votes here to change it.

A suggestion from the floor was to enlist the help of non-resident property owners, since they also pay taxes in the district. Get them to contact their legislators from parts of the state where there are enough votes.

Hartnell agreed, but said even a concerted campaign from all of Marinette County might make a huge difference.

Ron Lawrence, owner of Coleman Engineering of Iron Mountain, who was at the meeting on other issues related to community economic development, said he was amazed to learn about the district"s financial crisis as soon as Dooley came aboard, when previous administrators had been assuring everyone that things were okay. He said viewing the situation as an ex-school administrator, "There"s been a real lack of leadership here. It doesn"t matter what you pass...You could throw all the money in the world at it..You need leadership and you need to market the school."

Kipp agreed. "That school is a $7 million a year business and that"s the way you have to run it."

Former Trustee Ray Gordon, seated in the audience, felt with Dooley the district now has an administrator who will provide the necessary leadership. "I think she can pick it up and turn things around if she"s given a chance," he declared. Others agreed.

Gerbers said the school will pull through and be stronger if administration, staff, school board and members of the community all work together, and if they avoid getting heels dug in and confusing personality conflicts with issues.

Later in the meeting Caine explained he had put an ad in the paper supporting the school referendum, "and was very meticulous about making sure the numbers were correct." He said villasge assessed value had gone up $7 million, and value of the district had nearly doubled to $26,600,000 in the last several years. The mill rate dropped but the amounts of tax dollars collected stayed the same. He predicted property values would continue to rise, and as a result the referendum would have actually caused no tax increase.


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