Enrollment declines continue to hamper Gilman
Gilman school district taxpayers will pay about the same for the school portion of their property tax bills this year as last year under a spending plan approved at Monday’s annual meeting.
At the meeting, district administrator Walter Leipart reviewed the proposed budget which includes projected expenditures of $6,750,870 up from $6,593,871 in the 2020-2021 budget. School districts operate on the same fiscal year as the state running from July 1 to June 30.
Under the budget as presented, the total school tax levy is about $2.8 million resulting in a tax rate of $10.72 per $1,000 of equalized value. Leipart explained that the goal when voters approved the last referendum to exceed the revenue cap was to keep the levy at about that $2.8 million mark.
This year the district needed to exceed the cap by $650,000 to make that happen.
Going forward the district will be asking voters approve another referendum in the spring to continue funding for the school as it faces continued declining enrollment. The current adjusted enrollment for the school district is 328. By comparison in 2019, the district had 371 students. For aid purposes the number of students is averaged over three years which puts the three-year average at 344 students.
According to Leipart, the number of actual students in the school is less when you take into account the students in the e-Succeed charter school program and the factored in average for the students in the summer school program.
Leipart said the district’s budget relies on federal ESSER funds released as part of the COVID-19 relief package. He said this will allow the district to run in the positive for this year, which will help in future years as the rate of declining enrollment is projected to accelerate.
By the 2024-2025 school year the district is project to have 273 students across all grades. Since state aid is tied to student enrollment numbers, the declining enrollment will continue to hit the school budget hard, shifting more operational expenses to the local taxpayers.
Leipart said a referendum planned for next spring would seek to continue to keep the levy dollar amount stable but the tax rate is projected to decline slightly over time as property values increase in the region.
Resident Darrell Romig questioned the amount of rent charged to e-Succeed, noting that $24,000 in rent for the full school year seem “pretty cheap.” Leipart explained that e-Succeed operates on a sum-sufficient model with all seven districts sharing in the expense or any surplus. However, under its charter agreement, no surplus funds would be given back to the districts until the fund balance was at 25%, a figure that has not yet been met. Leipart said e-Succeed is not costing the district any more money and is actually saving the district funds.
While electors approved the budget and levy, the school board will determine the final levy amount after all state aid numbers have been received.
Electors also approved the consent agenda items with routine authorizations to provide textbooks, sale of property, provide student transportation and participate in any lawsuits.
Electors also approved keeping the pay for board members the same as in recent years at $2,400 for the president, $2,800 for clerk and $2,200 for other board members. In addition they will be paid $50 for half days and $100 for full days while attending conferences or seminars.
During the public discussion portion of the meeting, Romig questioned why there were no fees being charged for those attending high school sport events.
Leipart explained that the district was struggling with adequate supervision of ticket sales and that they were ending up having to pay people to do it. While in the past, organizations would do this as a fundraising activity, it was noted that when sports restarted for the public last spring, only two groups expressed interest in doing it. While this could work for fall where there are limited numbers of home games each week, during the winter season with multiple games each week more groups are needed to make it work.
This led into concerns expressed by resident Lynn Skabroud that the board was not being transparent and open with the public especially when members of the public attend school board meetings with questions. Skabroud said she was embarrassed for a resident who came to a recent school board meeting with a question and was met with no response from the board.
“A little bit for courtesy would be helpful there,” she said. “We need to be very transparent and very courteous with someone in the room or we won’t pass the referendum we need to pass,” Skabroud said.
Board chairperson Cheryl Ustianowski explained that the public comment period is not a place for dialog with the board but for the board to hear from the public. She suggested that people should contact board members ahead of the meeting for something to get on the agenda to be discussed.
During the meeting, she said people are welcome to make comments but the board members can’t respond. Romig compared this with town boards and the Gilman village board where the board members will interact with people from the public and address concerns. Skabroud noted that in the past the Gilman school board did also. Leipart said those groups do so at their own risk if they are taking action that is not on the agenda.
Ustianowski suggested people talk to a board member before a meeting or to one of the Deans of Students or Leipart if they have a concern so that they can quickly get it addressed.
Romig also asked about feedback on how the dean of students model is working out. Prior to the start of the school year, the district switched to this model rather than replacing a high school/middle school principal position.
“The feedback I have received has been a positive note,” said board member Darrell Thompson. “Hopefully that can continue,” he said, noting that if they hear it not working they will have to do something. Board member Jessica Wiscocky noted that her son likes the Dean of Students arrangement.
Ustianowski noted that while people on school board may not all have students in the school right now, they remain connected through interactions with family and community members to stay engaged.
There was discussion about the COVID- 19 protocols and how they have been addressed this year. Leipart said they are working to keep as few interruptions as possible and limit contact-tracing quarantines. Currently the second grade and Kindergarten classes are quarantined because of students in those classes testing positive.
Leipart said they are working with teachers to have lessons prepared in advance for this situation so that students can stay on track for learning.