RIO — Referendums and private-school vouchers are the symptoms of a broken funding system for public schools, the superintendent for Rio Community School District says.

In its three-year operational referendum, Rio will borrow $900,000 this year and $975,000 next year. Beyond that, the district is certain it will need to put another operational referendum on the ballot in April 2019, Mark McGuire said.

“If we had an equitable funding system, we would not be looking at continual referendums every three years,” McGuire said. “I’d like to see the revenue limit increase — that’s where (the state) could really make a difference.”

The school tax rate for Rio residents this year is $12.40 per $1,000 of equalized value, up from $12.03 last year.

The tax rate went up mostly because Rio utilized the state’s Act 32 Energy Efficiency legislation, which allows districts to exceed the revenue limit to address deferred maintenance, McGuire said. Rio is borrowing $2.26 million that will be paid back over a 15-year period to address building repairs, which have included new roofs, sealed air leaks, lighting retrofitting and a new heating control system.

Total revenue in Rio’s 2017-18 budget amounts to $6.14 million, with the district’s expenses at $6.41 million. General state aid increased by $125,000 from last year.

Property values in Rio decreased 1.1 percent, while enrollment fell by 23 full-time-equivalent students. Rio has 419 FTE students enrolled this year.

Rio’s total tax levy is $2.87 million.

Including referendum dollars, Rio’s per-pupil spending this year is $12,570.

Teachers received a 1.26 percent increase in salaries, while support staff received a 3.72 percent increase.

Declining enrollment

Rio has three students using the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, resulting in about $25,000 in lost state aid for the district, McGuire said. Even though taxpayers cover that amount so that the district will not spend less on its students than it otherwise would, McGuire said more discussions are needed regarding private-school vouchers and the long-term impact they could have.

“I think it’s wrong that our public funds are going to private schools,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s right. I think it takes away from what we do in public schools.”

“In our case we don’t have a private school (in the district) so we’re paying for them, and they could be anywhere – they could be in Portage, Columbus or Beaver Dam.”

Ongoing challenges for rural schools like Rio got a little easier with per-pupil categorical aid increases of $200. But boosting the revenue limit would help more, McGuire said.

“As we look at state funding — we’re a district with declining enrollment that is trying to balance a budget. Declining enrollment has become very difficult (for rural schools).

“At some point the Legislature needs to get its act together with the funding formula so that there’s equity in funding for rural schools.”

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau

Portage Daily Register reporter