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Technology, transportation, facilities in Ellsworth (Wis.) school referendum override plan

ELLSWORTH, Wis.--The revenue cap override proposal going to Ellsworth School District voters in the spring election next month was examined at a public forum Monday.

Superintendent Dan Kaler said the 2.8-to-2.9 percent the local district is able to increase revenues annually under the state-imposed cap isn't close to keeping up with inflationary costs. So school officials have either had to ask district residents to approve more funds or have had to make reductions, and have done both.

The cap is part of a state funding system dating back to the early 1990s, Kaler said (later telling an audience member there are intensive efforts to change that system, without success so far). Eight years ago, district voters authorized a $250,000 annual override, which expires next year; the upcoming April 1 referendum asks for $950,000 annually for six years.

A question from Monday's audience regarded a one-year overlap in the two overrides, meaning the total would be approximately $1.2 million for that year if the referendum is okayed. School Board Member Rick Kornmann confirmed the arrangement, saying it would enable some large projects to be done.

Kaler discussed a four-pronged approach to addressing school needs, as evaluated by the district's long-range planning committee. Besides making up the difference between revenue limitations and inflationary costs, maintenance must be a priority, he said. Regarding facilities compliance, an environmental consultant told him Ellsworth is the only district in that consultant's territory to still have asbestos in some ceilings. Deterioration with aging of the structures could affect asbestos containment measures and lead to the possible closing of classrooms, hallways or even an entire building wing, the superintendent said.

Single-pane windows and outdated heating plants are among other items requiring attention, he said.

Replacement of school buses in the district's fleet is another consideration, Kaler said. Over the last couple of years, three buses have been replaced, but the effort has fallen behind due to past budget cuts. A couple of buses really should be replaced every year, he said; those most immediately needing action are two 1995 models with 380,000 miles and 260,000 miles on their odometers, respectively. Rust jeopardizing the oldest buses' frames is an issue.

Responding to a question from the audience, the superintendent said contracting with a private bus service has been brought to officials' attention. His past experience as administrator in a Minnesota school district, which had roughly one-third of the fleet contracted and two-thirds owned, showed the latter was "far more efficient."

Ellsworth Schools get some tax breaks for fuel and the like, he said, and there is some reimbursement as a result of the local district's large geographical size (a reason for the high mileage on buses here), but it's "still way short," he said.

A technology upgrade is yet another concern figuring in the override request, Kaler said. Computer needs at the elementary schools must be met.

Read more in the print version of the Pierce County Herald March 5.