March 9, 2022 – West Bend, WI – I had a chance to sit down last week with the district administration to learn more about the financial operations of our district.
I want to first thank the district for its transparency and willingness to engage the community to understand more about how it all works. I would also strongly encourage anyone from the community with a curiosity to learn about district finances to reach out to administration for a tutorial. However, some of the things I learned left me feeling pretty concerned about our financial health for the future. I’m no financial expert but going to step through some of the things I learned:
School districts essentially get the bulk of their funding from two sources: money that comes from state and federal programs, and from the property tax levy. The amount of money a district receives from the state is measured primarily by two factors:
1. Student enrollment
2. The average property value of the community
Over the past few years, it seems that the district is experiencing a decline in state and federal aid. This is primarily due to declining enrollment and increasing property values, which has created a “gap” in the funding we need to operate at the status quo. How have we been covering that gap? Well, in fairness to the district some of that has been through the use of one-time-only state and federal grant monies. But I’m sad to say that it hasn’t been nearly enough and is not sustainable.
Since 2020, the district has ALSO been quietly raising the dollar amounts of the property tax levy to offset some of this financial gap, all under the auspices of “keeping the mill rate flat”. Between 2019 – 2020 our tax levy DOLLARS increased by $5.5 Million (a nearly 14% increase from the previous year).
This tax hike occurred during the worst of the pandemic crisis, with many people unable to work due to lockdowns, shuttering businesses, and other debilitating circumstances. Incomes were falling (or disappearing entirely) but the district saw fit to pass along an enormous tax increase all the while congratulating each other for the mill rate. Just last year our tax levy dollars increased another $3 Million. And during the last board meeting, the Director of Finance pointed out that we are again looking at an additional $2.3 Million dollar “gap” in our revenue for next year. It makes me wonder how the board and the district plan to address this.
I’m sure many people remember the “Great Recession” that started back in 2008. During those years my family and I needed to rely on state programs to “keep the lights on” for my young family. Several years later, as our situation improved, we found ourselves at a jumping-off point where we were no longer eligible for state-funded benefits, but our family income left us with a “gap” in our finances that forced us to make some difficult choices, tighten our belts, and make sacrifices in order to sustain ourselves. It was a challenge, but we got creative and resourceful, and I look back on those times as fondly as any other chapter of my life.
It’s clear to me now that we’re on a similar track here, and it’s going to require us to make some difficult choices, tighten our belts, and make sacrifices. These financial hurdles are solvable, but only if we work together. No longer will it be acceptable for us to simply take back-door tax increases to solve our financial problems. Certainly not in the midst of an uncertain economic climate and record levels of inflation for basic necessities.
I’m planning to vote for John Donaldson and Melanie Ehrgott, as they have both signaled that they will represent the community and we are going to need to work together to get us financially healthy and sustainable for many years.
West Bend, WI
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