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School district moves toward a referendum
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MONROE - The Monroe school board moved a step closer to hammering out a four-year, non-recurring referendum to exceed state-mandated revenue caps.

They are tentatively planning to place a school referendum question on the April 5 ballot.

Toward that end, the board Monday voted unanimously - in a straw poll - to seek a four-year non-recurring referendum for about $8 million to cover operating expenses.

However, the referendum won't be finalized until it's authorized and another vote taken. The district has until Feb. 22 to finalize the referendum.

The board also grappled with potential cuts, and instructed administrators to identify a 10 percent cutback plan related to high school, co-curricular activities for future consideration. The final dollar amount of cuts and what, if anything, would be eliminated if the referendum fails is still being negotiated.

"I'm thinking what is best for the students of Monroe, it may not be the same as what is best for the taxpayers of Monroe," the board's Brian Keith said. "In my heart, I would love to get a fifth year out of the fourth-year non-recurring referendum. In my mind, I'm thinking are we going to lose some on student achievement."

Without a referendum, the district is projected to have deficits of about $1.6 million in the 2011-12 school year; $2.3 million in the 2012-13 year; $3 million in 2013-14 school year; and $3.6 million in the 2014-15.

The district is at the end of its four-year, non-recurring referendum, in which voters allowed the district to exceed revenue caps by $8.3 million.

The district was able to make cuts in administration and other areas over the past four years, using about $4.3 million of the total amount authorized by the last referendum.

"We do have a good story to tell," Monroe School District Business Manager Ron Olson said. "We have been good stewards of those dollars. We certainly told people prior to the last referendum that once you get into a referendum cycle, it doesn't go away."

The district has already looked at areas to cut to help plug the deficit. Some of the cuts, which could come with or without new money, include personnel - a teacher at the virtual school, a core classroom teacher at the middle school, a technology education teacher at the high school; and a special education teacher. With adjustments, the district could save about $532,000 in the 2011-12 school year.

"Every program has an audience," Monroe Superintendent Larry Brown said.

The board will review the 10-percent cut list of co-curricular activities at its next meeting.

The board wants to finalize a series of cuts in case the referendum doesn't pass. District leaders reviewed a preliminary list of $489,734 in cuts for 2011-12 in a first phase - if the referendum fails. They also are considering a second round of $478,550 in cuts as a contingency.

"I'm willing to see it, but I don't think I would vote for it," Keith said of the 10 percent cut of co-curricular programs.

Cutting co-curricular activities can be risky, district officials acknowledged.

While some school districts have cut them initially to save money, they ended up losing money due to students open enrolling to other schools, Olson said.

Olson said the state revenue limit, which is the money the district receives in combined taxes and state aid, stands at $10,300 per student.

Board member Les Bieneman wants to protect both foreign language classes at the high school. A foreign language class could be targeted in a second level of cuts if a referendum fails.

Another financial picture the board is considering is the virtual school. Keith said some organizations are pushing the state to only allow three percent of students to leave a district under the state's open enrollment law, instead of the 10 percent.

That could have a big impact on the virtual school in Monroe that pulls in $1.8 million, Keith said. Brown said the district's task force is still reviewing the virtual school and that there may be some savings in facilities.

"The more sizable savings could happen if we look at the model," he said.

Last year, two area school districts held referendums to exceed state-mandated revenue caps. Brodhead and Black Hawk held two referendums in 2010, and district residents voted down both of them.

"It's the reality of running a school district in Wisconsin," Brown said.