District faces money woes

April 16, 2014

Mequon — Comments from two members of the Mequon-Thiensville school district's ad hoc committee illustrate the financial problem the district faces, and the limits to what the district can do by itself.

Committee member David Fuchs noted April 9 that the School Board instructed the committee to seek ways to improve the district's long-range financial situation while maintaining the district's level of quality. And, Fuchs added, "it would seem to me maintaining quality is a moot issue if we can't finance it."

But committee member John Peterburs pointed out afterward that most of the biggest changes that could boost revenue are determined by other governing bodies, especially the state.

"A lot of the things we talk about are kind of picking around the edges," said Peterburs, a former business administrator for Milwaukee Public Schools who also taught graduate courses in school finance and administration at Marquette University.

Closing gaps

Declining enrollment in recent years has reduced tied to per-student funding according to the state's school funding formula and revenue limits. But Mequon-Thiensville has routinely closed six- and seven-figure budget gaps annually, and enrollments are projected to continue to decline.

Superintendent Demond Means summarized the dilemma at the start of the meeting.

"We improved on (test) scores that led us to the number one ranking in Wisconsin," Means said. But, he added, the district's efforts to shore up financing did not so far appear to be sustainable.

A variety of ideas were raised for possible economies, but there was no support for reducing class offerings. And committee member Kim Ebinger warned that increasing class sizes could backfire.

Even if educational experts differ on the relationship between class sizes and academic progress, Ebinger said most parents believe smaller classes are better. "People make their decisions on 'what's right for me and my kids,'" she said.

If class sizes go up, Means asked, "Do we drive people who are (home) shopping away, which exacerbates our enrollment situation?"

Stories of departures

Later, Means recalled that midway through the past decade, after Range Line school closed, "some of our (elementary) classes were larger than we have historically seen in Mequon-Thiensville," and there were stories of students going to other districts or private schools, although he said there was no hard evidence of this.

Mediator Howard Bellman reminded the committee that being sensitive to the community included being aware of residents' educational expectations for class size and the breadth of class offerings.

Peterburs said after the meeting that "it's big-idea time" if any significant economies can be found at the local level. During the meeting he offered one such idea for discussion: restructuring the district by closing its two middle schools, moving sixth graders to elementary schools and bringing all seventh and graders together at a single facility at or adjacent to Homestead High School.

"My suggestion was not a six-year high school," he stressed, "but a school within the school." Any such move, he added, would depend on whether existing schools could handle additional students. and how much the middle school sites could be sold for.

Urging development

Fuchs raised an issue the board can't control, when he suggested the city of Mequon should seek more industrial development. While new homes will bring new students to the district, Fuchs said that under the current state funding formula, boosting enrollment would increase the district's tax levy. By contrast, he said industrial development increases the tax base without adding students.

"People need to be aware of that tradeoff," Fuchs said. "The city, in its strategies, needs to consider a better mix of residential and non-residential development."

One idea that had been raised was possibly consolidating Mequon-Thiensville with another district, or sharing some services. But Means said any consolidation was unlikely to benefit the district financially.

However, Peterburs pointed out that districts "are creatures of the state. I don't think district consolidations mandated by the state somewhere down the road is that far-fetched."

Later, Peterburs added that "the economic dilemma Mequon-Thiensville is facing is not unique to us. The real responsibility is in the legislature in regards to doing something with revenue limits."


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