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Menomonie School District Referendum Series - Budgets, Funding, and More


This is the last article (finally!!) in the series about the upcoming school referendum. 


When voters go to the polls on February 20, 2024, the following referendum will appear on the ballot:


Shall the School District of the Menomonie Area, Dunn and St Croix Counties, Wisconsin, be authorized to exceed the revenue limit specified in Section 121.91, Wisconsin Statutes, by $4,200,000 beginning with the 2024--2025 school year, for recurring purposes consisting of operational expenses?


The first three articles looked at property taxes - what's on your tax bill, how it's calculated, what mill rates are, how property taxes get apportioned, and whether or not property taxes in Dunn County are higher than everywhere else. The fourth discussed school revenue limits and referendums.


Below are links to the prior articles. If you haven't read them, I would encourage you to do so before you read this article.



This article will cover funding and budgeting for the school district, as well as some of the "hot-button" issues that have come up.  


One of the main reasons I started this website was to research and share information like this so voters can make an informed decision. I have tried very hard to keep information factual and to show sources. For this article, I am including information shared by the school district. Information coming from the school district will be clearly noted. 


While I tried to keep things as simple as possible, this subject is very complex, and this article is very long. There are lots of links if you want more information.


SDMA Budget and Funding


School finance is a complicated topic. If you are interested in learning more, please read through the SDMA Annual Report, which can be found here. That document provides a very detailed 5-page report of all revenue and expenditures for the 2021-22 school year (actual audited), the 2022-23 school year (unaudited), and the proposed 2023-24 budget.


Per state statute, all school districts in Wisconsin must use a uniform financial fund accounting system. If interested, you can read more about it here


Often, you will hear about different funds when school finance is discussed. The main fund is the General Fund or Fund 10. This fund is used to account for the income and expenses for the district's current operations.


Below are descriptions for all of the funds. 




Budget


Below are budget expenditures for the 2021-22 school year (actual audited), the 2022-23 school year (unaudited), and the proposed 2023-24 budget. This information comes from the SDMA Annual Report.



Note that most of the budget is for staff salaries and benefits.


Many of these budget items are self-explanatory. I contacted the district for more information on some that weren't as straightforward.


  • personal services- professional training for all staff, official/referee pay, conference registration, audit services, benefit administration, equipment maintenance, contracted maintenance (plumbing, electrical, etc.) 

  • intergovernmental payments- payments to other government agencies, including the State of Wisconsin, municipalities, CESAs, universities, tech. schools, other school districts, 4K sites

  • apparel- co-curricular uniforms, maintenance uniforms 

  • site improvement/addition- solar project, land purchase, and titling services

  • inter-fund transfers- the transfer of funds from the general fund to the special education fund, capital maintenance fund, food service fund, community service fund, OPEB trust fund

  • property services/rentals- network upgrades, elevator maintenance; the large increase came from completing the sports complex. There is a section below with more information about the sports complex.

The below summaries are also from the annual report. 




State aid and funding


The graphic below was taken from a very informative article by Forward Analytics about school funding and referendums. Forward Analytics is a Wisconsin-based research organization that provides state and local policymakers with nonpartisan analysis of issues affecting the state. This graphic shows the major funding sources for Wisconsin schools.



The following information is taken from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.


Wisconsin State Equalization Aid (or general aid, the dark orange section) is general financial assistance to public school districts to fund a broad range of school district operational expenditures. The purposes for which general aid can be used are not restricted as they would be in a categorical aid program.


Categorical aids (light orange section) must be used for a specific purpose or category of program or to aid a particular target group of pupils. 


Per-pupil aid (medium orange section) is a categorical aid provided by the state of Wisconsin. This aid program provides additional funding to school districts in Wisconsin based on the three-year average membership (enrollment) from the district's revenue limit worksheet.


The equalization aid formula distributes financial assistance to school districts to achieve two basic policy goals:


  • to reduce the reliance upon the local property tax as the sole source of revenue for educational programs; and

  • to guarantee that a basic educational opportunity is available to all pupils regardless of the district's local fiscal capacity.

For these reasons, equalization aid is intended to make up for the differences between the yield from a district's actual tax base (property taxes) and the state benchmark "guaranteed tax base."


Simply stated, there is an inverse relationship between equalization aid and local per-pupil property valuations; those districts with low per-pupil property valuations receive a larger share of their costs reimbursed through the equalization formula than districts with high per-pupil property valuations.



Because of the revenue limits (as explained in the previous article in the series), more general aid from the state does not mean more money for the school district, it means less money coming from property taxes.


Menomonie receives about 63% of its funding from equalization aid. Hudson and New Richmond, which are in "property rich" districts, receive less from state aid and are expected to collect more from property taxes. 


Note that these property-rich districts receive higher amounts of credits on their tax bills - the school levy tax credit, the lottery credit, and the first dollar tax credit. (You can find a chart in article 3 that illustrates this). I had intended to provide more information about tax credits, but based on the length of this article, I will save it for another day.


If you want more information on how equalization aid is calculated, follow this LINK.


 The pie chart below is from the Annual Report and shows where the SDMA's funding comes from.



The Budget Year


A note on the budget year since I found it confusing. The fiscal/budget year for school districts is from July 1 through June 30. 


For example - the fiscal budget for the 2023-2024 school year goes from July 1, 2023, through June 30, 2024. Work on the budget, including teaching contracts, began in the spring of 2023 and continued through the summer. The budget was presented in August 2023 at the annual meeting. Final approval by the school board came in October of 2023. 


The delay in final approval is because much of the budget depends on the September enrollment count. Revenue limits are tied to enrollment; when enrollment goes down, the revenue available to the district goes down. (Revenue limits were explained in article four.)


ESSER Funds


The following information in bold is taken directly from the Wisconsin DPI. If you want to learn more, follow this link.


ESSER funding is the portion of funding in the three COVID-19 relief laws designated to help address educational issues arising from the pandemic.


ESSER III, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund grant program authorized under the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act, provides additional money for local educational agencies (LEAs) to prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19. ESSER III supplements ESSER I, created by the CARES Act in March 2020, and ESSER II, created by the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act in December 2020.


Note that the COVID funds came when the legislature had not increased the per-pupil revenue limit. The 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 increases would have been set before COVID-19 (adjustments are made every two years). The four years before 2019 had no increase in the revenue limit. (see below chart)




Often, you will hear that the ESSER money was used to "plug holes" due to rising inflation and no increase in the revenue limit for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. Here is a news clip from WQOW discussing the spending of ESSER funds. Information was based on a report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum. (The Wisconsin Policy Forum is a statewide nonpartisan, independent policy research organization. They provide informed analysis of critical policy issues affecting local governments, school districts, and the state of Wisconsin.)


ESSER funds were available when budgeting for the 2023-2024 school year; however, no ESSER funds are available for the 2024-2025 school year. 


School districts do need to account for how ESSER money is spent. Below is a summary of the ESSER funding provided by the school district. The ESSER III report is available on the school district's website



SDMA - ESSER I, II, and III Overview
.pdf
Download PDF • 1.54MB

Fund Balance and Debt


Fund Balance

The school has a fund balance of approximately $17 million. The below charts are from the SDMA Annual Report




Discussion on social media and at some of the referendum presentations has been centered on whether or not this fund balance is too high. 


School board president Rachel Henderson shared this in a Facebook post.


Does the Menomonie School District have a savings account? Yes! It’s called a Fund Balance for our general operating fund. Has it been growing steadily for about 10 years? Also yes! Having this “savings” is a smart financial strategy, the same way a home savings account helps protect you in the face of unexpected expenses. School districts receive funds from different sources periodically throughout the year. The property tax levy comes in the beginning of the year, but payments from state aid and other sources come later. Meanwhile, there are monthly costs that must be paid – payroll, utilities, supplies, contracts. Having a healthy fund balance means that a district can avoid short-term debt (like a payday loan). Since adding to this fund balance isn’t an “aidable” expense in the eyes of the state, it’s important to build this up gradually, to maximize Menomonie’s state aid. Now, when admin plans for cash flow throughout the budget year, they can be sure they can manage expenses without taking money away from student learning to pay interest. This means savings every year by avoiding interest (and the district EARNS interest on those funds!), flexibility in the face of unexpected costs, and the ability to make decisions based on the needs of our students. And that’s what’s most important: SDMA should always make decisions that are in the interests of our students and community.



Determination of an appropriate fund balance is a critical factor in district financial planning and budgeting processes, but it is strictly a local matter. DPI makes no recommendation regarding the amount a district should have as its General Fund balance, except that DPI encourages districts to seek legal counsel should they contemplate budgeting for and/or operating with a negative general fund balance.


A district with an appropriate fund balance can:


  • avoid excessive short-term borrowing thereby avoiding associated interest cost;

  • accumulate sufficient assets to make designated purchases or cover unforeseen expenditure needs; and

  • demonstrate financial stability and therefore preserve or enhance its bond rating, thereby lowering debt issuance costs.

The most commonly asked question regarding fund balance is how large should it be? Perhaps the best answer would be "an amount sufficient that short-term borrowing for cash flow could be avoided and would also allow the district to set aside sufficient assets to realize its longer-range goals." However, this may not always be practical or politically possible.


When looking around for information on other districts, especially those with referendums coming up, I found that in August of 2023 the Chippewa Falls School District borrowed $7 million because the district "is temporarily in need of funds in the amount not to exceed $7 million to meet the immediate expenses of operating and maintaining the public instruction in the district during the current school year..." from the Chippewa Falls School District website


Debt

The district is still carrying debt from the building referendum in 2013. The school district did refinance the debt when interest rates were low. The long-term debt information is from the SDMA Annual Report. The graph showing the refinancing is from the Menomonie Area Schools Facebook page.






Teacher pay


The chart below compares BRC teacher salaries. Information for this graph came from the Public Teacher Salary Report - Public Reports (wi.gov)


BRC teacher salary comparisons

This information is dated 2023, before raises for the 2023-24 school year. Still, to do an apples-to-apples comparison, this was the latest information available for all districts. 


Menomonie teachers are contracted to work 191 days (approximately 1,528 hours) per year. It may be helpful to look at teacher salaries as an hourly rate. The range is $15.91-$50.33 per hour, with an average of $37.86. The high end is for teachers with a master's degree. 


All Menomonie staff received an 8% increase for the 2023-2024 school year. The projected budget impact is about 1.6 million (this information was shared by school board president Rachel Henderson on Facebook).


While 8% is a large number, it does need to be put into context. Teacher compensation changed dramatically after Act 10. 


2011 Wisconsin Act 10

Act 10 reduced collective bargaining rights for most state and municipal employees, including K-12 teachers. It limited their ability to negotiate terms related to wages, benefits, and working conditions with their employers.


It also made significant changes to employees' compensation and retirement. Teachers' pay was decreased as they were required to pay more for their benefits. 


Public workers earning $50,000 a year saw their take-home pay shrink by about 8.5% because they had to pay more for their benefits, according to an analysis done at the time by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. 


Since Act 10 in 2011, Wisconsin teachers' unions cannot negotiate for raises higher than annual inflation, as measured by the State Department of Revenue.


The chart below uses the inflation numbers from HERE, which are based on information from the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, so they will differ slightly from the numbers from the State DOR. The teacher increase data was provided by the SDMA. Note that the teacher increase in the chart correlates with the prior year's inflation number.


Teacher raises compared to inflation

Teachers' wage scale and other information can be found in the Employee handbook on the district website.


From an article by the Wisconsin Policy Form:


With some Wisconsin school districts providing the highest pay raises in years amid escalating inflation and a tight labor market, here we look at teacher salaries over time. Adjusted for inflation, median pay has fallen over the last decade, with retirements and limited pay increases both playing key roles. State limits on revenues also have constrained school spending, leaving districts caught between teacher retention goals and fiscal realities.


Menomonie was not the only school that gave 8% (the maximum) raises. The full article can be found HERE.


In searching other BRC school district websites for raises given for the 2023-24 school year, this is what I found:


River Falls - 4.7% teachers, 2.24% admin

New Richmond - 4.5%

Eau Claire - 8%

Hudson - 5% for $65,000 or less, 4% for above $65,000.


I did reach out to other districts not listed, but either didn't hear back or, in the case of one school, they just did not answer my question. 


Like many schools, Menomonie has experienced an increase in retirements over the last 2 years (as seen in the graph below shared on the Menomonie Area Schools Facebook page) and has struggled with finding teachers.   




Administrative salaries


Much focus has been on the high salaries of the superintendent and other administrative positions in the district. 


Note that administrative positions are year-round positions. SDMA did some restructuring for the 2023-24 school year, and the Dean of Students position at the high school was eliminated.  


The information in the chart below came from the Department of Public Instruction and is the most up-to-date information available for making an apples-to-apples comparison. For Superintendent Zydowsky, this number is before the salary increases in 2023-2024. 


2022-2023 Area Superintendent salaries

There is another site where you can also check school district salaries - govsalaries.com. On this website, you can search by school district and pull up all salaries from high to low. I did check the rest of the administrative salaries on that site because it was easier than checking the DPI site. From what I could see (and I encourage anyone interested to go in and take a look), other administrative positions in Menomonie were very much in line with the other BRC schools and seemed more on the low end. 


It is hard to make comparisons with other districts because specific duties for a job title can vary from school to school. Also, at smaller schools, administrators may have dual roles. Experience also makes a difference, as does benefit structure, including retirement. 


For example, while the pay for the Colfax Superintendent seems high for such a small school, the information on govsalaries.com shows that Colfax has a smaller administrative staff, so the superintendent is likely doing other jobs like business administrator. 


The Sports Complex


The below information was provided in part by the school district. The information for Phases 1 and 2 was taken from a summary presented to the school board before the finalization of Phase 3. The summary for Phase 3 was taken from that same summary and from articles found in the Dunn County News and Eau Claire Leader Telegram.


Phase 1: On November 9, 2015, the school board approved Phase I of the project, a district contribution of $500,000, and fronting the remaining cost of Phase I until future pledges were collected. Construction of Phase I of the MHS Sports Complex was completed in 2016. Phase I included the track, electrical room/ticket booth, and fencing. The final cost of the construction and equipment needed to complete Phase I totaled $1,085,216.14, less than the preliminary budget of $1,100,000. The school district contributed $500,000 toward Phase I of the Sports Complex, which left $585,216.14 to be covered through fundraising and private donations.


Phase 2: On October 8, 2018, the Board approved the construction and financing of Phase 2 of the MHS Sports Complex, which included projects for lighting and sound. The school district committed to half of the total cost of Phase 2- not to exceed $175,000. The Board also authorized that construction begin on the project once enough pledges and sponsorships were collected by the school district and community foundation to fund the entire Phase 2 project budget and to finance the project until enough pledges to fund the balance of the Phase II project were received. It wasn't until May 8, 2019, that enough fundraising was completed to move forward with Phase 2, and construction was completed during the 2019-2020 school year at a total cost of $257,198. The district's contribution for Phase 2 was $128,599 (half of the total project), which was $46,401 less than the spending authorized by the Board. The fundraised portion of the Phase 2 project also totaled $128,599, and the district received the final payments during the 2021-2022 school year.


For the first two phases, $713,815 was funded through private sponsorships, donations, and other fundraising efforts. The school district contributed a total of $628,599.


Phase 3: - Added permanent restrooms/concessions, a press box, a section of raised bleachers with a maximum capacity of 1,000 spectators, and artificial turf. Before Phase 3, seating was minimal, and the available seating was not ADA-compliant. The only bathroom facilities were porta potties, and the concessions were located in the ticket booth. Without a press box, there was no room for a scoreboard operator, videographers, and other event personnel. The cost of Phase 3 was estimated at $2.63 million. The final cost was $2,613,906.67, paid entirely by the school district.


Why the need for a sports complex:


  • Girls' and boys' soccer played on a field at River Heights Elementary School - no lights, seating, or concessions.

  • The football stadium can only host football games. The field is a football field, not a soccer field.

  • Lower-level football games were played on a field behind the school with limited seating, porta-potties for restrooms, and no concessions area. Getting down to the field presented problems for some spectators.

  • Menomonie was the only school in the BRC without a track.

  • Before the new track at the high school, athletes had to find transportation to UW Stout. High school athletes practiced alongside UW Stout students. The school paid $4500.00 per year to use Stout's track. 

  • With the sports complex Menomonie can now host conference, regional, and sectional events.

  • The new track and field can be used for gym classes and during summer school. 

  • The track can be used by anyone. Lights come on at the push of a button for night walking. 


The decision on artificial turf:


Menomonie was the only school in the Big Rivers Conference that did not have regular access to an artificial turf field, and even many small schools in the state had installed artificial turf. Due to the amount of wear and tear on the natural grass turf, use must be limited to allow the grass to grow enough to provide a safe surface. Drainage was also a concern; the snow melting in the spring made the field extremely muddy. Drainage is not an issue with turf. Keeping the grass mowed and lines painted for various activities also requires numerous hours from the maintenance staff. 


Why the referendum is needed - a short explanation


After doing all of my research and completing all of these articles about the referendum, I'm going to give you my best short explanation as to why the school district says the referendum is needed.


If you look at area properties in the charts below, notice that while the school portion of taxes has gone up and down a little bit over the past 13 years, that number is not increasing. The cost to run a school (or anything for that matter) is generally going to increase over time and with the added issue of inflation over the past couple of years, it's reached the point where the school board felt something needed to be done. If the revenue limit was tied to inflation, things would not have reached this point.


I would encourage everyone to take a look at your property taxes on the County Treasurer's website and see what has happened to the school portion. While everyone's taxes are different, most should be seeing a similar trend. Renters can look too since searches can be done with an address as well as a name.


I am not advocating for or against the referendum. I did notice on social media that many people were not seeing why the school was needing to do this and this is my short explanation of why. Everyone has a right to voice their opinion in the form of a vote on February 20th.


Town of Red Cedar Property

City of Menomonie Property

Town of Tainter Property

For some reason the 2023 tax information for the Town of Tainter was

not available on the County Treasurer's website.


Questions


I sent out a survey in November and people were able to submit questions. Here are the answers to the questions that were received.


Q: Why is the school district asking for a recurring referendum rather than a non-recurring referendum?


A: With a non-recurring referendum, districts will be back in the same situation they were when the voter-approved revenue limit authority expires. Since most operational referendums are used to fund ongoing programming expenses, these school districts typically need repeated referendums which consume more time and additional resources. A recurring referendum allows voter-approved revenue limit authority to continue, so that long term planning and decisions can be made.


Q: Why does everyone get to vote on a referendum when not all pay property tax? If I wasn't affected financially, I would vote yes.


A: In the U.S., everyone 18 and older (at least most everyone) gets to vote. An increase in property taxes doesn't just affect those that own property. Landlords will likely need to pass along any increased expenses to renters.


Q: Why does the mil rate go down if the school system needs more money?


A: Hopefully reading through the first three articles in this series will help the answer to this question make sense. The mill rate depends on two numbers - the levy and the equalized value of the district. When the equalized value goes up, the mill rate goes down. The below chart is from the SDMA Annual Report.


Q: I would like to know what the school district plans to cut if the referendum does not pass.


A: The School District shared the below information in the referendum guide. Until the time comes to work on the budget, I would not expect that there will be specific answers.



Q: Where will the money go?


A: The short answer would be that it will help pay for everything that the school is currently provide. It's not needed in just one area. Remember to get out and vote!


Q: How much will my taxes go up?


A: That is a hard question to answer. The school district provided an estimate of $82 for $100,000 of property valuation. The calculation depends on many numbers - revenue limit adjustments, private school vouchers, increases or decreases in the districts equalized value, state aid, to name a few. Until the final numbers come in next fall (if the referendum passes) it's impossible to give an exact amount.


_________________________________


This concludes the Menomonie Minute Referendum Series. Thank you for taking the time to read the articles. I hope you found them beneficial.


While all the information contained in this article is believed to be accurate, it is not guaranteed. The user should not rely solely on the information provided and should seek additional information from other sources. While some information was provided by individuals, any errors are my own.


Please feel free to share any comments or questions you may have about this article. You can send me a message HERE.



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