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Enrollment, revenue at issue in Turner referendum

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Neil Johnson
March 3, 2013

— Some 1,400 people packed Beloit Turner High School/Middle School Saturday morning for a local fire department pancake breakfast.

But it was a much smaller crowd, about 30 people, who filtered through the hungry throngs Saturday into the high school’s library, where Beloit Turner School District officials hosted a public information session on a proposed $28 million referendum.

Superintendent Dennis McCarthy offered the public a review of the referendum, which would build a new high school in the district a few blocks north of the current high school/middle school.

District officials gave details about the purpose and the potential costs and benefits of the plan, which would roll out over two years if taxpayers approve it in the April election, officials said.

McCarthy touched on how historically-low interest rates and low construction costs make the timing right for a large-scale building project. But McCarthy spent much of the session identifying what he called “myths” about the proposed referendum.

The main “myth” he sought to debunk is the notion that the main purpose for the referendum is to add class space so the district can bring in more students through open enrollment than ever before.

McCarthy said that’s not true.

“The district is not going to referendum to attract more open-enrollment students,” he said.

The district had opened the floodgates to students from other districts—mainly Beloit School District—a few times in recent years: Once in 2004-2005, when it accepted a net 95 students through open enrollment, and again in 2011-2012, when it netted nearly as many new students.

Each of those students brought in between $6,000 and $6,500 in state aid, and drew in about $1.3 million in additional revenue during 2004-2005 and 2011-2012. During those school years, the district performed better on nearly every group of state tests than in years when growth through open enrollment was flat, McCarthy said.

McCarthy said the district is now in a phase of tapering off expansion through open enrollment because it’s created complications such as space crunches in classrooms.

“Our true goal now is that we want to see that resident growth,” he said.

He said open enrollment has allowed the district to manage its growth during periods of slow residential growth. He said the district has been able to “control the water faucet and turn it on and turn it off when we need it.”

The district has approved accepting an additional 68 students through open enrollment next year, according to district records. The district has a waiting list of about 200 students for open enrollment.

The dilemma, McCarthy said, is that the district is running out of classroom space to continue expanding, whether it’s through residential growth or open enrollments.

Most of its classrooms—at least ones in every grade level from high school down to second grade—are averaging class sizes of 24 students. The district can no longer expand.

“Our main issue is this, pure and simple: If you do not grow as a district, you are going to die financially. It’s either going to be a slow death or a difficult death once you begin declining in enrollment,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy said that a new high school could free up space around the district to grow by another 60 to 100 students immediately, mainly in the lower grades. That increase would bring more revenue from state aid.

The referendum plan could mean an increase of about $144 on the school tax bill for someone with a $100,000 home.

McCarthy pointed out that the district in the past three years has under levied and has held the line on taxes.

He suggested a levy increase could be offset by revenue increases, particularly if there is a resurgence in residential expansion.

One district resident, Bob Bredeson, was skeptical about the plan. He criticized the potential referendum on Saturday.

He said he wasn’t sure the district could count on residential growth when growth is flat now.

Plus, Bredeson suggested, the district’s enrollment safety net, open enrollment, could “backfire and go the wrong direction.”

Bredeson pointed to plans by the district’s neighbor, Beloit School District, to embark on a $70 million referendum and its own new facility plans.

“What if this all reversed?,” he asked. “And we’re stagnant and we’ve got a $28 million school that’s half-empty?”



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