In preparation for the proposed recurring operational referendum question on the Feb. 18 ballot, the Lakeland Union High School district is hosting six public information hearings to educate the public and address any questions or concerns regarding the upcoming proposed referendum.
The district’s school board voted to go to a recurring operational referendum in October 2019 following the recommendation of the board’s ad hoc referendum committee formed earlier that year.
The district held its first public information meeting Jan. 30 at the high school.
At subsequent public information meetings on Feb. 3 at the Lac du Flambeau Public School and Feb. 4 at the Minocqua Public Library, district administrator and curriculum director Rob Way and business and finance manager Greg Kopp gave a presentation outlining information about the district, the rational behind the board voting to go to referendum, how those funds would be allocated should the referendum pass, and the tax implications for local taxpayers.
Primary questions coming out of these public information hearings revolve around the nature of the referendum, the actual need for the referendum, and some of the information the district was presenting to the public.Defining the referendum
Across both public information hearings, questions about the duration of the referendum and were raised.
“First of all, a recurring referendum, is that for recurring operational costs?” Lac du Flambeau resident John Kafura asked at the Feb. 3 meeting. “In other words, is this going to be a one-time $3.45 million referendum?”
Kopp explained the referendum would be recurring and would remain on the tax levy indefinitely, but the district wouldn’t be increasing the levy by $3.45 million every year.
“If this is successful, that would go up by $3.45 million, but we’re not going to increase it by another $3.45 million year after year. It’s going to increase now and be there in our levy every year going forward,” Kopp said. “It’s not going to accumulate.”
Kafura said people would see the $3.45 million figure and a “lot of red flags” would go up and that people would potentially think it was a $3.45 million referendum every year.Special education costs
Another point Kafura drew attention to at the Feb. 3 meeting that was brought up again on Feb. 4 was the spike in special education costs in 2018.
According to Way and Kopp’s presentation, the district saw a $1 million increase in its special education costs from 2018 to 2019.
Kafura expressed a concern regarding Lakeland STAR School/Academy and whether the “wide spectrum of special ed” were getting the same services as students at STAR?School/Academy.
“I worry that the rest of the special ed students are going to be left in the dust because this is all of a sudden being pushed constantly,” Kafura said.
Kafura said he wanted LUHS to succeed.
“Your community’s only as good as your education system,” he said.”
“This is special ed for all schools, the LUHS traditional program and the charter school,” Kopp addressed the $1 million increase. “The charter school did contribute to this and contributed significantly to this because it is a more expensive model.”
Kopp added one of the things the charter school had made apparent was the overall benefit of additional services for students in both the traditional program and the charter school.
“When you look at this increased cost, we built assumptions into this financial model, we built in additional staff because want to do for all of our students what the charter school is doing, so that’s part of our goal,” Kopp said.
He added that, prior to this year, the district hadn’t received local revenue.
“We received, from donations primarly driven by the efforts of people behind the charter school, $551,00,” Kopp said. “That’s not in this number, so when you add that to it, and then every school district in the area, they also donated $50,000 for this school.”
The cost of the charter school was brought up again at the meeting Feb. 4 from local area residents voicing concern over the cost of the school to the taxpayer.
“The special ed, this last year, the two charter schools, what did they cost the taxpayer?” Hazelhurst resident Bob Collins asked. “What did it cost the LUHS budget to run that program?”
“The total cost was roughly $1.6 million last year for both programs,” Kopp said.
“What was it as far as high school, because when we started that, it was promised us by Gregg Walker that it was for a three-year period, it would cost us $2.1 million total to run those,” Collins said. “$700,000 a year was the taxpayer contribution for those programs.”
Kopp said the district does receive funding from the state and some of the cost was related to the building acquired from Nicolet College.
He added the district decided it would cover the cost of the building’s infrastructure regardless of the use of the building, and that the cost of renovations to the building was part of the approximate $550,000 received in donations primarily developed and received by efforts of the charter school’s governing council.
Kopp said the other elementary schools had also contributed $50,000 to support the programs.
Kopp further stated there was a portion of the $1.6 million that would’ve been allocated to the high school even if the charter school hadn’t been established due to high school students that require one-on-one paraprofessional support.
“You oughta mainstream them like every other school system in the state is and not have the only two charter schools in the state,” Collins interjected.
He added parents of autistic children would be drawn into the area, thus driving the school’s costs up.
“Last year, we were promised as taxpayers we would control this by Gregg Walker, we will control this for three years, your contribution is $700,000,” Collins said. “They were supposed to pay the $100,000 to get the facility ready, which they didn’t, which we picked up ...”
Kopp said that wasn’t the case, and the council had paid the bulk of the changes.
“That’s wonderful, but at the end of three years, you indicated to me that at the end of three years we’re going to have a referendum whether or not those two charter schools continue,” Collins asserted.
“Nobody ever talked about having a referendum in three years related to the charter schools,” Kopp said. “We made a commitment to that governing council that we would authorize the school, we being LUHS, for three years. And that’s exactly what MHLT did.”
Collins asked what would happen after those three years passed.
Kopp replied that it had yet to be decided.
“By what? Just the school board or referendum?” Collins asked.
Kopp informed the decision would be made by the school board.
Collins continued and stated when the school board went forward with the charter school, they hadn’t set a cap on what would be asked of the taxpayer.
“I’m saying, yes it’s nice if you have a person with autism, but like I indicated to the school board, are we that smart to have two charter schools and the rest of the state isn’t as smart as we are, or are we getting into something that we don’t want to get into because the state is aware of the autism problem and they are mainstreaming them like we used to do.”
Kopp said there were students in the district’s traditional special education program who were provided one-on-one support based on the student’s needs.
“And we should be doing that, I’m just saying that’s a mighty expensive project, especially as to what we were told when that was started. This is the second year of it and your costs are going to continue to go up,” Collins said.
Kopp admitted it was a more costly model, but in the first year, between the elementary schools contributed $50,000 each, and the community donations, the additional costs were covered .
“So, the taxpayer, in that first year, did not pay for anything,” Kopp said.
He added the board hadn’t yet started discussions on how to proceed once those three years had passed.‘No excuse to waste money’
Minocqua resident Reg Delwiche voiced several issues he saw with the district’s decision to go to referendum, namely in the information provided by the district in the presentation.
“I don’t think the facts that are relevant to us taxpayers are being presented,” Delwiche said. “I think the board failed to present a comparative analysis of what is happening in this district and its spending versus other districts.”
Delwiche said, looking back 10 years, some positions’ salaries had been “automatically” bumped 40%.
“The whole pay scale was elevated. There’s no relationship of high pay to teacher performance or student performance,” Delwiche said, adding that, as far as he could tell, there was no difference between LUHS’ test scores and the test scores of other districts that “spend about half as much.”
He advised providing the public with information on the total cost and spending per student over the past 10 years.
“The principle to me is, just because you’re a wealthy district is no excuse for wasting money,” Delwiche said.
He also advised taxpayers the district had recently conducted an audit of the school board and its finances.
“And the auditors pointed out there is no internal control for how we spend money, so I don’t trust any of the numbers,” Delwiche said. “They said that’s an immaterial deficiency, that’s a public audit. I don’t know if the school board’s addressed that, but it has certainly destroyed my faith and my confidence in what’s going on.”
Delwiche continued and brought up some projected salaries and benefits mentioned in the presentation, voicing a concern in the inflation of teacher and administrative pay.
“... Once we’ve established a high selling structure that is totally unrelated to the actual performance of the people that you’re paying, and it’s certainly unrelated to students’ scores, ACT scores and observe that there is no exit exam at the high school to get a diploma, there is no demonstrated competency, there is no test to get into a university, and there is no test to get out when you graduate with a degree,” Delwiche said.‘May take it out on the school’
Arbor Vitae resident Carol Cady praised the school board for being conservative with spending.
“I want to live in a community where the schools are good and vitalizes the community, but I think you may run into voter sentiment, most of the people in this room do not have children of children’s age, maybe grandchildren in the community, and we may take it out on the school and our community because of our feeling of education overall in the nation,” Cady said. “Common Core, I mean, disaster. We don’t want to see that kind of thing.”
Cady said she was happy to see the district expanding its programming in the industrial arts and voiced a concern in the emphasis of four-year universities that could saddle students with debt whereas students who pursued a trade were making a wage, starting families, and buying homes.
Collins added the school shouldn’t become a social service agency and make sure the students were being educated.
“It’s hard as hell because the parents are forcing us to be more of a social service agency than we’d like to probably, but whether it’s county our the state agencies that is their main tasks, and every new program for woodshop, metal shop, I’d like to see one of the programs we have eliminated teaching kids how nice they are and how good looking everybody is and how to be nice to everybody else,” Collins said. “Stick with what your core reason for being is and educate rather than social services.”
Other attendees voiced concerns about the duration of the referendum, stating they would have preferred a time frame on the referendum rather than the indefinite increase to the tax levy.
“The main reason we’re here is the state’s inability to fund education,” Kopp said. “Their funding formula’s broke and that’s why we’re here and that’s why, over the last 10 years, 80% of the school districts in the state have gone to referendum.”Kayla Houp may be reached via email at [email protected].