The Maple School Board is ready to listen.
A survey to gauge public support for a five-year operational referendum of up to $1.7 million a year will be sent to mailboxes in the Maple school district next week. That mail drop will be followed by a public listening session at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 12 in the Patricia Luostari Theatre for the Performing Arts at Northwestern High School.
Over the last 10 years, the district has trimmed $3.7 million from the budget — eliminating early retirement contributions, increasing class sizes, combining classes at Iron River Elementary School, eliminating 13 morning bus routes and more.
District Administrator Sara Croney likened the process to peeling away the layers of an onion, with the center being students' needs.
"Everything you take away, you're getting closer and closer to hurting the core reason of why Northwestern is Northwestern," she said, and why Northwestern is great.
The district's budget has tightened due to declining enrollment, continued reduction in state aid and a capped tax levy. Now, administrators said, that central core is in jeopardy. Croney said they expect a budget shortfall of $1.7 million each year for the next five years.
"We've been peeling back; we've been hitting the staff with extra requirements, extra duties, larger class sizes, reducing the benefits. You have to and it's been done," Croney said. "But now it's to the point where 'what programs have to go?'"
That's the question being presented in the survey. Taxpayers can sound off about what they are willing to pay for, and what could be cut.
To maintain the district's current level of programs and services would cost an additional $576,000 a year, according to the survey.
Respondents can gauge their support for other annual costs — $55,000 to improve classroom technology, $30,000 to enhance industrial education courses, $232,000 a year for bus replacement, $130,000 for curriculum replacement and more.
Public comment at a Sept. 6 meeting changed one item drastically.
"That was the whole point of listening," Croney said.
Instead of requesting $70,000 a year for building improvements, the district would use the funds for safety and security equipment, such as cameras at Northwestern and Iron River elementary schools and Northwestern Middle School.
One survey item asks if taxpayers would support an extra $607,000 annually for staff retention.
Business Administrator Paul Staffrude said the funding would allow the district to adhere to its current salary schedule. Without that budget bump, he said, none of the teachers or staff would see a raise for five years.
Respondents will also be asked if they support further cost-saving options, from larger class sizes and higher activity fees to fewer elective courses and eliminating athletic programs.
At the Sept. 6 meeting, retired state Sen. Bob Jauch of Poplar said it's a question of quality.
"The real elephant in the room is if there is no additional referendum, this school district is going to have to make these dire cuts, some dramatic cuts," he said. "Do you like deterioration? That's the basic issue here."
Since 2011, he said, the majority of school districts in the state, both urban and rural, have held similar referendums. At least 75 percent have been successful, Jauch said, including referendums in Solon Springs and South Shore.
As of Oct. 13, residents can request that a copy of the survey be sent to them electronically. To get an electronic copy, call Peggy at (715) 363-2431, ext. 2264 to add your email to the list. The survey can be completed online or mailed in between Oct. 11-30.
Each survey will come out with a single code number, good for one response. Other adults in a household can get additional numbers by calling the same number and providing their name, address and email address.
Final survey results will be reported at a school board meeting at 5 p.m. Nov. 13 in the Patricia Loustari Auditorium. They will also be available on the district website, www.nw-tigers.org, following the meeting.
The board will decide what amount to ask for in a April 3, 2018 referendum after the survey results have been tabulated.
"Then we'll be going out to each and every town hall meeting that would welcome us," Croney said, to discuss the referendum with residents.