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Referendum: April or November?
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Editor's note: The following story contains corrected information from the original version posted.

MONROE - Explaining the fund balance to the public will be key to passing a referendum in 2016, school board members said at a special meeting Monday night.

"Educating people about the fund balance is going to be extremely important," said Scott Schmidt, the board's vice president. "Because they see that $3.5 million - why do we need more money? You know, you've got $3.5 million sitting there."

But with a budget of more than $28 million, a fund balance of $3.5 million is "not a very big percentage of the budget," Schmidt said. "You always want to have a little something in back if you've got a roof that all of a sudden starts leaking."

Business Manager Ron Olson expects the fund balance - currently about $5.4 million - to drop to $4.6 to 4.8 million by the end of this school year. If the district holds a referendum next year and it fails, the district might have to run on a $1 million shortfall for a year, bringing the fund balance to slightly more than $3.5 million, as referenced by Schmidt.

Part of the problem is that school districts get most of its revenues in big chunks twice a year.

"Think of your own life," Olson said. "If you did not get a paycheck until seven months down the road, and then you had to work the rest of the year and you didn't get your (next) paycheck until month 13 - if you had zero dollars to start with, how are you paying your rent? How are you paying your grocery bill?"

About the referendum

The board still has to decide when to hold a referendum, how much money to ask voters for and how many questions to put on the ballot.

If the board opts for an April referendum, members will have to make that decision at a meeting yet this month or early in January in order to have a resolution by mid-January, Olson said.

If the board chooses a fall referendum, likely at the November election, the board could take the extra time to survey the community and get a feel for what voters might support. Then it wouldn't have to make final decisions until August.

Since 2000, referendums in Wisconsin have had more success in November than in April, according to research published by Baird, a financial services firm. The data, distributed at the school board meeting, shows about 66 percent of non-recurring referendums passed in November between 2000 and 2015, while about 57 percent passed in April during the same 15 years.

A spring referendum would allow the district to make budget cuts if the referendum fails. That would mean the fund balance could be more protected, and the district wouldn't necessarily have to operate on a shortfall.

A fall referendum would mean the opposite - there wouldn't be time for cuts, so the district would have to absorb a $1 million shortfall in the first year, Olson said. But a fall referendum would also give the school board more time to gather community support.

"I would rather see us take our time and do this being as well-informed as we can be in terms of what will make this a successful referendum," said board member Amy Bazley. "I just think it's too important to not use all of the tools at our disposal to make sure that we know what the community wants."

Either way, the district will have to prepare a plan for budget cuts if voters reject a referendum.

Brian Keith, board treasurer, said they should let staff know which positions would be cut in the event of a failed referendum. Teachers and other staff could then look into other job opportunities before possibly losing their positions in Monroe.

"As an employer, I think you have to do that. That's how I'd want to be treated," said board president Bob Erb.

Monroe teacher Jacqui Schutz and her husband, Wayne, attended the meeting. Schutz said she appreciated the district's openness in having the referendum discussion at a public meeting.

The meeting was for the executive committee, which consists of the school board president, vice president, clerk and treasurer.

"At the end of the day, we will have the district that our community will provide," Erb said. "We can educate and inform, but at the end of the day, the decision is theirs."