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Referendum among proposed solutions to school district's financial woes

July 9, 2014

Mequon — Faced with a decline in student enrollment and revenue, a committee of community stakeholders has suggested the Mequon-Thiensville School District consider a facilities referendum, a 4-year-old kindergarten program and other strategic moves to balance the district's financial books.

The committee of 17 community members was established in January with the goal to find solutions for the educational quality and financial sustainability of the school district, which has seen a 10.6 percent drop in enrollment over the past nine years. The committee met 12 times over five months, learning the scope of the district's fiscal condition and exploring a wide range of solutions and options.

The Mequon-Thiensville School Board discussed the committee's final recommendations on Tuesday night. It remains up to the board's discretion whether it heeds the committee's advice. Mequon-Thiensville School Board President Mary Cyrier said the report "will serve the board well in discussing next steps."

Among the committee's recommendations is a facilities referendum, which would fund maintenance and cover the cost of capital improvements and life cycle improvements over a 10-year period. The report said the referendum would "provide a short- and medium-term cushion to budget shortfalls created by unanticipated repairs and maintenance projects that would otherwise come out of annual operating funds, while maintaining a sufficient fund balance."

Superintendent Demond Means said it is up to the board's discretion whether they pursue a facilities referendum, or how large of a scope the referendum would take. The School Board discussed a long-range facilities plan in April that is estimated to cost $12.5 million if implemented.

"The recommendation for a facilities referendum does have a clear connection to the facilities plan that was presented to the board in April," Means said.

Aggressive recruitment

The committee saw potential to increase enrollment by recruiting residents and non-residents, while also encouraging young families to buy homes in Mequon and Thiensville.

The committee hopes to increase enrollment from residents who may be inclined to attend a private or parochial school, and also recruit non-residents by offering more open enrollment seats. Superintendent Demond Means said the district typically loses 18 to 20 percent of school-age residents to private schools, which he said is about average compared with other districts he has worked in.

Enrollment could also rise with a 4-year-old kindergarten program — an idea that has previously been proposed by the administration and rejected by the School Board. The board last considered the possibility of a 4K program in November 2010, when it was shot down by a 4-3 vote.

Although there are some start-up costs associated with a 4K program, the committee expects it will start generating funds within about three years. In its report, the committee said a 4K program would create more overall student enrollment, provide enhanced educational programming and attract and retain more young families who become invested in Mequon-Thiensville schools.

The School Board is also working with the villages of Mequon and Thiensville to attract enrollment by offering more affordable housing with smaller lot sizes. The Mequon Common Council's recent creation of the central growth zoning district would reduce 5-acre lot zoning to allow for 1-acre residential lots between Wauwatosa and Swan roads north of Donges Bay Road. The area, located just south of the Knightsbridge and Brighton Ridge subdivisions, will also expected to be connected to public sewer and public water service.

The zoning change helps pave the way for the school district to potentially sell a 111-acre lot it owns in the area. If voters authorize the sale of the land on Monday, July 21, the district estimates it could make $1.9 million by selling the land to a real estate developer.

Operating like a business

The committee recommended the board continue to find new ways to operate more like a business. The committee encouraged the board to consolidate or outsource services, as the board did with its custodial service in 2010. The committee also encouraged the board to continue to move teacher compensation away from a seniority-based model toward pay systems based on merit, effectiveness and productivity.

The committee also suggested the school district examine the possibilities of consolidating or reconfiguring school buildings to be more efficient. In 2005, the district closed Range Line Elementary School at an estimated $1.2 million annual savings. The board was presented with the possibility of reconfiguring grade levels during a facilties study discussion in 2012 but decided against it at the time.

The committee also suggested the district develop fundraising strategies beyond those used by the Mequon-Thiensville Education Foundation, such as reaching out to alumni, businesses and others interested in sponsorships, naming rights and donations.

Despite their recommendations, the committee found that the biggest financial obstacles facing the district are caused by the state funding formula, as well as state-imposed revenue limits, have shifted control of local school districts to state control. The committee suggested the school district do more to inform the Mequon-Thiensville community about state revenue limits, and have community members lobby their elected officials to push for reform in public school funding.

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