Significant cuts loom if potential school referendum fails
Possible athletic facility improvements further complicate district financial picture
By Adam Hocking
MARSHFIELD — The Marshfield School District must navigate a complicated financial maze as the Marshfield School Board will soon decide whether or not to go to referendum. Discussion of potentially significant improvements to district athletic facilities is also on the horizon.
The question of asking voters for more money to help fund the district’s operational expenses is pressing as the referendum question would likely be placed on the November general election ballot. Improvements to the district’s athletic facilities could cost about $10 million if all suggested enhancements are made, though their scope could be scaled back and done in phases, according to the district’s Director of Business Services Pat Saucerman.
Long list of cuts possible if referendum fails
According to a schedule the school board has been following, action to approve going to referendum could come in July with a final resolution being approved in August. The current referendum, which supplies the district with $2.5 million per year, will expire at the end of the 2016-2017 school year. According to a five-year budget forecast supplied by district, without approving a referendum, the district could be at a deficit of almost $6 million by the 2020-2021 school year. The district’s average annual operational budget is about $54 million, Saucerman said.
In preparation for the possibility that the board does not authorize going to referendum — or does but voters do not approve it — Saucerman worked with administration and staff to determine a preliminary list of services, positions, or entire courses that could potentially be cut. The list is not finalized but in total represents about $3.2 million in cuts for 2017-2018, which is close to the deficit the district would run absent a referendum in that year.
The cut list includes, among other items, elimination of elementary regular education assistant positions; driver’s education; Marshfield Middle School sports, which would be replaced with an intramural format; and the French language program. Reducing employee benefits, cutting Marshfield High School’s athletics with the lowest enrollment, reductions in custodial staff, elimination of the library media coordinator position, and lowering the overall technology and athletic budgets are also on the list.
The method for coming up with the list, Saucerman indicated, is exhaustive. Administration breaks the entire budget into 27 “operational areas.” An example of an operational area is the advanced placement program. The administration then ranks the operational areas in terms of their importance to the overall mission of the district, Saucerman said. From that process, administration begins to develop a clearer idea of what categories might have elements that could be cut.
Then principals of each school in the district ask their staff for ideas that could save money or increase revenue. Saucerman then compiles those suggestions and has administration rank them to determine what they believe are the best ideas. From there Saucerman takes those ideas and applies them to the corresponding operational areas.
School board discussions of the proposed cut list should heat up in July.
Operational referendums supporting the district passed with 55 percent approval in 2008 and 56 percent approval in 2012.
Several options exist for financing athletic facility improvements
The school district convened an ad hoc committee and contracted with Stevens Point-based landscape architecture firm Rettler Corporation to compile a comprehensive list of improvements to the district’s athletic facilities. That total list, which includes improvements to facilities at Marshfield High School, Marshfield Middle School, Madison Elementary, and property just west of the high school, carries a price tag of about $10 million, according to Rettler. The school board has not decided whether to pursue none, some, or all of the proposed improvements, but Saucerman did present the finance committee with several financing options.
Those options include private fundraising, financing through the operational budget, borrowing with or without a referendum, or expending district fund balance, which is in effect the cash the district has on hand to pay for the items in its budget. There has not yet been a feasibility study conducted to determine how much private money could possibly be generated for athletic facility upgrades.
Financing through the operational budget would mean the district has to find room in its existing budget by cutting other items to pay for athletic facility improvements. Borrowing without an approved referendum would mean that the district would accrue debt and have to pay that debt back over time with interest through its operational budget rather than with referendum funds.
Private financing could be complicated by the sheer number of large projects that are or have already tapped into the pockets of Marshfield citizens, including the Everett Roehl Marshfield Public Library project, the J.P. Adler Family Kodiak Bear Exhibit, the new STEM facility at UW-Marshfield/Wood County, Hardacre Park, and major renovations to the Marshfield Area YMCA. An impending referendum for road repairs in August could also see the city’s tax levy increase.
“I think it speaks to the issue that there really are a lot of competing needs in our community,” Saucerman said. “We … (are) very fortunate to live in a community where there is so much fundraising provided and donations provided for these various projects. And despite the fact the timing may not be the best for this particular issue, it doesn’t alleviate the fact that we still have athletic facility needs without a means of funding those projects at this time.”
What option or options the school board decides to go with to pay for athletic facility upgrades are yet to be determined.
“In the past when we’ve faced these types of issues such as the ($5.4 million renovation of the) middle school, the idea was that we would do sort of a hybrid of the different options that we had. The benefit of doing it that way is that it doesn’t impact any one particular area too much,” Saucerman said.
Saucerman stressed that there is flexibility regarding the potential costs of updating athletic facilities.
“Now we know specifically what our needs are, and we’re only in that initial phase of discussing what the options may be for the timing of this, what comes first, to what degree (do) we want to do each of these projects,” Saucerman said.
Saucerman said the track at the middle school is seen as pressing but that there is no firm timeline for addressing all of the identified athletic facility needs.