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Greenwood Board to make call next week on referendum

The Greenwood Board of Education will decide early next week if it will put another 5-year operational revenue cap exemption referendum in front of district voters on April 7 spring ballots. While the Board is considering several options for a referendum dollar amount and the potential property tax impacts, District Administrator Todd Felhofer said it will again be a matter of asking residents if they want education in Greenwood to continue at its current level of quality.

Greenwood has a full year left on the $750,000 annual cap exemption that approximately 57 percent of voters approved in April 2016. Due to election law restrictions, Felhofer said the district needs to consider another question this spring, or else it will have budgetary headaches later in the year. Without a new cap exemption, he said the district will have to consider “massive” cuts to educational programs as soon as the 2020-21 school year.

The Board will meet at 7 p.m. on Jan. 20 in the high school board room to discuss referendum options and possibly approve a question for the April 7 ballot. The deadline to get a question on this spring’s ballot is Jan. 22. If the Board does not go to referendum in spring, its next option would be the Nov. 3 general election date. Recent state law changes prohibit school districts from calling special referendum elections, so they have to hold them on regular election dates.

Felhofer said a November referendum would be held a few days after the state deadline for certifying tax levies for the following year. If the Board were to wait until then for a vote, it would have to build two budgets for 2020-21, one to use if a vote were to pass and one if it wouldn’t. And

“What’s in the best interest of the district? What’s in the best interest of taxpayers? What’s in the best interest of kids?” -- Greenwood District Administrator Todd Felhofer then, Felhofer said, if the vote were to fail, the district would have to wait until another regular election to ask again.

“We’d have to make a lot of massive cuts to get to the next referendum,” he said.

The tentative plan before the Board next week will be to add “a little more” on to the $750,000 cap exemption already in place for 2020-21, and then to set a new amount for the ensuing four years. The Board will look at several options for referendum levels that will get it through five more years with as little property tax impact as possible.

“What’s in the best interest of the district? What’s in the best interest of taxpayers? What’s in the best interest of kids?” Felhofer said.

The district is in much the same situation it was at the time of the last referendum in 2016, Felhofer said, and the same place as many other small, rural Wisconsin districts. Because the state caps the amount of money a district can generate in a given year, and because costs have risen beyond what that capped amount will cover, districts have to get voter approval through a referendum to exceed the limits.

“The operational referendums are kind of the lifeblood of a lot of small districts,” Felhofer said.

In Greenwood, student enrollments have mostly leveled off — between 375-390 students in grades 4K-12 — but such a number is not enough to generate state aid dollars that are adequate to meet all costs. The district still has to offer all state-mandated programs, while it is limited by law as to how much it can spend. If the amount allowed the district under the law (state aid revenue + local property taxes) isn’t adequate to meet costs, a district has to either cut back or ask voters for permission to assess more in local taxes. Felhofer said continually rising costs are part of the problem.

“We still have to buy curriculum. We still have to turn the lights on. Those costs creep up. They’re not skyrocketing, but they creep up,” he said.

The district has taken steps to control costs, Felhofer said. A few years ago, the district was informed that health insurance costs for its employees would balloon more than 40 percent, so the district joined a consortium of area schools that can get a better rate. Instead, insurance rates are only going up about 6-8 percent.

Felhofer said the district’s costs do not go down because it has fewer students. The average enrollment is down significantly from 10 years ago, but the district still has to have teachers for every grade and the support costs. If the district, for example, were to lose 10 students in a year and they were all in the same grade, it could perhaps cut a teaching position, but that’s not the way it works.

“When they’re spread across 13 grades, it doesn’t change anything. All the costs are the same,” Felhofer said.

Another concern in Greenwood is the relatively low state aid reimbursement it receives. State revenue dollars cover 53 percent of the district’s costs, which Felhofer said is the lowest of any district in Clark County.

“We get less state aid so the community needs to kick in a little more,” he said.

The good news with a next referendum is that it appears as if the district can ask for more tax dollars without raising taxes on individual properties. As the district’s overall property value has grown, the tax impact is spread over more property, keeping the tax rate stable.

In 2016, the district was able to pass a referendum and still see a tax drop of almost $200 a year on a $100,000 home. That was because the district had paid off the last of its debt on the new high school addition.

There will be no similar drop this time, but Felhofer said another referendum shouldn’t drive tax bills beyond where they are now.

“We may be able to pull that mill rate underneath where it’s at,” he said.

The mill rate was $13.07 per $1,000 of equalized value before the debt was retired. It then dropped to $11.13 in the first year of the 2016 referendum, and then fell to $10.55 the following year. It has since climbed back to $11.05.

“I think we can continue the referendum with a little more money yet keep the mill rate at a number that’s consistent,” Felhofer said.

Assuming the Board calls the April referendum, Felhofer said for voters it will be a question of continuing what the district has established. The referendum will not be large enough for any building improvements or significant upgrades, but to maintain programs at current levels.

“It really comes down to giving kids a quality education,” Felhofer said. “There’s a cost associated with that, if we want to best prepare our kids. It is an investment. Do we want to provide these great opportunities for kids?”