School board members provide city council with referendum information ahead of April election
By Jalen Maki
Tomahawk Leader Editor
TOMAHAWK – Three members of the School District of Tomahawk Board of Education provided information on the district’s upcoming referendum to the City of Tomahawk Common Council.
Board members Dave Long, Ron Zimmerman, and Dick Huseby were on hand at the council’s meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 1.
In January, the board voted to place a three-year, $3.25 million non-recurring referendum on April 5 ballots.
The April referendum comes after two previous attempts by the district to pass a referendum were narrowly rejected by voters. In Nov. 2020, a four-year, $3.5 million spending request failed by 51 votes. A four-year, $3.25 million referendum was rejected by 33 votes in April 2021.
‘Significant financial challenges’
An informational packet provided to the council by the district touched on the “significant financial challenges” faced by the district, which are “largely related to the state’s school funding system,” the district said.
“The district does not control the amount of aid it receives from the State of Wisconsin,” the district stated. “Wisconsin schools operate under a state-imposed revenue limit that restricts the amount of money they can receive each year.”
The district said the state’s “outdated” funding formula does not provide enough revenue to “adequately fund (the district’s) programs and services.”
The referendum, if approved by voters, would “provide Tomahawk schools with the financial support they need for the next three years,” the district stated.
In the packet, the district explained that Wisconsin school districts have revenue limits tied to enrollment numbers. Tomahawk, similar to other districts in the state, has seen declining year-to-year enrollments. Enrollment numbers have declined faster than the district’s ability to save money due to serving fewer students, the district said.
Enrollment has been “trending down consistently since 2000 and is at just 65%of what it was two decades ago,” according to the packet.
Another fiscal problem pointed to by the district is the small amount of state aid it receives due to the large percentage of high-value lake properties within the district. Since state aid is connected to property values, Tomahawk receives less aid on average than other Wisconsin districts.
“While the average Wisconsin district receives $7,033.00 per student in state aid, ours receives only about $2,843.00 per student for the entire district,” the district stated, adding that it does not qualify for Sparsity Aid, a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction program that provides “additional unrestricted aid to rural school districts with relatively small economies of scale.”
The district said that in light of its budget challenges, the board and district leaders “do what our families do in these situations – they seek to cut costs.”
Nearly $1.2 million in expense reductions were made in the 2021-2022 district budget. In May 2021, the board voted to not replace four professional staff and two administrators who had retired or resigned. The board also did not renew contracts for three professional staff, froze salaries for all staff for the 2021-2022 school year and eliminated one bus route.
The board also used $1.8 million from the district’s fund balance.
“Using the fund balance for operating expenses is not sustainable,” the district stated.
The district said it is seeking the replacement funds provided by its previous referendum, which was approved by voters in 2017 and expired in June 2021.
“The property tax impact of the referendum will be $149.00 per every $100,000.00 of assessed property value,” the district stated.
Board members, council discuss referendum, district’s financial situation
During the meeting, council and board members discussed the referendum and the district’s current financial situation.
Long said that if the referendum does not pass, the district could be forced to make cuts that are “even more drastic” than the cuts made last year.
Zimmerman touched on the district’s high-value lake property, pointing to the Lake Nokomis area’s impact. He also noted that other districts, such as Eagle River and Lakeland, are faced with similar issues.
Huseby said the “most important thing is that our children receive a fabulous education” that prepares them for college, the workplace, the military, “or prepares them to be a wonderful, great citizen of this community.”
Huseby also noted that the referendum is not intended to “do new things.”
“We’re looking to keep this school district as a place of pride,” he stated.
The district will hold public informational meetings regarding the referendum next month.
The first meeting is slated for Thursday, March 17, at 6 p.m. at the school complex. The specific location is yet to be determined.
The second meeting will be held on Monday, March 21, at 6 p.m. in the auditorium.
For more information on the referendum, visit www.tomahawk.k12.wi.us/district/referendum.cfm.