Riverside-Brookfield High School Referendum
In the end, people are going to vote for or against Riverside-Brookfield High School’s proposed tax referendum regardless of what this newspaper has to say. But we feel it’s important to provide a little perspective as an organization not directly affected by the April 5 vote.

The tax increase being requested by the high school is not insignificant. It also can’t be viewed in a vacuum. The question is being posed to people who right now haven’t had any or much of an increase in their take home pay in recent years. Any raises they may have received have no doubt been eaten up by rising costs.

Their homes have plummeted in value while their taxes have remained high. At the same time, in the municipalities where they live, services have been cut as revenues have fallen.

The high school district is asking for an additional $4.5 million per year from district property owners.

We’re not convinced that’s the right number.

One of the reasons is that we’re not convinced of the conventional wisdom that says the state’s warped property tax system is set up to force referendums every five or seven years. The theaory is that a referendum is needed because costs will always eventually outpace revenues coming into the district because of tax caps.

But tax revenues aren’t static. Each year the district is allowed to increase taxes by a set level (and even get a bit more for new development). If expenses are outpacing revenues, it isn’t because there’s a law requiring that to happen. Districts have allowed it to happen by approving expense plans that intentionally outpace revenues.

And that has got to stop. We’re wondering what the $4.5 million assumes. Does it assume a teacher contract where raises are tied to tax caps? Does it assume a traditional contract where the real cost of raises is obscured by step increases and lane changes? Does it assume higher contributions from employees to health insurance plans?

In fact, according to the district’s own projections, the referendum amount presumes CPI at 1.5 percent. At the same time, the question assumes teacher raises at “step only” after 2013, without specifying what that means. If it’s higher than CPI (in the current teachers contract, step raises are generally between 3 and 4 percent), then there’s a structural problem the district itself is building into the equation.

Do we feel that there will be increased costs due to enrollment growth and health care costs? Yes, and it’s hard to exactly figure just how that will show up in reality.

We’re not saying we’re against any referendum. We feel the board, administration and teachers need to put their heads together to craft a question to which the voter can say, “Here’s is a deal where everyone is being asked to give something. I’m convinced we’re all in this together.”

District 208 isn’t there yet.

Should the referendum pass, it’s our hope that the new board use these funds not as a way to keep the financial status quo, but to secure the financial future of the school and then actively prevent the endless cycle of referendums that are now beginning to choke taxpayers who have given, and gladly, to schools in the past.

Should the referendum fail, we contend it will not be a calamity. The district itself has projected that by the school year’s end it will have $6 million in the bank. It will certainly not last forever, and the need for some sort of referendum in the future is clear.

But we want the pencils sharpened and we want a frank discussion of what all sides must be willing to sacrifice to keep RBHS the fine school it has become.