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Maple schools host referendum information sessions

The Maple School District asks voters to approve a three-year operational referendum of $582,000 annually at the polls this spring.

A series of public information sessions about the proposed referendum take place at 3:30 and 6 p.m. Feb. 19 in the Iron River Elementary School Library and 6:30 p.m. Feb. 26 at Northwestern High School in the Patricia Luostari Theatre for the Performing Arts. Free child care is available at each.

In addition to providing information, district representatives are encouraging questions from the public.

"The nice part of this is they can ask any question that they want," said District Administrator Sara Croney, PhD. "We will do our best to have an answer on the spot. If we don't have an answer, we'll get back to them."

The district has seen its state aid reduced by 17 percent — or $2,136,376 — since the 2007-2008 school year, according Croney. In addition, enrollment has been declining in the district for years.

In spite of cost reductions and cuts made over the years, Croney said, the referendum is needed to continue to provide the current level of programs and services.

Those dollars would help maintain current programs, retain teachers, keep class sizes at appropriate levels and make the district eligible for a $25,000 matching grant to improve the technical education department.

If approved, the referendum would cost taxpayers about $68 per $100,000 of property value annually.

Many residents have questioned how the five-year, $1.7 million referendum proposal the district initially lofted in September turned into $582,000 for three years.

Croney said it was pared down to "bare bones" based on the results of a district-wide survey in October. The majority of respondents indicated they would not support a referendum to replace buses, update curriculum, fund safety and security upgrades or improve technology, so those were taken off the table. New propane buses will be obtained through an energy efficiency exemption.

In addition, the school board at its Jan. 8 meeting made cuts totaling 7.08 full-time positions for the coming school year. The cuts, which include not replacing a math teacher who resigned at the high school, not renewing an elementary teacher's contract, reducing an art teacher's position to half-time, eliminating a bus route and transferring some of four positions to Title 1 funding, will save the district an estimated $311,769 per year.

"Every time a staff member retires or resigns, we're rethinking how we can incorporate that position or part of that position so it's less cost for hiring," Croney said. "It has to happen."

The board also raised fees for extra-curricular activities — an extra $10 per sport at Northwestern High School and a $20 fee to participate in drama, forensics and certain other activities that currently have no fee, as well as a flat $20 fee for students to participate in activities at Northwestern Middle School. That move will bring in $10,700 in new money for the district.

Class sizes are set to rise as high as 26 in some grades, even if the referendum passes.

"If the referendum would not pass, we would be pushing 32 per class for seventh grade and potentially 34 per class for eighth grade," Croney said. "That means every math class would have 34, every English class ... I don't know what else we could do because the surveys, those who took the survey were allowed voice and we are listening."

The district has also fielded questions about what other revenue options have been explored.

"I think people might be surprised at how many avenues we've tried, and it still isn't enough because grants don't cover salaries and benefits," Croney said.

In spite of the district's financial challenges, more students are opting to open enroll into the district than those who opt out. This school year, 117 are open enrolled into the Maple district, 63 are enrolled out.

"Something we're doing with our programs and education, high test scores and great teachers, program offerings, are enough that these parents want their kids to come here," Croney said.

District schools scored well on the Wisconsin Department of Public instruction's annual report cards. In 2016-2017, the district exceeded expectations, as did all but one of the individual schools. Iron River Elementary School, in particular, significantly exceeded expectations. The school was also one of eight in the state to be nominated for a national Blue Ribbon School Award because of its high performance.

"The mere fact we even got nominated for it is a big deal," Croney said. "Eight in the whole state. That's cause for celebration."

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