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Mequon-Thiensville School District faces tough choices to fit strategic plan into budget

Mequon-Thiensville leaders face the future

Dec. 4, 2012

Mequon - Does the Mequon-Thiensville School District want to tailor its 2013-14 budget to keep what it has? Or does it want to take up new initiatives and aim higher, despite the difficult decisions and sacrifices needed to make that happen?

Those were the questions Superintendent Demond Means posed to the School Board at a Monday evening working meeting, at which the timeline for creating the 2013-14 budget and financial realities of the district's recently approved strategic plan came into focus.

Alongside the board's conceptual strategic plan is an administrator-created action plan which includes a number of initiatives meant to execute the strategy. If the board were to approve all action plan initiatives and use all of its projected available funding next year, the 2013-14 budget would run a six-figure deficit, which means the board would have to leave out parts of the action plan, cut current programming to make room in the budget, or use district reserves to fill the gap.

"If we were going to wait to pay for things the way we want to, those days are gone," Means told the board. "They're not coming back. We're going to have to make some tough business decisions."

Board members are expected to make those decisions as they gear up to vote on a preliminary budget in March.

Balancing act

When it comes to implementing the administrative action plan throughout the district to realize the board's strategic plan, there's a limited amount of money to work with.

The total price tag for all possible 2013-14 strategic plan initiatives - though the board can pick and choose, or approve less funding than requested on items - is approximately $888,000, and operational costs are expected to increase by about $781,000.

Including the $725,000 contingency fund built up through health insurance plan modifications and an expiring two-year employee salary freeze, administration estimates having about $1.1 million in available funding as a result of debt refinancing, increasing Open Enrollment, one full-time staff reduction, and an increase in per-pupil funding from the state.

If the board were to implement all 2013-14 action items - however unlikely - and use all estimated additional funding, the 2013-14 budget would run a deficit of nearly $531,000.

In order to avoid a shortfall the board would need to leave out parts of the action plan, fill the gap with district reserves, or look to a list of approximately $3.5 million dollars in potential budget cuts. The 41-item list of possible cuts is ranked by impact to strategic plan goals, with the least impactful item being an increase in high school class size resulting from a single teacher cut, and the highest-impact item being the reduction of five full-time literacy specialists.

Means said there is a point on the list where cutting "deep is too deep" and would compromise quality of education. After the board meeting, Means declined to comment on where that point is, saying he would tell the board publicly at an upcoming Jan. 7 working meeting.

Increasing enrollment

The highest priority 2013-14 initiative is a K-6 (kindergarten to sixth grade) world languages program, which would help the district draw students away from area schools and toward Mequon-Thiensville, Means told the board.

"The real core of the (action plan) is the K-6 world language," Means said. "If you want to compete with some of the more prominent private and parochial schools, we have to have that program."

As part of the administrative action plan the district is also looking to hire a Community Relations Director, who, in addition to developing relationships with local businesses and maintaining the district website, would work to market the district to parents thinking about moving to the area - and maybe more importantly, students and parents on the fence about going private or public.

Board member Gary Laev said that increased enrollment is key in the district's future, but balked at the $107,000 price tag of the Community Relations Director, saying the district should use its existing marketing budget and website to leverage its reputation.

"We have a top notch school," Laev said. "It's been getting a lot of recognition publicly, and we should use that."

Board member Cheryle Rebholz didn't support the Community Relations Director position either, saying that "it's taking revenues away from the students and the teachers."

Means contested that the position could indirectly bolster classrooms by drawing more students, which would mean more revenue and therefore more programming.

More revenue?

Included in the action plan are potential sources of additional district revenue, including a 4-year-old kindergarten program, the sale of naming rights and district land, and an operational referendum.

In keeping with statements from earlier board meetings, Laev said that he wouldn't support any additional revenue sources outside of increased enrollment. Rebholz said a continuation of employee salary freezes needs to be worked into the budget conversation, though Means recommends a pay bump.

The rest of the board did not comment on which sources of revenue they would or wouldn't support.

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