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Mequon district panel begins finance talks

April 2, 2014

Mequon — While the school district's recently formed ad hoc committee hasn't yet endorsed any of the ideas, topics of conversation Monday ranged from the feasibility and details of a potential referendum, to the sale of district properties, to reviving the idea of a district-run 4-K program, and ways to compete with local private schools for students.

As a result of declining enrollment in recent years — which is directly tied to per student funding by the state's school funding formula and revenue limits — Mequon-Thiensville has routinely closed six and seven-figure gaps in its annual budgeting process. Administrators project a continued decline in enrollment and estimate a resulting $800,000 budget shortfall in the next several years.

Consensus among the ad hoc committee Monday was that its final recommendation to the School Board should be a package of both revenue-increasing and cost-reducing items that addresses the projected shortfalls.

Mediator Howard Bellman suggested the committee should begin solidifying its choices as soon as possible.

"Sooner, rather than later, you're going to have to express some preferences," Bellman said. "We need to get to that sooner than later, but not without giving everything a fair hearing."

Time constraints kept the committee from addressing potential cost reductions on Monday but they will address a list of suggested measures at an April 9 meeting.

Selling a referendum

Committee members and administrators alike acknowledged the difficulty of selling a referendum to the Mequon-Thiensville community. In 2002, a five-year, $9.5 million maintenance and general operating cost referendum was defeated by a 58 percent majority of voters; in 2006 voters rejected with a 57 percent vote a referendum to raise taxes by $7.5 million over a three-year period to cover deficits, address deferred maintenance, and fund technology upgrades.

Superintendent Demond Means said the 2002 defeat was a "push-back" of sorts after the successful 1998 referendum to remodel Homestead High School, and the 2006 defeat was the result of an inability on the part of the district to clearly communicate its needs to voters.

Since then, Means said the district has been careful not to mention the "R-word" until now.

Committee members agreed that, if they end up recommending a referendum, it couldn't be the only recommendation and means of stabilizing district finances, but would rather need to fit into a larger package.

"It can't be some sort of referendum that solves this for three years ... no one's going to vote for that," said committee member Jim Popp. "You have to have a believable and achievable business plan on how you're going to get to the other side."

Means commented that, absent an increase in revenue, there will need to be a significant change to the district's instructional model, likely through some combination of technology and increased class sizes.

Committee members emphasized the need to educate voters on the district's enrollment and financial issues, particularly the majority of voters who don't have have students in the district.

Sales and students

A revival of a proposed fourth-grade-kindergarten (4-K) program, the sale of district-owned land, and further rentals of district properties also were considered as ways to increase revenue.

4-K has been twice rejected in recent years. Means said the opposition has argued that the resulting increase in enrollment will in effect raise taxes; committee member David Fuchs added that the idea was criticized because it was proposed in partnership with local religious institutions who would have had to remove religious materials from the classroom and curriculum.

Means contended Mequon-Thiensville could run a better program than any private or parochial school in the area and the program would get young families into the area and district, therefore aiding in the enrollment problem. Committee members agreed that area private, parochial, and public schools which offer 4-K have an advantage since they get kids in the door at a younger age.

Administrators said the sale of district-owned land could bring in between $1.6 million and $1.9 million, depending on the density of developments. Means said the district doesn't have any "preconceived notions" about what will be built there, but will rather be looking for "the best deal."

Also mentioned was the possibility of expanding rentals at the former Range Line school site, though the second floor would need to be renovated before the district could rent it.

THE NEXT STEP

WHAT: Ad hoc committee meeting, discussion of potential cost reduction measures

WHEN: 7 p.m. April 9

WHERE: Egelhoff Conference Room, 5000 W. Mequon Road

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