This fall, Brown County Schools will ask voters to say “yes” to an operating referendum and to supporting the future of the school district.
But how much will be asked of property taxpayers is not known. Next week will be the first of three community meetings at the Brown County Educational Center to receive input from parents and other community members about the proposed operating referendum.
In 2016, a referendum passed with the support of 59% of voters. Starting with May 2017 tax bills, Brown County property taxpayers began seeing an increase of 8 cents per $100 of assessed value on their tax rate.
The referendum money, which also comes from property taxes, has its own fund. One penny went directly to the Brown County Career Resource Center and 7 cents to pay staff salaries, benefits and raises.
The school district continues to see declining enrollment for a variety of reasons including a lack of affordable housing and jobs for young families, so the additional money for teachers continued to come from the referendum voters approved in 2016.
For several years, Brown County Schools has continued to see a decline in enrollment. This affects the district’s budget, causing cuts to be made. Since 2016, the district has cut more than $4.5 million from its budget using a variety of methods, including not replacing teachers who leave, switching health insurance plans, and teaching certain Career and Technical Education courses that are reimbursable by the state.
Changes at the state level have also resulted in reductions to Brown County Schools’ budget, along with the budgets of other rural districts.
Part of the calculation of how much money districts receive per student is the “complexity index.” Previously, the complexity index was based on the number of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch in the county. Starting last school year, it is now based on the percentage of students who qualify for SNAP or TANF and foster students.
More than half of the students in Brown County qualify for free or reduced lunch. But those who qualify for SNAP or TANF benefits is lower, as not as many eligible families choose to use those benefits.
Before the referendum passed, Brown County teachers had been frozen at their current salary step due to a law passed in 2011 that prevented teachers from moving up the salary schedule solely on experience. After it passed, referendum money funded a 2.5 percent raise for the 2016-17 school year.
Teachers have received raises each year since 2016, but the district can still not pay as much as some competing districts, Superintendent Emily Tracy said.
According to a fiscal report completed by the Distressed Unit Appeals Board, the $1.1 million in revenue from the referendum made up about 4% of the district’s total revenue in 2020. The school district’s financial consultant Bob Harris presented the detailed report at a meeting of the Brown County School Board of Trustees earlier this year.
Since it is the seventh year of the referendum the school district will ask voters to approve another one this fall to avoid having a special election in May 2023 when an election is not scheduled to happen, Tracy said.
“Holding a special election presents considerable challenges and results in additional expenses that would have to be paid by the district,” she said.
She continued that the district will be seeking to either renew the current referendum of 8 cents per $100 of assessed value or to increase the rate.
“That timing is important because if we do not pursue a referendum or successfully pass the referendum, we will be forced to absorb $1,000,000 annually back into our budget,” Tracy said.
But before any decisions are made, the school district wants to hear from parents, school staff and community members. Meetings are scheduled for Tuesday, May 31 and June 7 at the Brown County Educational Service Center beginning at 6 p.m. A third meeting will happen on June 14 beginning at noon also at the Educational Service Center.
Meetings are expected to last for an hour and a half.
“I believe it will be helpful to provide a meeting during the day for any community members that may have to work in the evenings and to just wrap up the community input and share out next steps,” Tracy said of the June 14 meeting.
Tracy said input received over the next few weeks will be “crucial” to the referendum process.
Overall goals for the meetings are to inform the community of the current financial state of the district along with what an operating referendum is and why it needs to be continued. The district also plans to let the community know about the different referendum rates that are being considered and what that could mean to their annual property tax bills.
Community members and the school community will also be able to give feedback on the rate of the referendum and what they would like to see be supported with the potential additional funds.
Tracy said that the meetings are also a commitment to the district’s “total transparency throughout the process.”
A message about the community meetings and needing feedback on the referendum was sent to parents via ParentSquare on Monday, May 9.
“We are committed to being consistent, accessible and transparent in all of our actions. That’s why your input is important before any considerations are made of our next steps together,” the message read.
Each meeting will feature a presentation by Tracy and another from the district’s financial advisors Baker Tilly. Presentations will be followed by small group table discussions to help “gain insightful and additional feedback from the community members and school community to help us determine the levels of support,” Tracy said in a follow-up email to The Democrat.
The meetings will be recorded and will feature the same presentations. The recorded meetings will be available on the district’s website and social media accounts.
Anyone with questions about the meetings or who wish to be informed throughout the public input process can email Tracy at [email protected].
If approved this fall, this will be the third referendum the school district has asked voters to approve. The CRC had received property tax money from a referendum since 2011, at the 1-cent rate. The 2016 referendum will replaced that one.
According to the CRC’s 2022 budget, the referendum was estimated to bring $137,000 in revenue next year, which was about the same as last year, according to CRC Director Greg Pagnard.