Florence: Demise of a School District
By Joanne M. Haas
|Update: In September, the Florence County School Board
voted to hold another referendum on November 8. Florence teachers
are working to support passage. It will ask for $500,000 for the
first year, $750,000 for the second, $1 million in the third, and
$1.25 million in the fourth and fifth years. |
The week after the Florence County School Board voted
6-1 to shutter the financially strangled district by July 2006, teachers
Nick Baumgart, Karen Harrison and Kent Walstrom huddled around a computer
in a steamy high school classroom writing an application for an environmental
Superintendent Jan Dooley, a 20-year Florence business
teacher who three years earlier took the fraying administrator reins,
sat nearby on this stifling July morning as the teachers paged through
forms for the $15,716 Wisconsin Environmental Education Board grant
to support a school forest program.
“Let’s proceed like we’re going
to have a school,” Dooley said as the three teachers nodded a
sentiment voiced 12 hours earlier one floor below in the high school
That’s when Florence teachers congregated to
vent, to question and to brainstorm the what-ifs regarding the future
of their students, their school and their careers.
Florence has reluctantly become the poster child for
all that is wrong with the state’s system of school funding, and
all of Wisconsin is watching.
Anger, anxiety, worry, tension, resignation and fixing
for a fight – every emotion seemed to be seated that evening among
the teachers gathered in the hall lit by an open side door reflecting
the red sinking sun. Not only were the teachers faced with planning
the details for the new school year, they also were forced to weigh
a plan for the big unknown of the following year: Will there be a Florence
district or will it evaporate?
Now that the school board has voted to dissolve the
district, the answer rests in the hands of a state-appointed review
panel. Just to make it even more unnerving for the staff, the school
board vote landed in the midst of contract negotiations for the next
“I am going into this school year as if we are
going to have a school,” said Baumgart, a Florence graduate who
has taught in the district since 1989. “When you look at the reasons
not to dissolve, it makes just way too much sense. It just seems so
unthinkable that it could happen.”
But that is exactly what might happen. A decision
by the review panel – appointed by State Superintendent Elizabeth
Burmaster – is due by January 15. The last time a Wisconsin district
dissolved was in July 1990 when the Ondossagon district merged with
the Drummond, Washburn and Ashland districts in the northwest corner
of the state.
In the meantime, this is a community in turmoil about
the potential loss of its school system – the one thing that unifies
the county. The drive to Florence from points south winds through many
small communities where signs bragging about the local prep team’s
accomplishments give passing motorists a sense of community pride.
Florence’s pride and concern is no different,
as reflected in some of the letters published in the local weekly paper
– The Florence Mining News. One letter from a teacher signed Mrs.
Koehn states, “There’s still time to save the school.”
Dooley, board members and the teachers point to the
state’s 1993 school district revenue control law as the primary
cause of the district’s pending demise. But it is combined with
other factors, including declining enrollment, escalating fixed costs,
a low property tax base, and the region’s low incomes. The median
income in Florence County is about $33,000.
Still, in spite of the fear of the unknown and the
tension that has divided this sparsely populated but rugged region,
there still are glimmers of optimism.
And at the end of the meeting, the teachers agreed
to again explore ways to save money in their health insurance coverage
– just as they had in the previous contract when they agreed to
sacrifice $200,000 for the district. It’s a sign of how badly
they want to keep the district alive – showing a willingness to
make more financial sacrifices despite the fact that their salaries
already are lower than teacher salaries even in other parts of this
economically challenged area. Baumgart said a teaching job just across
the border in Michigan would mean an immediate $10,000 pay increase.
But Florence teachers, like most citizens, have a deep devotion to their
school district and community.
“We all have hope that something will happen,”
said teacher Kathy Chellew, who has worked at Florence for 13 years
following a dozen at a private institution. “It is the best elementary
school that you could send your kids to. It is just a great school.
“But we need more money,” she added.
Money, of course, is both the problem and the solution.
That’s why the district asked voters three times in 18 months
to approve $750,000 to keep the district in operation. After the three
referendums went down, the board said it had no choice but to put the
district out of its financial misery.
There were signs in August that a fourth referendum
might be organized by local taxpayers in an effort to show the Department
of Public Instruction review board the community remains committed to
educating its children. But as of late August, that fourth referendum
had yet to gel.
Still, School Board President Dan Brereton is optimistic
a fourth vote may happen. It will have to come from the taxpayers and
not the school board, he said.
Into the frying pan
A short three-block walk from the school campus is the Florence County
Jail where Brereton, a corrections officer/dispatcher, is on duty in
a slightly darkened command office surrounded by well-lit, occupied
cells. Brereton, sporting a finger brace after one of the prisoners
attempted to remove the digit with his teeth the day before, has become
something of a self-taught school funding whiz after his election to
the school board just last April.
The night before the deadline for candidacy papers,
the Breretons – who have three children in district schools –
got a call from a board member seeking candidates for two vacancies.
So the political freshman, who moved to Florence from Lodi several years
ago, agreed and soon found himself not only on the embattled board but
tapped to be its leader.
Brereton promptly became one of the state’s
more well-known school board presidents by “taking a stand for
education” and taking on one of the biggest issues facing Wisconsin
– the school financing system.
“The No. 1 problem is the state funding formula.
That’s No. 1. Period,” Brereton said. “Certainly,
some past board decisions speeded it up. But this would have happened
He said now was the time to vote for dissolution because
the district no longer had the resources necessary to provide a quality
“As a board, we protected the education of our children as best
Brereton said. “We drew a line for education.”
Even if the district is dissolved, Brereton said he
will stay the course and fight for the school funding formula changes
championed by the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools. The WAES
proposal, called the Wisconsin Adequacy Plan, seeks to provide property
tax savings through a hike in the state sales tax.
If the funding system is not changed, he said, other
districts will end up like Florence. Gene Degner, director of the Northern
Tier UniServ, said the northern part of the state is projected to lose
roughly 30% of its students in the coming 10 years.
“My kids will bounce to another district and
it will face the same problems,” Brereton said. “If we can
limit this to one dissolvement, that is my goal.”
Meanwhile, the board continues to operate the school
district. “My priority is to make sure we continue with our quality
education next year. So that means trying to retain teachers and hire
qualified teachers to get by this next year,” Brereton said.
How did it come to this?
The official Florence County Web site says the county has 5,088 residents
spread over 495 square miles.
Known as an outdoor enthusiast’s playground,
Florence County’s greatest natural asset may also be the school
district’s biggest financial villain. Roughly 80% of this northeastern
county’s lands are stunning national, state and county forests,
and most are exempt from the property taxes that fund Wisconsin’s
According to a chart provided by the Florence County
treasurer, 312,184 acres were exempt from property taxes in 2004. That
left 95,681 acres as taxable – or 30.6% of the total acreage in
Add to that the fact Florence County’s rustic
beauty has attracted wealthy absentee landowners who have driven up
property values by paying big bucks for lakefront and other vacation
“With the absentee property owners buying up
and paying high prices for lands, it causes the equalized value to go
up. And the way the (school) funding formula works, that drops the state
aid,” Superintendent Dooley said.
Dooley called the school district revenue limit law
the “real culprit” behind a structural deficit this school
year of $425,000 and a projected deficit of $1.1 million in 2006-07,
should the district survive.
“We were a very lean-spending district”
when the law was passed in 1993, Dooley said, “so we were capped
low. It was bound to catch up with us.”
Another big factor is declining enrollment since state
aid fluctuates with enrollment. The district enrollment has been dropping
precipitously partly because residents – particularly those who
live near other districts – are using the open enrollment option
to send their children to neighboring districts. Some are angry about
past conflicts with the school board and administration, and some are
upset about the school board’s decision to close Aurora Elementary
School in 2003-04. That decision caused a lot of pain and anger that,
ironically, may have contributed to the subsequent defeats of the three
An analysis by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance shows
Florence’s allowed revenue increase in 1995 was 5.4%, just above
the state average of 5.2%. That was when the district’s enrollment
was still more than 900 students. Last year when the district’s
enrollment dropped below 700, Florence was told to cut revenues by 0.2%
in 2004 and 1.5% in 2005.
The district has responded with some very painful
cuts, Dooley said, and has sliced $1.4 million in programs and services
from a $7.8 million budget in the last three years.
“Since the 2002-03 school year, we have decreased
our personnel about 28%,” she said, adding the district has gone
from about 113 full-time equivalent employees to about 81 for this school
year. That includes 43 or 44 teachers for this school year.
The reductions have largely been accomplished through
cuts to education support professionals and a principal, and elimination
of a bus route.
James Uren, a math teacher for the 6th and 7th grades
and president of the Florence teachers’ union, said the cuts mean
teachers are taking on more responsibilities and leading larger class
sections. “The only cuts left to be made with our teaching staff
is to start cutting programs,” he said.
School officials repeatedly point out that while enrollment
declines can sometimes lead to some reduced costs through school closings
and staff cuts, many fixed costs continue to increase, including gasoline
for buses, heating, building maintenance and much more. As state aid
declines, the school district must pick up those rising costs.
And things aren’t looking any better this year.
District officials expect an enrollment of just about 600 for the 2005-06
school year, meaning a further decline in desperately needed state aid,
exasperating what ome are calling the “death cycle.”
Another factor in the district’s fiscal crisis
is sharply rising health insurance costs. In addition to the health
benefits for current employees, Dooley said a late 1980s contract provision
to cover health insurance for retirees – passed as a cost-savings
measure – has backfired because of the sudden and dramatic increase
in health insurance costs. Last school year alone, Dooley said, this
provision cost the district more than $400,000.
While this issue has been addressed in past and ongoing
contract negotiations, it remains a fixed cost Florence will just have
to manage for years to come, Dooley said.
Dooley said other factors include previous administrative
and board decisions, including the $400,000 buyout of a previous superintendent
and two principals. Fixed costs and expenses out of the district’s
control also play a big role, she said. Sharply rising gasoline prices
are a significant factor for a district that covers such a large geographic
area. One bus route covers more than 120 miles a day.
an effort to stay afloat, the district asked voters three times over
18 months for more money. All the referendums called for $750,000 a
year, Dooley said. The first one on May 11, 2004, sought the annual
allotment for five years.
“That wasn’t a cure-all. That was to buy
us time,” she said. It failed by 288 votes. The next referendum
was February 15 of this year, and the allotment was sought for three
years. That failed by 46 votes. The third try for the same dollars and
years was attempted June 28 and failed by 21 votes.
Dooley agrees with the board that the district cannot
operate without being able to support normal operations – meaning
textbook rotations, building maintenance, technology updates and reliable
“We have downsized to the point that I believe
to cut any further into programs will cost further loss in enrollments,”
she said. “That would negate the cuts that are made and it wouldn’t
be good for the kids.”
Dooley said it was inevitable that at some point,
school district revenue controls and the state’s school funding
system would begin to force school districts out of business.
“I surely wish it wasn’t Florence,”
she said, “and Florence won’t be the last.”
tragedy for the entire state,
by WEAC President Stan Johnson
Resource page on school funding
Resource page on the
2005-07 state budget
Posted August 26, 2005