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Maple school district mulls referendum

Parents in the Maple School District were given the opportunity Wednesday to weigh in on a draft of a survey to gauge support for a five-year operational referendum of up to $1.7 million per year.

Once tweaked and approved by School Board members, the survey will be mailed to every district homeowner in early October.

"It will hopefully help us identify our top priorities," District Administrator Sara Croney told the crowd of about 60 at Northwestern High School's Patricia Luostari Theatre.

The referendum itself would be on the April 3 ballot if the Board proceeds.

Croney asked the crowd to spread word the survey is coming, and welcomed their comments and questions.

"A good school district is part of what keeps us in the area," said Borg Isaksen of Brule, father of third-grade twins. "We don't want to see that deteriorate."

He would like to see his sons go to college, and that depends on a quality education.

This survey, he said, is "really important."

Over the last 10 years, the district has trimmed $3.7 million by eliminating early retirement contributions, increasing class sizes, reducing money allocated to buildings, grounds and school buses and more. Despite that, Croney said, the district expects a budget shortfall of $1.7 million each year for the next five years.

Without community support for a referendum, she said, the district will have to make significant reductions to staff, programs and services.

The survey asked if respondents would support cutting high school electives or athletic programs, or raising the athletic fee.

It also asked what they would be willing to pay.

Maintaining programs and services over the next five years would cost an extra $576,000 per year, according to the survey draft. The price tag to retain staff by providing a stepped level of wage and benefit increases was $607,000 annually.

That's needed just to fund the current salary schedule, according to Business Manager Paul Staffrude. Without that piece, he said, the district's 275 employees would not get a raise for the next five years. That could lead to loss of quality staff as they opt for higher-paying jobs a short drive away in Superior, Croney said.

"When our teachers leave, they're taking their children with them," said Becky Landwehr of Poplar, a concerned parent.

That leads to fewer students and less money per pupil for teacher retention.

The draft survey listed the price tag for improved technology at $55,000 a year; industrial education upgrades at $30,000; replacement of 12 buses over the next two years would at $232,000; the cost of updating curriculum would be $130,000; building and grounds items, including repairs and middle school stage lighting, require $70,000.

The survey allows residents to weigh in on each piece separately.

A final summary shows the cost of the referendum for property owners, based on varying amounts — $106 per on $100,000 of property value annually for a $900,000 referendum, up to $201 for every $100,000 of property value for the full $1.7 million.

At the end, respondents will be asked if they would support a referendum of varying amounts.

One Lake Nebagamon resident said that by the time the survey comes out in October, more than half his neighbors will have packed up and moved south for the winter. Is there a way to put the survey out on Facebook or social media, Croney was asked.

Although people will be able to fill out the survey online, each person must have an individual code number to make sure that they only fill it out once. The mailed survey will have one number on it, and additional adults in each household will be able to call the district office for additional numbers.

A regular attendant of school board meetings, Adam Landwehr of Poplar wasn't surprised by news of the shortfall.

"Nothing here is new," he said. "It's nice to see a turnout of people and a group of people asking questions."

He felt the survey needed a second look, as some of the requests may come across as unnecessary.

"I don't think anybody's going to question staff retention, but some of the other stuff that was brought up, like lights for the middle school," Adam Landwehr said.

His wife agreed.

"I just want to make sure that we're not asking the community to do more than they need to financially, and I want the district to take responsibility and make sure they're making requests that are necessary," Becky Landwehr said.

Part of the budget shortfall is due to declining enrollment. Based on last September's third Friday count, the district had 1,337 students in seats. Although class sizes have stabilized, the district is looking at a loss of about 21 students per year as larger classes graduate and are replaced by smaller ones. That adds up to nearly $200,000 less revenue for the district each year in addition to reduced state aid and tax levy caps.

Croney likened school finances to a glass of water. It's capped at the top by the state, and comprised of funds from the tax levy and state aid.

"You put a hole in the bottom of a cup and it keeps dripping out a little at a time but pretty soon the cup's empty, so I think that's what they're trying to address, and they're trying to be as proactive as possible and that's where we're at," Landwehr said.

Even if the Joint Finance Committee's proposed $639 million increase in aid to K-12 schools is approved, that about $200 per pupil won't change the district's position.

If it passes, Staffrude said, "it allows us to balance this year's budget."