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Florence County votes to save school district

Update

The seven-member State School District Boundary Appeals Board voted unanimously Tuesday (November 15, 2005) to keep the Florence County School District open. The vote followed the approval November 8 of a referendum that provides enough money to continue providing education to the district's students.

There was an air of excitement at Florence County schools Wednesday (November 9, 2005), the day after residents voted to save their school district from closure.

"The excitement students showed on Wednesday was sheer joy that they have their school back," said teacher Nick Baumgart. "The underclassmen will graduate as Florence Bobcats. Now students can go back to being students and enjoying their high school years. Teachers can teach without the burden of not knowing what the future holds."

In a binding referendum that is expected to prevent the district from being dissolved, residents voted 1,424 to 1,253 to exceed revenue caps by $4.75 million over five years.

In an advisory referendum, only 443 voters said they approve of dissolving the district compared to 2,210 who voted to keep it open.

This was the county's fourth referendum since May 2004 on whether to exceed state-imposed revenue caps. The first three failed.

The referendum allows the school district to collect an extra $500,000 in property taxes this year, an extra $750,000 next year, an extra $1 million in the third year and an extra $1.25 million the fourth and fifth years. The money will go toward paying for minimum programming requirements, transportation and building maintenance.

Tuesday's referendum was scheduled after the Florence County School Board voted 6-1 in June to shutter the financially strangled district which has 589 students and encompasses nearly 500 square miles in the northeast corner of the state. Board members said they no longer had the resources necessary to provide quality education to students.

The board's decision to dissolve the district is being reviewed by a seven-member state School District Boundary Appeals Board appointed by State Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster. It has until January 15 to approve or disapprove the dissolution. Tuesday's referendum approval will be taken into consideration by the appeals board.

Members of the Florence Education Association worked with many citizens and local business leaders to drum up support for the referendum.

"FEA members worked many hard hours to help this referendum pass," Baumgart said. "The importance was evident by the number of members who volunteered and the amount of time that was put in. The teachers alone could not have done all this work without the support and commitment of many community members and the local businesses. This is a great example of a whole community rallying and working together!"

"This is like Christmas morning," business owner Dwaine Drewa said the day after the vote. "People are smiling again and we feel like we have a future," said Drewa, who owns and operates the Florence Subway with his wife Ann.

Drewa, who has two children who graduated from the Florence district, said the people who voted to dissolve the district just don't make the connection between education and progress.

"For generations there have been a lot of depressed people here, and I guess misery loves company," he said. "I always look at things in life like a choice. Education allows you to have choices. That's what we want for all of our children. Nothing is more important than education."

Trouble remains imminent under state funding formula

District officials have said the state's 1993 school district revenue control law is the primary cause of the district's financial problems, combined with declining enrollment, escalating fixed costs, a low property tax base, and the region's low incomes.

WEAC President Stan Johnson said that while he celebrates the outcome of the referendum, he remains concerned about the district's long-range future and the fate of school districts throughout the state that face similar crises.

"I applaud the voters of Florence County for preserving their local schools, the heart of their community," Johnson said. "But Florence's situation is not unique, and I worry that many more communities will experience the same upheaval, and even close their schools' doors, if we do not change this state's school finance laws."

When a school district closes, adjacent school districts inherent the students and the debts of the closed district. The last time a Wisconsin school district was dismantled was in July 1990 when the Ondossagon district merged with the Drummond, Washburn and Ashland districts in the northwest corner of the state. But growing financial problems are threatening the survival of many districts.

"When schools shut their doors they leave a void that cannot be filled," Johnson said. "And the collapse of a school in one district could trigger secondary death cycles in neighboring districts that suddenly must take on the burdens of the closed district."

Baumgart agreed.

"We (the FEA) recognize that there are issues and obstacles that lie ahead of us, but at least we know we have our school," Baumgart said. "The unfortunate part of it all is that somewhere another school is going to go through what Florence went through."

Resource page on school funding

Posted November 9, 2005

Education News