More on the Florence School District

Phil Brinkman takes a look at the Florence School District, which may disband:

“I want them to teach our children within their means,” said Tibbs, probably the chief antagonist in what has become a battle between cash-strapped residents and an equally cash- strapped school district over the future of education here.
Members of the Florence County School Board are finally conceding that battle after voters last month turned down the third spending referendum in the past two years. The measure would have let the district exceed state- imposed revenue caps by $750,000 a year for three years.
“There are other school districts of the same size, wealth and makeup that aren’t dissolving,” said Tony Evers, deputy state superintendent of public instruction. “Clearly, things happened in this school district that didn’t happen in other school districts.”
But Evers said Florence County’s death spiral provides sobering evidence that the state’s school funding formula is overdue for a change. Under that formula, state aid is provided in roughly inverse proportion to a community’s property wealth, and the total revenue a district can raise is capped. If costs exceed that – and officials in districts from Florence to Madison to Milwaukee say they are – districts must ask property taxpayers for more.
“We will need to, absolutely, continue to find better ways to measure wealth than property value,” Evers said.

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To save money, the board in the late 1980s offered an early- retirement package to employees that included paying their health insurance costs after they left the district. At the time, the move seemed a bargain.
When health care costs started spiraling out of control, the district sought to limit the benefit to age 65, when Medicare would take over; the teachers union believed the benefit should continue as a supplement past that age.

Intended to stem the flow of money, the school closure opened a new gash that now threatens to bleed the district dry. Angry parents of 30 students enrolled their children in a neighboring public school last year, taking about $167,000 in state aid with them.
So many parents have asked to transfer out of the district next year that the board has capped the number at 66. The exodus represents a potential loss to the district of $380,000 in state aid.
Of course, other districts – including Madison – have been affected. Voters in Madison last spring defeated a referendum to exceed the state revenue limits by $7.4 million to pay school operating costs, and another to build an elementary school. The district is in no danger of closing, but stagnant enrollment and rising costs forced the School Board to cut 23 teaching positions and trim extracurricular and other programs in May. Since the revenue caps were enacted in 1993, the Madison School District has made $38 million in cuts from its same-services budgets, and it anticipates at least an $8.6 million budget shortfall next year.

Brinkman’s otherwise useful article does readers a disservice by not providing additional background to the Madison School District Administration’s numbers. The Madison School District does face some spending challenges, however, local taxpayers have been extraordinarily supportive, supporting local school spending that has grown from $200M in 1994/1995 to 319M in 2004/2005 with essentially a flat enrollment. The district’s demographics are changing, but Madison has always strongly supported its schools, both financially and with loads of volunteer time.