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Maple residents alter referendum

The referendum going before Maple School District voters in April has been shaped by the public, and it's changed significantly.

The district first lofted the question in September: Would voters support a five-year operational referendum of up to $1.7 million to fill an expected budget shortfall?

Surveys were sent out in October, and residents made their voices heard.

When the Maple School Board approved the official referendum question Dec. 11, it was a request for $582,000 for the next three years to maintain current programs and services, retain quality staff and update technology education equipment.

"We had to listen," said district administrator Sara Croney, Ph.D. "You don't send out a survey to 5,500 community members and not listen."

What they heard was that residents just couldn't support that much money.

"What we also heard was 'If you have to do cuts, I guess you're going to have to do them," Croney said.

Even if voters approve the $582,000 referendum, cuts will be made.

Student fees and elementary class sizes will increase. Technology assets won't be improved. Some teacher contracts will not be renewed.

The district will be able to purchase three propane buses a year for three years through an energy exemption, thanks to a school board resolution. But the possibility of eliminating a bus route is being looked at, Croney said.

If the referendum passes, class offerings and sizes at Northwestern middle and high schools would remain the same. All sports and activities will stay.

"The thing that saddened me in the survey, we had people who have no children and are not staff members saying to cut sports programs or activities," Croney said.

In the era of open enrollment, one activity cut could lead a parent to enroll their child in another district and the dollars would follow them. If 16 students left the district because of an athletics or activity cut, Croney said, the money they take with them would be enough to fund the district's entire athletic program for a year.

"So the school board would be looking at that as the last resort ever," Croney said. "They're not looking to take athletics or activities away from students because sometimes that's the only reason they want to be here."

Also included in the $582,000 would be $25,000 to improve technology education at Northwestern High School. That amount could double if the district nets a matching Fab Lab grant.

A "yes" vote would give the district three years.

What if the answer's 'no'?

"More cuts," Croney said.

The school board plans to compile a list of what those cuts would look like. They expect to have that information ready by the end of January to share with town boards, civic groups, churches, senior centers and anyone interested in learning about the impact a "no" vote would have on the Maple School District.

"I love this district. I love the staff," Croney said. "The students are amazing. No one wants any of this to happen and we certainly hope our voters see it."

The three-year window is not arbitrary. The state funding situation could improve, and district debt is poised to fall off.

The Northwestern High School athletic complex was paid for under the revenue cap through an operational loan. That debt falls off in three years, freeing up $300,000 annually. Further out, in 2025, the debt from the district's 2006, $33 million referendum to build a new high school, remodel other schools and build a bus garage will fall off tax bills.

"Taxes will go down," Croney said, and taxpayers may be more willing to support a referendum at that point.

Although Gov. Scott Walker and legislators touted an increase to school funding in the biennial state budget, it comes after years of capped levies and declining enrollment.

"It helped to backfill a huge gap that happened because of not being allowed to levy," Croney said. "It did help. Not enough."

The district aims to deliver more information soon, including the increased fee schedule at the Jan. 8 school board meeting. Answers to questions from public meetings Sept. 6 and Oct. 12 can be found on the district website, www.nw-tigers.org, by typing "question" in the search bar.

Another thing survey respondents made clear was a need for communication. Residents can expect three newsletters a year in their mailbox, instead of only one. All three will continue to be available online.

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