District facing possible budget cliff in next biennium
By Sarah Nigbor
RIVER FALLS – School District of River Falls Community Education and Communications Director Jennifer Ames has been busy since she joined the district almost one year ago. Her presentation to the River Falls School Board Monday, May 16 proved that.
Main themes for Ames in her position are consistency, connections and partnerships.
“One of our priorities is to tell our story, because if we don’t someone else will,” Ames said.
She has found many ways to connect with stau, students, the community and media through social media, a printed newsletter, media (letters to the editor, press releas- es, connecting media to stau and students), event and class flyers around town, emails, and conversations.
Student interns are leading Instagram and comprise the majority of the district’s followers there, but “there is a really big following on Facebook,” Ames said. She took Twitter out of the loop because it wasn’t being utilized. However, Facebook averages 19,000 to 31,000 users per month (so far in 2022). The goal is to post at least two to three times per day Monday through Friday with a variety of district information, celebrations, and community resource/event sharing. This keeps the community engaged so the Facebook algorithm keeps the district on the forefront of people’s news feeds, Ames said.
“This year I’ve really gotten to know the district and it’s a really cool district,” said Ames. “I really feel we don’t toot our own horn enough and many people don’t know what’s going on.” She’s also taken on a “light rebranding” of the district’s logos in order to unify and modernize the district’s messaging across build- ings. A committee of five has been working on a district website overhaul, which is set to debut in November or December. It’s been delayed due to template development. The original deadline was this summer, but that’s been pushed back.
“I think it’s better to do what is right for the district in the long-run, rather than try to make a deadline and be unhappy later with it,” Ames said.
The new and improved site will ouer a fresh new look that’s aesthetically pleasing, with high quality photos, ADA color compliance, landing pages for each building and an app that is fed from the website. It will be "drastically diuerent," but parents will be able to find their way easily around it. It will also be scalable to people’s phones. The website is being designed by local company CMS4Schools.
Community Education is hosting 76 classes for Summer 2022 with 1,309 participants.
“This does include the Daddy Daughter Dance, which skews the numbers a bit,” Ames said.
A Three Schweet Sisters cake decorating cake filled in two days and the store added a waiting list.
“Partnerships are really important and they’re big in this community,” Ames said. "As I've gotten to know the diuerent busi nesses here, I realized what an opportunity
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there was to benefit businesses and the community." She has formed partnerships with Three Schweet Sisters, Brickhouse Music (group ukulele), The Garage (bike main- tenance class), Whole Earth Co-op (couee tasting in Glen Park), and Kinni Corridor (School Forest activities), to name a few. She has also worked to add more kids classes, such as Cupcake Commotion, Crafty Science Camp, Little Gardeners, Bricks Challenge and Boomwhacker Ensemble. Commu- nity Ed also ouers day trip opportunities, such theater perfor mances, the Hudson Trolley, a sculpture garden tour, and the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minn.
Ames is also seeking to broaden representation on the Community Ed Advisory Council, who she believes are the eyes and ears of the community.
Superintendent Jamie Benson provided the board with a grim budget forecast for 2023-25.
“The Wisconsin State Legislature in the last biennial budget process (2021-23 budget cycle) took the approach to say well, as long as the local school districts had received federal COVID relief funds, we at the state level will pass and not provide a typical round of funding for districts,” Benson said. "The cliu that gets created is due to the lack of base increase that we did not receive for 2021-23. In other words, the federal dollars that we were asked to use in place of a traditional round of state funding, because there wasn’t a base there and because the federal dollars are one-time non-recurring dollars, that’s going to cause a problem for us down the road.”
The district is facing a $1.4 million cliu created by the legislature not providing a normal round of school funding for 2021-23. The lost base carries forward, creating problems down the road.
"The legislature told the district to 'back-fill' our budgets with one-time, non-recurring federal COVID-relief funds,” Benson said.
The non-recurring use of revenue creates a two-year 'cliu' of $400 per pupil ($200 per year). At $400 per student and 3,500 students, that’s a base shortfall of $1.4 million.
“I know it sounds like I’m a broken record here, but I’m trying to drive home and help with the understanding of how, even though we had that initial round of federal government funding, it still creates the cliu because you lost your base; we lost our base funding increase,” Benson said.
The majority of the $3 million in federal relief funding was used for operational costs,” Benson said.
“The intent of the federal dollars had more to do with the impact of COVID on student learning,” Benson said. “When we did not receive our normal round of state funding, we had to back-fill with those federal dollars to pay for any kind of annual increase, inflationary increases, technology, bus fuel, textbooks, normal operational budget expenses have been paid for by using those federal dollars.”
The board also previously approved purchasing masks and upgrades to the ionization/HVAC systems totaling $225,000.
“In a normal of modest wage increases, modest to high health insurance cost increases, of inflationary costs increas es, while $3 million sounds like a lot of money, when you employ 500 employees and education 3,500 students, it takes a lot of money. We operate well over a $40 million budget annually,” Benson said. “It’s not so much the one-year impact, it’s the base that is lost.”
According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) report, Wisconsin has a budget surplus of $3.8 billion and a budget stabilization fund of $1.7 billion. The district is hopeful that the state will utilize some of their surplus to address the cliu, but is held hostage to the 2023-25 biennial budget cycle. School ovcials might not know until June 2023 what kind of funding the district will receive.
Options the district will need to consider in the future:
• Budget cuts (programs, services, stavng, defer mainte nance, eliminate courses)
• Lobby/pray that the legislature will repair the budget
• Go to referendum for operational expenses "Not only is the dollar amount of the cliu significant, but the timing of all of this in that we have to make financial deci – sions and make financial commitments before we are likely to know everything from the legislature,” Board President Stacy Johnson Myers said. “That’s impossible for us to deal with.”
Wildcat Pride Award
The monthly Wildcat Pride Award went to Principal Mark Chapin for his “extraordinary quick thinking and call to action to help save a student from choking,” said board member Todd Schultz.
Chapin displayed the character traits of compassion, responsibility, perseverance and courage at a time when a student needed him most, Schultz added.
“On a special birthday (Chapin’s birthday), you made sure a child was able to have an additional birthday,” said Johnson Myers. “We must encourage people to learn about the Heimlich maneuver because one never knows when it will come in handy.”
The board approved the following personnel changes:
• Madison Wagner as 1.0 FTE fifth grade teacher at Rocky Branch Elementary School euective Aug. 16, 2022 (re places Joe Young). Wagner earned her bachelor’s degree from UW-Madison and has four years of teaching experience (Prescott).
• Kaydan Geiger as 1.0 FTE math teacher at River Falls High School euective Aug. 16, 2022 (replaces Sue Popel ka). Geiger earned her bachelor’s degree from UW-River Falls and has one year of teaching experience (Prescott).
• Transfer of employment for Dawn Hauschild from 1.0 FTE special education, EBD teacher at Meyer Middle School to 1.0 FTE special education, ID teacher at Meyer Middle School euective Aug. 25, 2022 (replaces Mikaela Walker).
• Hiring the following short-term, on-call substitute teachers: Julie Gore, Alicia Blake, Jamie Mills, Nicole Wenz, Katherine Stellon and Samantha Bluhm