July 13, 2008

La Crosse School Board Faces Tough Choices Before Referendum Decision

By Autumn Grooms, La Crosse Tribune, Wis.

Jul. 13--With buildings in need of repair and a potential budget shortfall looming, the La Crosse School Board faces hard decisions in the coming months.

nWhether to again ask voters to approve borrowing for building maintenance or new construction. nWhether to close one or more elementary schools.

nWhether to save teacher compensation costs associated with the district's commitment to a 15-to-1 student-teacher ratio in all elementary classrooms.

Since voters said no in April to a $35 million building referendum, school board members have grappled with what to do next.

Each option they've discussed would affect students, staff and taxpayers. Most have a ripple effect that makes cost-savings calculations difficult.

Proposals such as closing one or two elementary schools would force major changes in elementary school boundaries if a new school is not built. The variable nature of state and federal funding doesn't make it any easier, and sorting through the options has been a slow process.

The board voted last week to take a "no referendum" option off the table and focus on proposals that likely would go to referendum in November. The administration is to report back to the board July 21 with more details on the costs of Franklin and Roosevelt elementary schools; the idea of using $5 million and $10 million of the district's $33 million fund balance on facility needs; and enrollment projections for each school.

The district's future also likely will be discussed Friday and Saturday during a school board retreat.

Board member Deb Suchla described the situation as a "bidding war" between the school board and the community. Each time, the board comes back to voters asking for a little less money, she said.

"That's not ... public policy, and that's not how you do good work," Suchla said.

Suchla said the board needs to step up once again to ask for the funds to provide the best education possible for La Crosse students.

Although they said they won't support going to referendum, board members Dave Rudolph and Neil Duresky are confident a measure would pass in November.

"I think the odds are pretty good," Duresky said. "I just don't plan on voting for one at this time."

He said high voter turnout is expected in at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Viterbo University and Western Technical College, and referendum information was distributed there in April.

Duresky instead recommended organizing the community and getting a dialogue started about school district needs and possible options to meet those needs.


A rundown of the options the La Crosse School Board has discussed at recent meetings to come up with money for building repairs:

Eliminate SAGE

La Crosse began expanding the Student Achievement in Education program, which requires a ratio of one teacher to 15 or fewer students, in kindergarten through third grade districtwide to its non-charter schools after the SAGE law was passed in 1999.

The district receives $2,250 from the state for each student who receives free or reduced-price lunch in the program. Some federal funding also is provided to reduce class sizes, and the district absorbs the rest of the cost -- about $300,000, mostly for teacher compensation -- to maintain the 15-to-1 ratio, Doug Happel, associate superintendent of human resources, said earlier this year.

SAGE also means the district needs to maintain more classrooms than it would if the limit instead was 20 or more students per class. However, the amount of savings is difficult to determine: Canceling the program in one or more schools would cause a reshuffling of students and teachers.

The state no longer is accepting SAGE applications, and Janet Rosseter, executive director of business services for the district, said if the district discontinued the program at any of its elementary schools, it would not be able to bring it back.

Close a school

The future of Roosevelt and Franklin elementary schools needs to be decided, regardless how the district deals with its budget crunch. Board members repeatedly have said a school must be closed, but no one wants to say definitively which one. Some say closing a school now is the answer. Others want to wait and see whether a referendum passes in November.

Closing Roosevelt, for instance, would save about $410,000 in staffing costs, Rosseter said.

Close two schools

Closing two elementary schools would eliminate the cost of replacing two to three boilers and other building repairs.

A drawback would be a massive redrawing of elementary boundaries. In recent years, the district has dealt with changing boundaries by using buffer zones that grandfather in current students. But that wouldn't work in the cases of students attending a school slated for closure.

Build a new North Side elementary school

Proponents say consolidating Franklin Elementary School and Roosevelt Elementary/Coulee Montessori in a new building at the Franklin site would provide a new, improved learning environment and bring together the North Side community.

Maintenance issues at two of the district's oldest -- and neediest -- buildings would go away, and staffing costs would be reduced by $410,000 or more each year with administration and support staff required at only one site instead of two.

April referendum -- lite

This referendum proposal for $21.5 million in capital improvements would address the same facility needs the board put forth in its April package, but without a new school. Safety and security equipment would be installed in schools, as would new heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Facility needs such as bathroom and locker remodeling, window replacement, kitchen expansion, and classroom, elevator and stair tower additions also would be addressed.

"There's nothing that isn't important in there," board clerk Mary Larson said. "There is so much going for this district. If we could just get our basic systems in order," the district would be more appealing to outside families who want to take advantage of open enrollment.

Administration presented the board Monday with an option that would raise property taxes annually by an average of $29 per $100,000 of assessed value for 10 years or $22 for 15 years. Superintendent Jerry Kember said the figures are lower than in April because the district learned it could borrow the money in increments as work is done.

A scaled-back referendum

Some board members have deemed a few items on the facility needs list to be not as urgent as others. A $15 million facility needs referendum would address three-fourths of the total package with a reduced effect on annual property taxes -- $20 per $100,000 of assessed value for 10 years. The school board would need to reprioritize the district's needs to make this happen.

Board member Dave Rudolph is a fan of revamping the list of needs. He said items such as moving school offices and new door locks could be put on future capital improvement lists. "I think maybe it would be beneficial if we went through these things item by item," Rudolph said.

Dip into fund balance

Some board members have suggested the district dip into its $33 million fund balance to fix a few of the more "urgent" needs. They asked administration Monday to report back July 21 on the feasibility of using from $5 million to $10 million for repairs to reduce the amount potentially sought by referendum.

Rosseter said in May that the money only should be used for unforeseen expenditures or revenue shortfalls, and the district's needs -- although deemed "urgent" and "necessary" -- don't rise to that level. She stood by that statement Thursday.

Rosseter plans to review the fund balance, which includes cash in the bank as well as the district's payables and receivables, with the board July 21.

Use instructional dollars

Voters approved a $4.17 million operating referendum in April that allows the district to spend $2.9 million on student programs, plus another $775,000 for routine building maintenance and $500,000 for technology replacement beginning in the 2009-10 school year.

But school board members have said that without passing a capital referendum, instructional dollars are at stake because the budget is too tight.

Without a passed building referendum, board member Connie Troyanek said, the board will be forced to close at least one school and raise class sizes because "we don't have any money" to make the necessary repairs.

"I think we owe it to the public to let (voters) let us know whether they want to spend money or if they want larger class sizes and a school closed," she said.

Autumn Grooms can be reached at (608) 791-8424 or [email protected]


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