By Collin Lueck
With a $2.5 million operating referendum on the table, the Merrill Board of Education approved a 2018-2019 budget reconciliation plan last Wednesday night (Jan. 24) with separate strategies – with or without a successful referendum.
If the referendum fails, the board is looking at a strategy that includes closing Jefferson and Maple Grove elementary schools. Under that plan, Washington and Kate Goodrich elementary schools would each house kindergarten through grade three. Prairie River Middle School would become a grade 4-7 middle school and eighth grade would be moved to Merrill High School. Related to staff reductions only, the cost savings of the move is estimated at $951,000. An additional $780,000 in identified long-term building maintenance costs at Jefferson and Maple Grove would be avoided with the closure of those buildings.
The staffing reductions would include eight full-time elementary teachers, two full-time custodians, two full-time clerical staff, 1.5 full-time instructional aides and a Title 1 teacher. The savings on utilities is estimated at $30,000.
Costs involved in making the move have not been determined.
Also considered in the budget plan is the potential to increase employee contributions to health insurance. MAPS employees currently contribute 4 percent. Increasing that contribution to 8 percent would save the district approximately $228,000; an increase to a 12 percent employee contribution would save approximately $457,000.
The reconfiguration of schools coupled with the increased health insurance contribution would allow the district to avoid a long list of other cuts that had previously been identified, noted MAPS finance director Brian Dasher.
If the referendum does pass, the district will still make the necessary cuts to be fiscally responsible in the face of continued declining enrollment, MAPS Superintendent John Sample said.
“The work still continues to address our declining enrollment,” Sample said. “A passed referendum will delay the reconfiguration process needed to address declining enrollment and allow administration to carefully plan the process to remain fiscally responsible to our taxpayers.”
The employee health insurance contribution options would still be considered if the referendum passes, Sample added.
MAPS currently has 51 core elementary teachers at its four buildings. Based on projected student enrollment for the 2018-19 school year, 47 teachers would be needed. By closing Maple Grove and Jefferson, only 43 teachers would be needed for next year. Average class sizes would range from 19 in first grade to 26 in fifth grade.
With the two elementary schools closed, MAPS would still have ample rooms available at the remaining schools to handle the needed number of classes, noted MAPS curriculum director Gerald Beyer. At Kate Goodrich, 16 rooms would be needed, with 21 available. At Washington, 13 rooms would be needed, with 16 available.
At Prairie River Middle School, with grades 4-7, 27 rooms would be needed, with more than 29 available. Average class sizes at the middle school would range from 24.6 in fourth grade to 28 in seventh grade.
Adding eighth grade to Merrill High School would require 30-32 total classrooms, with 33-34 available in the building.
“The rooms needed fit the rooms available for core classes, with room to spare,” Beyer said.
Overall, MAPS enrollment numbers show a pretty steady decline into the future, from the current MHS junior class of 212 students to the current kindergarten classes at 133 students. The district receives state revenue based on the number of students that are enrolled in the district. As MAPS enrollment declines, so does MAPS revenue. School districts in Wisconsin are also capped at how much tax money they can levy. In order to go over that amount, a successful referendum is required. Since 2010, MAPS’ maximum revenue limit has declined from $29 million to just over $26 million.
Beyer said the reconfiguration plan would create a long-term model by utilizing the current classroom space more efficiently. However, it won’t solve the core financial problems of declining enrollment/revenue, increasing annual costs and reduction of federal revenue, he added.
“I do feel very confidently that we would be able to maintain this structure for 10-plus years, based on enrollment,” Beyer said.
Sample stated that the school board and administration will be prepared to implement the reconfiguration contingency plan quickly if the referendum fails on April 3.
“We want the community to know that this is our promise; these things will happen in the event of a failed referendum,” Sample said.
The proposed operating referendum asks for $2.5 million, for each of the next four years. If approved by voters, the referendum will cost an estimated $6 per year for each $100,000 of property value, over the current 2017-18 school tax levy. Funding will support industrial and technical education, maintain current programs, high-quality staff, and provide for priority building maintenance.
In addition to confirming potential budget reductions that will be required if the operating referendum is not approved, the Board will explore future consolidations to support practical use of District facilities, limited resources, and declining enrollment.
“We would like to thank our community for participating in the Community Survey this past November,” Sample said. “This feedback has provided valuable information and clear direction to help us shape the April 3, 2018 Operating Referendum.”
With 62% of all survey participants supporting increased funding, the Board will focus potential funding on three key priorities: 1) enhanced industrial/technical education and shop courses; 2) maintaining current programs and high-quality staff; and, 3) priority building maintenance.
For more information, please email email@example.com; visit www.mapsedu.org/ref2018; call Dr. John Sample, Superintendent at 715-536-4581; or stop by for the Superintendent “Open Door” on Fridays through March 23, 4-5 p.m. at the District Office, 1111 N. Sales St.