District proposes referendum

The Shorewood community is currently facing a crucial decision in the form of an operating referendum, as the school board proposes a measure that will raise revenue for the next five years to address budget concerns and avoid significant reductions. The operating referendum was initially proposed in March of the 2021-2022 school year as one of several mid-term budget-balancing strategies designed to mitigate the effects of the district-wide budget deficit. Without the funding provided by the referendum, the deficit is predicted to grow cumulatively to 25,079,844 dollars within the next five years.

Per the request of the School Board, the district began the process of developing a plan for an operating referendum by putting together a workgroup of community members. 

“We had a teacher in the group, we had individuals from the village board…former parents, current parents– we really tried to get a well-rounded group of individuals to kind of dig into the challenge and make a recommendation,” said Heather Heaviland, Director of Business Services.

The committee met over the course of five separate meetings to provide the Board with a recommendation, eventually coming to conclusion that the referendum should be non-recurring, approximately five million dollars per year, distributed over the course of five years and should incorporate community education along the way. However, the work group was unable to come to a consensus on whether the referendum should be implemented in the spring of 2023 or 2024

The district cites insufficient state funding as a major factor of the deficit. Over the past two years, the state legislature has failed to increase the state aid for public schools, causing the per student revenue to fall behind the rate of inflation by 3,200 dollars. 

“I think one of the challenges that school districts throughout the state of Wisconsin [are facing] is flat state funding in the face of significantly rising costs,” Heaviland said. “The state isn’t increasing our revenue, but our costs are going up significantly, so without [sufficient revenue] we’re faced with having to make reductions.”

… [reductions] can’t help but impact our students’ experience.

— JoAnn Sternke, District Interim Superintendent

The referendum aims to provide an additional source of funding for the district in order to compensate for declining state support. If approved, the referendum will increase village property taxes with the goal of providing the district with an additional 5.5 million dollars in funding every year for the next five years. For every 100,000 dollars of property value, taxes for that property will increase by an estimated 123 dollars (not accounting for inflation). 

The ultimate goal of the referendum is sustainability.

“What we’re really looking at is trying to continue to operate in a healthy way. We’re not looking to make major changes, what we’re looking at is to make sure that we don’t have to make harmful reductions,” Heaviland said.

The district is aware that community members have some concerns about the referendum given that it’s a considerable amount of money, particularly for residents who don’t have children attending school within the district. 

“That’s money out of people’s pockets. That is something that you have to consider, especially in a community that not everyone has children in,” said JoAnn Sternke, District Interim Superintendent. “That’s always the issue: it comes at a cost.”

In preparation for the 2022-23 school year, the district made 1,081,243 dollars in reductions through decreasing administrative FTEs (full-time equivalent), combining classes that fell short of intended size, decreasing spending on materials, reducing outside contract spending, and changing health care policy.

 If the referendum is not approved, the district will be forced to make additional cuts in the budget for the 2023-24 school year amounting to 2.5 million dollars.

“When I look at that over five years…that could be upwards of 25 million dollars that would be reduced over that time, five years in a row,” Sternke said. “That can’t help but impact our students’ experience.”

I think that transparency is not just a courtesy, but it is a good way to gain support for this upcoming referendum.

— Debra Schwinn, social studies teacher

According to Sternke, the additional funds will be put into maintaining student programs in order to sustain quality of education.

“One thing that the funds will be used for] is preserving the programs, both academic and extracurricular, that really define Shorewood’s student experience,” Sternke said. “It will also fund salaries and benefits.”

Despite its benefits, some community members are not in favor of the operating referendum as it stands.

“I could be in favor of a referendum, but just not at this time and not with the information that has been provided,” said Andrew Frey, community member and parent of Shorewood School District students. “A lot of information has been wishy-washy.”

When asked about his thoughts, Frey expressed his skepticism and frustration with the ambiguity in the latest information released regarding the referendum. 

“I think that we haven’t received enough information. It’s not solid. It’s never definitive. I’ve heard the same question asked probably five to 10 times about where ESSER funds from the pandemic went,” Frey said. “I’ve never heard a solid answer. I don’t know if the accountability is there with the current administration.”

Concerns have also been raised about the lack of clarity on how the funds generated through the operating referendum will be allocated. At the February 14  board meeting, Debra Schwinn, high school social studies teacher, criticized the Business Office’s practice of not creating line-item budget reports. 

In the past, we have had the benefit of line-item budgets and when changes were made, we were given a new budget … it’s called transparency,” Schwinn said. “I think that transparency is not just a courtesy, but it is a good way to gain support for this upcoming referendum. As a board, I think it is poor governance to not demand line-item descriptions in the budget.”

Schwinn feels that given Shorewood’s fiscal predicament, the referendum is a necessary move, but that more information should be provided to the stakeholders in Shorewood’s budgetary processes.

“This community has never, ever not passed a referendum,” Schwinn said. “This community, I believe, loves this district. If they are shown what the problem is, they will support [the referendum], but we don’t have information in front of us. We don’t understand what’s going on here.”

On the other hand, Heaviland believes that caution should be practiced before publishing information that could cause speculation surrounding potential reductions.

“We have to adjust the budget on an annual basis as we evaluate our situation each year. We’ve tried to be careful about it and not be threatening and say ‘you’re not going to have this opportunity next year or you’re not going to have your job next year’” Heaviland said. “I don’t think those are things that we want to put out there because those are people’s jobs, those are students’ experiences, and until we know that that’s for sure going to happen, I’m just not comfortable putting that out there.”

Heaviland encourages those seeking clarification on the details of the referendum to attend information sessions hosted by the School Board.

“I would encourage anyone first to come to the general sessions who hasn’t already,” said Heaviland. “In addition to those sessions, we set aside as much time as possible for information tables because we want people to have an opportunity for a one-on-one conversation…I’m happy to answer any questions I can to the extent possible.”

The operating referendum will be voted upon by community members on April 4.