by Sarah Squires
The Cochrane-Fountain City School Board voted to raise the district property tax levy by 14 percent for 2010, a figure that tops the region in increases for local major taxing authorities.
Citing an 11 percent reduction in state aid for 2009 totaling $434,000 in cuts, district authorities say they found themselves without many options last July, when the funding scenario was clear. With layoff notices for contracted employees for the 2009-10 school year having been due in March, school district leaders said in a release that employee layoffs for the 2009 budget were "effectively impossible."
Superintendent Tom Hiebert advised the board to avoid spending down the district fund balance, which could force the district at times to use short-term borrowing to make payroll, according to district finance memos. "So if the district can't effectively lay off employees and if it is not advisable to get into short term borrowing by spending down the fund balance, the remaining solution is local property tax," read the memo.
Wisconsin school districts have a complex funding formula, but it basically boils down to two sources of revenue: state aid and local property taxes. The district is funded with about two-thirds of its budget from state money alongside about one-third in local property tax dollars. State revenue has dropped in recent years, say C-FC officials, and the district has responded with cuts between $150,000 to $300,000 each year. But now, in light of no signs the state funding cuts will end, the district funding solution, they say, forced a 14 percent increase.
“The state of Wisconsin reduced funding to the schools at the eleventh hour when it was too late to change the employment picture of the school,” said Board vice chair Steve Scharlau. “That left the local school board with the choice of radical mid-year cuts, or using local property tax.”
Alongside that increase, C-FC Board members voted to levy $25,000 for Community Education programming. In recent years the board has opted to calculate funds not related to K-12 curriculum all together, and the $25,000 figure fell far short of the recommended $75,000 to be levied for the programs. District officials have recently recommended that the district close parts of the school, such as the gym, to the public on Wednesdays and Sundays to help draw down the costs of maintaining services to the public, but the board voted to keep them open, for now.
And although district officials seemed to reject the idea of trimming extra-curriculars too much — with the threat of families choosing to open enroll to find those programs elsewhere — it's clear that cuts will be coming to programs outside of curriculum.