By Sarah Hall
Not only balancing the budget, but also weighing the high expectations that come from being a top-scoring school district against the drawbacks of students feeling pressured to perform were the focus of the Kohler Board of Education at its annual and regular meetings on October 28.
The board voted to adopt a property tax levy of $6,058,526 for the 2019-20 school year, a 4.2 percent increase over last year. This will result in an estimated mill rate of 8.21, which is up 2.6 percent but is still Kohler’s third lowest in 25 years and is also well below the state average for other school districts. This will result in an additional $21 in taxes per $100,000 of assessed property value.
Because the school district’s boundaries extend past the Village of Kohler, the village itself is responsible for just 63.5 percent of the tax levy. The City of Sheboygan will contribute $2,064,426 or 34.1 percent, with the Town of Sheboygan and the Town of Wilson making up the rest.
“We are in a healthy financial position. We have a balanced budget and continue to invest in students, staff, technology and infrastructure. While we anticipate additional resident growth in the next few years, we continue to benefit from the open enrollment students coming in,” said Kohler School Business Manager Matt Kautzer. “But we can’t lose sight of the declining enrollment we have had based on the three-year-average pupil count.”
The district’s three-year enrollment average, one factor which determines the level of state aid, is down by 12 students, even though 2019-20 enrollment is up by 35 students over last year. High property values in Kohler also reduce state funding, which will decrease by more than $25,000 this year.
Yet the district is in a healthy enough financial position to make an additional $275,000 payment against its referendum debt, in hopes of shaving one year off the remaining four-year repayment schedule and saving approximately $25,000 in interest charges. A $462,702 budget surplus resulted from the past fiscal year, which more than offset a planned $333,333 deficit this year. Kautzer added, “the deficit this year reflects a capital project expenditure for theater renovations which will be funded by committed fund balance dollars.”
Kohler High School Senior Mallory Keller and Junior Jack Rummel helped set the tone for the regular meeting which followed the annual budget session by sharing ideas and insights gained through their recent trip with Kohler High School Principal Nick DeBaker, three staff members and a parent to a conference in Boston as part of the Challenge Success program.
“It was really cool because we got to interact with students from other schools around the country,” said Keller. She and Rummel described sessions they attended on such topics as the college admissions process and creating mindfulness in a school setting.
One of the most concrete suggestions they had for the board was to consider changing the current, “rapid fire” eight-period school day and offer more flexible scheduling with longer blocks of learning time. Another take-away they recommended was to implement more creative forms of testing and “authentic assessment,” which Keller defined as “letting students use what they learn instead of just memorizing information and then forgetting it the next day.”
“This is a cultural revolution – it truly is,” noted Superintendent Quynh Trueblood, commending the students on their involvement in shaping their own education. “They are creating the school that they really want.”
Kohler Elementary Principal and District Assessment Coordinator Lisa Greene then shared a student achievement report with the Board, which showed consistently high standardized test results, across all grade levels. For example, on the ACT English Language Arts test, 81.7 percent of 11th graders were deemed proficient, while on the ACT Math test, 73.3 percent were. In both areas, Kohler topped all similar-sized school districts in Sheboygan County and also the other highest-performing districts in this part of the state.
“We could not be more proud. You were just talking about bang for your buck in taxpayer money – well, here you are!,” Greene pointed out.
Board member Zachary Pethan agreed but offered “a word of caution,” noting that all the focus on sustaining high achievement can be somewhat at odds with a whole-child approach that values social and emotional well-being also.
“If we’re not the number one school district in the state – who cares, so long as we are producing happy kids who can contribute to society and have a good life ,” Pethan said, playing devil’s advocate. Later on, he added, “Being at the top is always excellent … but there’s a tendency when you’re at the top to resist any kind of change.”
Trueblood noted the district’s increasing commitment to promoting social and emotional mental health, so students will go on to become productive, balanced adults. And when board member Carl Nonhof brought up that academic pressure may be related to the high percentage of adolescents everywhere who cheat, Trueblood pointed out that stress is often the root cause of cheating behavior.
Kohler must continually be mindful that because it is such a top-performing district, students have “a cultural disposition to pleasing” that can contribute to academic pressure, Trueblood said.
“Maybe what we’re lacking is some kind of data on social and emotional well-being,” Board member Sharon Reilly added, and Trueblood responded that more national study of how to measure that is needed.
Director of Pupil Services & Special Education Cindy Payne clarified that what drives Kohler’s success in test scores is not top-down pressure to perform, but rather a commitment to providing the right supports that enable students to do well on their own.