Oshkosh School Superintendent Stan Mack II is recommending the school board place a referendum on the ballot next year asking voters for permission to impose higher property taxes to fund school operations.
Given that the district is facing a large budget deficit and the prospect of little-to-no relief coming from the state budget, it is not surprising officials are entertaining asking voters for additional money. Indeed, a citizen/staff adhoc budget committee would seem to have served its appointed role in describing the difficulty and pain involved in finding additional spending cuts that do not directly impact student learning.
Two factors weigh in favor of putting a question to voters. First, Oshkosh continues to levy school property taxes at a lower rate than comparable communities. With the state using various budget tools to limit school spending, it has prevented Oshkosh from increasing rates to keep pace. Over time, the amount of lost revenue has grown significantly. Second, the district has never taken advantage of the referendum option for operational expenses, unlike several neighboring districts like Winneconne which has frequently used the mechanism. Putting the question to voters in a regular spring election is a fair way to gauge community support for such action.
And therein lies the challenge for school leaders. This community will support sensible investments in education, but hasn't flinched from rejecting poorly conceived school referendums. Simply crying hardship is not a winning strategy. No school system, city, village or town; no county or state agency has escaped budget cuts. The mayor, county executive or town board chair could just as easily decry difficult decisions; workers at City Hall could describe frozen salaries for the foreseeable future.
While the school district does not want for legitimate grounds for considering a spending referendum, it has lacked a solid operational and strategic plan to assure taxpayers their dollars are being well spent. For the past several years, the system has lurched from budget crisis-to-crisis and tended to turnover turmoil in its administrative ranks.
Working in the school district's favor is the ongoing Oshkosh4Education visioning process for public schools. That effort will help shape and spell out a community-driven direction and action outline for city schools. Equally important, it is aimed at restoring broken connections between the school system and the community.
The homework, so-to-speak, for the superintendent and school board over the next 12 months is to put together an operational, facility and educational plan that spells how additional tax dollars would be put to good use building a stronger school system. Voters have proven adept at separating the rotten plans from the ripe ones.
The Final Thought: School leaders have heavy homework over the next 12 months to build plan to support spending referendum.