Herald JournalHerald Journal, Nov. 15, 2004

Failed referendum draws a crowd

By Jenni Sebora

In light of the recently failed levy referendum, almost 50 people attended the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted school board meeting last Monday.

In the Nov. 2 election, 51 percent of district voters said “no” to an operating levy. Winsted and Winsted Township voters heavily defeated the referendum, with 68 percent against it.

Voicing concern for their schools, district residents offered reasons why the levy failed, suggested possible budget cuts, and strategized for a future referendum.

Joe Remer of Winsted, who has three children attending HLWW schools, said people should have a vested interest in the communities.

“Even if a family lives in the district, but their children attend Holy Trinity, their housing value depends on the public school,” Remer said. “When people move to a community, they look at what the public school is like.”

“You have to work harder,” he told the board. “People want to be educated. If you need 200 votes, go get them. You absolutely need to knock on doors. I also see no one on the board from Winsted.”

Mary Pettit of Waverly agreed, saying it’s critical to promote Winsted representation on the board.

“I agree, Board Chair John Lideen said, but added that there has to be an interest from the community.

Winsted’s leaders supported the levy, and Holy Trinity schools did not take a stance against the levy, Board Member Tom Hammer said. He questioned the possibility of forming committees in all the district’s communities to discuss how they can work together to support the school.

Superintendent George Ladd said he would meet with parochial school superintendents from Winsted and Howard Lake to discuss similar issues.

A little hindsight

A rural Howard Lake resident, Kendell Kubasch, suggested going door-to-door to tell voters about the levy.

“When there were only four people attending a community meeting on the operating levy, that should have been a red flag,” Kubasch said.

Waverly resident Maureen Decker also agreed a door-to-door approach might have helped. “Everyone was bombarded with political ads, and not everyone reads the paper,” she said. “It’s up to community members too, not just the board’s job.”

If every person in this room could contact 20 people, that’s 1,000 names, Waverly resident Lorraine Kittock said.

Howard Lake resident Patty Diers said her son was furious about the levy’s failure, and he wants to organize students to canvass the district in a future levy vote. She questioned whether students could use a room at school to organize and meet.

Students can meet at school to rally other students, but a staff member cannot supervise because of conflict of interest. An administration-approved adult could supervise the students, Ladd said.

Hammer said the board identified three issues for the levy to pass: a unified board, strong administrative and staff support, and strong community support.

“The board needs to take better leadership in getting community and teacher groups going,” he said. “The school board must take responsibility.”

School Board Member Dan Schaible saw it differently. “We didn’t sit back and do nothing,” he said. “We met with teachers and community groups. We had community meetings and met with various businesses. Granted, we didn’t go door-to-door. Could we do a little more next time? Probably, but the community needs to support it, too.”

Trimming the budget

The district estimated an additional $715,000 in revenue for the next seven years if the levy had passed.

Board Member Al Doering, however, told the audience, the district could face a projected $640,000 budget deficit for the 2005-2006.

The board meets with its auditor today to assess the 2005-06 budget and during next few months, the budget committee will review finances and possible cuts.

By Dec. 6, the board should have a good handle on the budget, with a list of suggested cuts, Lideen said.

Ladd added that the preliminary 2005-06 budget is due in February, which would include hiring and cuts.

Audience members suggested sending home flyers with students regarding possible cuts.

Kubasch said cuts should be where they have the most impact, such as bussing or hot lunches.

Remer warned against using scare tactics because some are true and some aren’t.

“We need to stop referring to possible cuts as scare tactics. It’s reality,” Waverly resident Mary Pettit said.

Lideen reminded those present that 80 percent of the budget is employee wages and benefits. The average teacher salary is $50,000, including benefits, he added.

State Rep. Dick Borrell of Waverly, said the state has a $1 million deficit, so schools won’t see an increase in funds anytime soon.

He added that HLWW would have received approximately$200,000 from the state if the levy passed. This should have been promoted, he said.

Another referendum?

Once the preliminary budget is prepared, the board should decide whether it should ask voters again for more money, Ladd said.

The levy amount asked for in a future vote will have to be more than the amount asked for this November, Doering said.

“What was asked for on the recent ballot was a bare bones operating levy amount,” he said. “There was not fat in the levy, just a small amount that would have gone in the reserves.”

To balance next year’s budget, we may have to borrow more money because the levy didn’t pass, and that would have to be paid back, he said.

If the district has a levy referendum this spring and it passes, the district wouldn’t see that money until 2006-07, Ladd said. The 2005-06 school year will have deficit spending or reductions.

“We have to get things back on track soon. It will snowball on us. Cuts will be made, and students may enroll out,” Lideen said.

Board Member Charlie Weber agreed, when he said, “The district has the best of both worlds, low taxes and students can open-enroll elsewhere. This is going to keep ballooning. We need to educate people.”

The board can choose to do a mail-in ballot this spring or have a general election ballot next November, which would be an off-election year.

Hammer gave some statistics regarding passing rates:

• 47 percent of operating levies passed on a mail-in ballot,

• 75-80 percent passed in November off-election years, and

• 50 percent passed during a general election year.

He added that a mail-in ballot is not that easy. It takes more effort, but the return is worth it, if it passes, he said.

“A mail-in ballot would be a mistake. People can check off “no” easily,” Kubasch said.

Decker agreed, saying a mail-in ballot is not a good idea.

Lideen noted that it was discussed to use a suggestion box for people to place ideas of ways to get a future levy passed.

Before the meeting adjourned, Schaible thanked the audience for coming and said, “The levy didn’t pass and consequently, there is a deficit, and we have to deal with it. We don’t have all the answers. We have 20 percent to work with as far as cutting programs, etc. and then, possibly staff. It would be nice to have 50 community members here at all meetings.”

On a positive note, Lideen said, “Let’s look to the future. All our goals are the same. A setback has occurred. This board will not fester. There is a lot of frustration and rumors out there. We need to talk to people and be positive.”

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