Ashwaubenon school budget includes 2% tax levy hike
By Kevin Boneske
ASHWAUBENON – A proposed total tax levy of $16,987,466 – an increased hike of about 2% from the previous year – was backed last month at the school district’s annual meeting.
As currently proposed, the general fund portion of the tax levy includes about a $410,000 decrease to $14,283,466.
A $725,000 increase in the referendum debt service levy to $2 million is also proposed for the 2021-22 budget to go toward paying off the district’s $10.05 million capital referendum voters approved last year.
The community service levy – which pays for programs that serve the community – is proposed to increase by $20,000 to $695,000.
Business Director Keith Lucius said the proposed 2021-22 district budget presumes equalized value will also increase this year by 2%, thereby keeping the equalized mill rate constant for school purposes at $7.81 per $1,000 of property.
Lucius said Ashwaubenon’s equalized mill rate remained below the state average of $9.22 per $1,000.
“We were 15.3% below (the state average),” he said. “Our tax burden is much lower than the average district in the state.”
With Ashwaubenon having about a third of its approximately 3,200 students attend the district under open enrollment, Lucius said non-district students don’t have an effect on the tax levy because they are not included in the revenue limit calculation.
“I feel like I can’t get that message out enough because when I’m out in the community, I still hear community members ask me how much of their levy, how much of their taxes, are going toward students that don’t live in Ashwaubenon,” he said. “And the answer is zero.”
The preliminary budget projects more than $9.8 million in revenue coming from other districts for open enrollment students.
The district is allowed to exceed the revenue limit by $730,000 annually after passing a five-year operational referendum last year to fund mental health support services and the cost of operating additional air conditioning authorized in the capital referendum.
Lucius said he put together the preliminary budget prior to Gov. Tony Evers signing the 2021-33 biennial state budget.
“The reality is the only thing that changed from the assumptions I had used in the budget to what the state has is there was more money being put into equalization aid,” he said. “That doesn’t increase our budget. It changes the mix between property tax and equalization aid.”
Lucius said the new state budget doesn’t increase revenue limits for school districts with an increase in state equalization aid, which would lower the percentage of property taxes account for overall school spending.
“The statement from the state legislators was we should be using the federal COVID relief money to balance our budget,” he said. “It’s going to create a big funding cliff. I am very concerned about where we’re going to be next year and where we’re going to be after that.”
Lucius said state equalization aid funds about 39% of Ashwaubenon’s revenue limit, which is below the two-thirds average included in the state budget.
“We’re low funded compared to other districts in the state,” he said. “When you hear about two-thirds funding that the governor and state legislators have talked about in the State of Wisconsin, we’re not going to be two-thirds funded. They’re talking about the state overall as a whole.”
Lucius said not having the ability to raise additional revenue is going to be a challenge.
“That money that was given to us for COVID relief was intended to a specific purpose,” he said. “We’re going to have to decide how much of that purpose we’re going to be able to use it for and how much we have to use it to balance our budget for next year, and then what happens the following year when that money’s gone and we have what’s called a funding cliff and how we replace that.”
Lucius said there was concern over the passage of the state budget, which did not provide additional revenue limit room and included no per-pupil aid increase for two years.
“The second year is where I’m most concerned,” he said. “This year we built our budget with the assumption of being conservative of no increase, but next year is going to make it extra challenging to be able to do that.”
Lucius said funding outside of the revenue limit for special education reimbursement increased from 28 to 30%.
“We might be talking $100,000 more than what we would have gotten without that increase,” he said. “It’s real money that helps our budget.”
Lucius said staffing accounts for about 85% of the district’s operational budget.
“Once we have student counts, we set all our educational staffing,” he said. “That’s not the 85%. The 85% is everything (for all district staffing). Once we set that staffing, then we can look at whether we need to make budget cuts to balance, what do we need to do and what are our options.”
Lucius said the worst job administrators have is balancing the budget, and last year, the district didn’t have to make “substantial budget cuts because health insurance expenses were down.”
“There’s that pent-up demand that people put things off during the pandemic for non-emergency procedures that we’re expecting in the next year that to start picking up,” he said. “I don’t expect another 0% or 2% health insurance increase the following year.”
Lucius said the district’s preliminary budget includes a 1.1% increase in the general fund budget of $36,340,511 and a 1.5% increase in the special education budget of $3,980,387.
He said budgeted expenditures for all funds combined ($44,441,183) are down 3.05% ($1,399,170) from the previous year because they do not include debt refinancing in 2020-21 and the capital projects fund (referendum projects) is down $2 million.
The school board is slated to give the budget final approval in October when the district will have the official numbers for Ashwaubenon’s equalized value and student enrollment.