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Referendum solves school’s problems

The rebuilding process has begun for the Solon Springs school district.

After two years of budget deficits, the school district is out of the red thanks to a recurring referendum passed in April.

The referendum provides the district with an additional $500,000 annually, which this year will allow Solon Springs to launch a two-year energy efficiency project and add about $170,000 to its depleted fund balance.

"It’s a big sigh of relief," said Lee Ann Garay, bookkeeper for the school district.

Solon Springs had absorbed funding shortfalls the past two years — taking $56,000 from its fund balance in 2014-15 and $125,000 in 2015-16. The $170,000 addition to the balance this year will leave it about $11,000 below its level prior to the back-to-back deficits.

Without revenue from the referendum, Solon Springs’ expenses would have exceeded revenue again for 2016-17.

"We’re humbled by the support that the community gave us," said Mike Cox, Solon Springs superintendent.

Voter turnout in Solon Springs was around 80 percent for the April election, Cox said, and three-fourths of voters supported the referendum.

"That 74 percent ‘yes’ vote, that was huge," he said. "I think that was one of the highest percentages of any of the referendums in the state."

On June 27, the Solon Springs School Board approved several measures that will utilize referendum money. The most significant was a facility project expected to cost about $389,700 over two years.

The project will upgrade outdated or inefficient systems at the school, including two boilers, air handling units and other ventilation components. Exterior building work, such as sealing and weather stripping, is also part of the project.

"Now that we have a feeling that this building is going to be open for quite some time, we need to do some things to make sure that it’s in good shape for the next 20 years," Cox said. "This will take us 20 years down the road."

The two-year project will end up saving the district money on energy, he added.

"With everything here, it’s certainly less than a 20-year payback," he said.

The Board also voted unanimously to allocate $18,110 for the replacement of computers and the expansion of the district’s one-to-one laptop program. All students in grades 4-7 will have computers for the 2016-17 school year.

In personnel matters, the Board approved two percent raises for teachers and support staff. The consumer price index, which Wisconsin uses as the baseline for public sector employee wage increases, was 0.12 percent for 2016-17.

"The reason this is a little above that is because our wages are so low," Cox said.

According to data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Solon Springs had the lowest average salary of any school in CESA 12 for the 2014-5 school year. Statewide, Solon Springs ranked 439th of 447 school districts.

Cox said employee raises have been kept near two percent for the last four years.

The total increased cost for this year’s wage increases is about $47,000, but the expense will be largely offset by a happy side effect of the referendum vote:

Enrollment in the Solon Springs school district is projected to increase by about 3 percent for the coming year.

"The publicity that we got over the referendum — saying what’s good about our school, why it’s worth saving — I think people were kind of seeing that message out there," Cox said. "I think people were reading about that and (decided) this might not be a bad place to live."

According to principal Dene Muller, projected enrollment for 2016-17 is 267 students. Several elementary school classes are expected to have more than 25 students, which has the district budgeting for an additional 1.5 teacher aids to keep the student-to-teacher ratio low.

The extra staff will cost about $49,000, but Muller said an increase in enrollment is a good problem to have.

"I take this as a real beginning and a springboard," she said.

At the June 27 meeting, the Board extended Muller’s contract through 2018 and asked Cox to continue serving as superintendent for two days a week through September.

He will be involved in the school district’s annual meeting in the fall, but Cox said that will be one of his last duties as Solon Springs superintendent. The school district hopes to have a new superintendent by October.

"Five years ago, I retired, and I never thought I’d be doing any of this," Cox said. "I’m pretty pleased to be leaving this district the way it is now, compared to four years ago. From a financial standpoint they’re in a lot better shape, obviously. From a leadership standpoint, with Dene (Muller) and some of the new staff that we’ve brought in, I’ve really seen this district over the last four years transforming into a pretty positive and exciting place for kids to learn. For me, that’s what I’m going to feel good about."