Estimated 18.4% increase in equalized school aid is one of largest for state districts
After months of grappling with spending cuts and restructuring programs to balance the 2015-16 budget, Grafton School District officials have received some good news on the state-aid front.
According to a preliminary report from the Department of Public Instruction, Grafton is expected to receive $6,189,813 in equalized aid for the upcoming school year, up $960,156 from 2014-15.
Not only would the 18.4% increase be one of the largest among 424 public school districts statewide, it would be more than twice the $465,000 increase included in a preliminary budget the Grafton School Board approved June 22.
Based on DPI estimates, Grafton would also be among fewer than half of the districts receiving aid increases this fall.
Grafton Supt. Mel Lightner welcomed the news but said the aid figure is only an approximation based on a variety of factors, including property valuation, enrollment and shared costs, none of which have been finalized.
“It’s great news for our taxpayers, but it’s extremely preliminary,” Lightner said. “We still have a lot of tough decisions to make on the budget.”
Director of Business Services Kristin Sobocinski concurred, noting final state aid won’t be determined until this fall. She attributed the projected aid increase in part to changes in Grafton’s enrollment and shared-cost estimates.
The district’s establishment of a 4-year-old kindergarten program, which enters its second year this fall with more than 100 students, will bolster overall enrollment. That will work in Grafton’s favor based on per-pupil cost in state aid calculations.
“We knew that adding 4-K would have a positive impact on the budget,” Sobocinski said. “We project it the best we can, but our enrollment could be down in other areas, too.”
Enrollment figures won’t be certified until the third week of September. The DPI will certify aid payments for 2015-16 on Oct. 15.
Although the 2015-17 state budget has not been finalized, DPI officials said the most recent version of the spending package calls for the same level of general school aid — $4.48 billion — as was appropriated in the 2014-15 fiscal year. Actual aid payments have been estimated at $4.35 billion due to statutory cuts in the Milwaukee school voucher program and independent charter schools.
The DPI aid estimate doesn’t include per-pupil categorical aid, which will be based on student membership for the past three years. The aid, which will be paid in March 2016, is $150 per pupil in the current state budget, the same amount as it was for 2014-15.
Lightner said that, while an increase in equalized aid wouldn’t allow the district to increase spending, it would pare the local property tax levy to support the budget.
To offset a projected deficit of $700,000 in the 2015-16 budget, the Grafton School Board approved a series of staff adjustments, including eliminating two full-time administrative positions, as well as changes in health insurance coverage, co-curricular and supervisory pay and other reductions.
The district is also exploring ways to upgrade school facilities in preparation for a possible referendum in April 2016. A Citizens Facilities Committee — including school staff members, town and village officials and local residents — has met several times to discuss the conditions of buildings and grounds and consider the most cost-effective long-term options.
In a presentation to the committee last week, Jody Andres of Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction outlined cost estimates ranging from $19.5 million to $60 million. Among the options are basic upgrades in maintenance, security measures and ADA-accessibility; building a new elementary school; and replacing Grafton Elementary School with a new middle school as part of a campus for grades seven through 12.
The latter plan would also include renovating Woodview Elementary School and John Long Middle School to accommodate a new distribution of students and upgrading Grafton High School programs to allow sharing them with middle-school students.
Lightner said the plans and cost estimates are preliminary, noting the focus of early discussions has been on long-term solutions.
“We’re trying to take a 40 to 50-year approach,” he said. “These are decisions that will have a long-term impact on the community and require a community solution, not just the school district.”
The committee will meet several more times before making a formal presentation, including options, to the board in October, Lightner said. To obtain additional community input, the district will then survey residents in the fall, he added.
A final decision on whether to hold a referendum is expected to be made early next year.