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Mequon-Thiensville district confronts challenge of keeping best-in-state performance despite declining enrollment and funding

Feb. 5, 2014

Mequon — It's a straightforward question with a not-so-straightforward answer: How to keep the state's top rated K-12 school district up to snuff when student enrollment, and therefore funding, have been steadily decreasing over the years?

That is the quandary a newly formed committee will take on as it attempts to rectify the Mequon-Thiensville School District's high-flying performance with its perennially red ledger.

Over the years the district has attempted one referendum and implemented numerous budget cuts to offset revenue losses. Nevertheless, with an awareness that the funding dilemma could someday jeopardize the quality of education within the district, the School Board decided last year to create the committee.

In January, the board approved the 17-resident committee roster, which includes lawyers, businesspeople, education advocates, and others representing the Mequon and Thiensville communities.

The board recently brainstormed its own, six-part definition of quality education. It's now up to the committee to create a plan to financially sustain that quality.

"It's a huge task," School Board President Mary Cyrier said. "We tried to define (quality) as a board, so that the committee can begin their work. It's very broad and we want it that way, because we don't want to limit their thinking in any way."

The committee met for the first time last week and will meet again at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the former Range Line School building to continue bringing its members up to speed on the issue. Co-chairmen Jon Safran and Brian Levy say they plan to meet twice monthly and have a solid proposal to the School Board by May.

"We hope it's not going to be these broad, large platitudes," Safran said of the committee's goal. "It's got to be something actionable that (the School Board) can do, that there is something the committee can offer and they can really act on."

Though it's too early to say what measures they may propose, Safran and Levy say that nothing is off the table.

Continuing issue

While enrollment has held nearly steady throughout Wisconsin as a whole, the Mequon-Thiensville student population has decreased by 427 students — about 10.6 percent overall, or 1.2 percent annually — over the last nine years, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

Since school funding is directly tied to enrollment, the decline has forced the district to routinely close six and sometimes seven-figure gaps in its annual budget cycle. In 2005, the district closed Range Line Elementary School at an estimated $1.2 million annual savings.

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In 2006, the School Board appealed to voters to allow the district to exceed its state-mandated revenue limit by $7.5 million over a three-year period. At the time, administrators said the extra cash would allow the district to cover its continuing deficits, address some deferred maintenance, and fund technology upgrades.

Voters rejected the referendum with a 57 percent majority.

Since then, the district has cut its budget each year in a variety of ways, including outsourcing custodial work, scaling back bus routes and transport, reducing support services, and freezing salaries.

Scheduling changes at Homestead were geared toward getting the most instructional time out of fewer teachers. When the first schedule redesign was reported to have put too big a load on teachers, the resulting trimester system was a compromise between teachers and administrators.

Administrators also resorted to benefit cuts in light of their expanded powers under Act 10. As part of its strategic planning process, the board has identified a list of 40 budget cuts, implemented in the two most recent budget seasons.

When the School Board and Mequon Common Council met last year to discuss the possible sale and development of district-owned properties — a move which could provide a cash infusion and help mitigate the enrollment problem in the short-term — Superintendent Demond Means said that since he came to the district in 2005, "We've done the equivalent of closing a school, but internally."

High ranking

Despite the belt tightening, Mequon-Thiensville has continued to rate high on school district rankings in recent years.

In 2011, Mequon-Thiensville was named the best Milwaukee metro area district by Milwaukee Magazine. More recently, Forbes ranked the district third in the nation, and first in Wisconsin, for "best for your housing buck."

When the state Department of Public Instruction for the first time issue district report cards last fall, Mequon-Thiensville took second overall in the state and was the top-rated Wisconsin K-12 district.

But school leaders say the creation of the committee signals a recognition that a tipping point exists in the future when the enrollment issue, and resulting budget cuts, could compromise educational quality within the district.

"You can't continue to go to methods such as implementing salary freezes or reducing staff at large levels and hope to sustain the quality of excellence that you want," Means said.

Gathering opinions

Enter the newly formed ad hoc committee, whose job will be to formulate a plan to maintain that quality despite the continuing budget issues. In such a scenario the two obvious courses of action are to either cut spending or increase revenue.

Co-chairmen Safran and Levy said a nuanced consideration of those two options, or one of the many possible iterations of a combined solution, will likely be the bulk of the committee's work.

They say that while nothing has been proposed yet, the committee members have a broad and diverse set of opinions on how to go about solving the financial problem.

"Nothing is off the table," Levy said. "Ideas that could be new, that haven't been tried before, or ideas that have been dismissed in the past can be revisited."

Levy and Safran said the sensitive nature of the topic, and the need for frank conversation, may require them to take the talks behind closed doors at times. They also said they may bring in a third-party facilitator to moderate the discussion.

"We want to make sure people feel comfortable enough expressing their opinions, not being second guessed or not feeling that they can express themselves however they want," Safran said.

Concerning a facilitator, Safran added: "Everyone has a bias. If you have a neutral (person) that facilitates the conversation, that can be helpful."

The next two scheduled meetings are open to the public and will take place at Range Line School, 11040 N. Range Line Road, at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 6 and at the same time Feb. 18.

CHANGES OVER TIME

2005: District closes Range Line School

2006: Residents reject with a 57 percent majority a three-year, $7.5 million referendum. Administrators warn of impending cuts.

2007-2010 (Pre-Act 10): District outsources custodial work, scales back bus routes and transport, uses scheduling changes to deal with staff reductions (this later becomes the trimester at HHS), reduces support services, and implements various salary freezes.

2011-present (Post-Act 10): District reduces retirement and healthcare benefits. As part of a strategic planning process the School Board creates a list of 40 potential budget cuts and later begins using them in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 budgeting processes.

DEFINITION OF QUALITY:

The School Board's six-part definition of district quality, ranked in order of importance:

1. Attract and retain highly qualified and talented staff committed to the well-being and personal growth of children

2. K-12 comprehensive educational program and opportunities, including co- and extra-curricular activities

3. Assess and provide supports for all students for their academic and social well-being

4. Expectations and requirements for all students that correlate with 4-year college/university requirements

5. Professional temperament, experience and preparation of teachers

6. High level of structure and processes

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