For voters within the Gibraltar Area School District, the Nov. 6 election isn’t just about deciding which politicians to send to Madison and Washington. It’s also about deciding whether or not to re-authorize and make permanent the district’s current $2,875,000 revenue limit override.
“People see a referendum and they automatically think new taxes, but this is not. This is not new,” said Suzanne Brennan, a member of Gibraltar’s financial planning committee and school board. “This is not going to cost one new penny out of their pocket, and in fact they’re probably going to save some money because of the [school’s capital improvement] bond being paid off.”
Gibraltar has been going to referendum since 1998 in order to override the revenue limit – a cap on the amount of money the school can raise via local property taxes – placed on it by the state’s school funding formula. The district’s high property values and declining enrollment leave it with virtually no state aid, so 95 percent of the school budget is funded locally.
The amount Gibraltar has asked for on its override referendums has increased dramatically since 1998, when the school asked for $200,000, but has remained fairly consistent for the past few years.
The recurring referendum asks for taxpayers to authorize the same override amount the school has been operating with over the past three years, but also asks them to make that override amount permanent.
“We’ve reached the point where we think $2,875,000 is our size for now,” said Brennan. “This is our new base size.”
The school has created a five-year budget plan that utilizes cost savings and the school’s fund balance to hold Gibraltar’s expenses steady. The money currently authorized via the referendum accounts for nearly 30 percent of the school’s roughly $9,000,000 budget.
Martha Luber Pelrine, a financial planning committee and school board member, said bringing forward a recurring referendum is a responsible step towards making sure Gibraltar’s funding, and programming, is secure.
“[That’s] a very scary place to be in long-term planning when 30 percent [of your budget] could go away at any time,” said Luber Pelrine. “So to plan out into the future it’s important.”
The district has already been working to tighten its belt through measures such as staff cuts and consolidation. If the recurring revenue limit override referendum doesn’t pass, the school would be forced to examine how to cut enough programs and people to reduce its budget by 30 percent.
“We have to stay competitive,” said Brennan. “We do not have all of the offerings of a bigger district, but we do have a lot of offerings. We really do not want to cut much more than we’ve already cut.”
Brennan and Pelrine said those tied to the school, either through current or previous students, probably don’t need much convincing at this point to vote yes on the referendum, but some of those who don’t have a connection to the school may be wondering why they should vote to contribute.
“This community is what it is because of the restaurants and the hotels and the shops and everything that makes it an attractive place for people to vacation and retire. The people that run all of those businesses are young families with kids,” said Brennan. “And the reason that they’re here doing that is because we have a great school.”
For voters who want to see exactly what their tax money is going to, said Brennan, they can stop into the school anytime or view the recently-created school video linked on the front page of the district’s website, gasd.new.rschooltoday.com.
In all likelihood, this referendum vote won’t be the last one for Gibraltar. The school will still need to come to the community in the future for specific, one-year spending increases, and it will still have to be engaged with the community in order to justify those increases.
“There are so many, I think, districts across the country where [the referendum process] is abused, and it’s so different for us. It actually works for us,” said Brennan. “We’re one of the few districts in the state where the school portion of your tax bill isn’t the biggest portion.”
“Gibraltar’s a great value,” said Pelrine.
State Aid Reduced in All 5 Districts
All five Door County school districts will see a drop in state aid for the 2012-13 school year. Here’s a breakdown of exactly how much:
• Washington Island Schools received $5,553 in general state aid last school year and will receive $4,714 this school year, a decrease of 15.11 percent
• Gibraltar Schools received $9,368 in general state aid last school year and will receive $7,955 this year, a decrease of 15.08 percent
• Sevastopol Schools received $60,852 in general state aid last year and will receive $51,666 this year, a decrease of 15.10 percent
• Sturgeon Bay Schools received $3,761,934 in general state aid last year and will receive $3,413,392 this year, a decrease of 9.26 percent
• Southern Door Schools received $2,452,730 in general state aid last year and will receive $2,082,466 this year, a decrease of 15.10 percent