MONTELLO — Revenue limits imposed in 1994 continue to haunt rural Wisconsin schools like Montello’s, said Superintendent Margaret Banker, following the passage of her district’s 2017-18 budget.

Montello residents will see a lower school tax rate—$9.54 per $1,000 in equalized value, down from $10.36 last year – but that rate includes $1.2 million in referendum dollars to be used this year, highlighting the need for changes to the state’s funding formula, she said.

Legislators in 1994 essentially froze revenue limits for low-spending districts, Banker said, and “this continues to menace us 24 years later.” Montello is considered “property rich” and the state’s equalized aid formula penalizes Montello because they also have the lowest household income in the Trailways Conference.

“We are taxed like Green Lake, where the median household income is upwards of $200,000, while Montello’s median household income is below $50,000. This simply is not fair,” Banker said. She added that revenue limits imposed in 1994 forced Montello to trim perceived fat, the state’s Act 10 forced Montello to trim the muscle and, more recently, equalized aid “forces us to decide which vital organ to remove.”

“This is an equity issue and shines a light on the economic disparities for children in our state,” Banker said. “We can do better. Our kids deserve it.”

In positive news, Montello received an increase of $200 per pupil this year in categorical spending. Categorical aid allows districts like Montello to spend more depending on the categories of spending it qualifies for – like transportation or special education. Categorical spending is a big reason Montello’s school tax rate is down from last year’s, Banker said.

Total revenue in the Montello School District is $9,439,000 with $9,238,000 in expenses. Its total tax levy is $6,120,000.

General state aid is $1,806,000, up from $1,732,000.

Voters in April 2016 passed an operational referendum at $1.2 million per year for three years, the district’s first referendum since 2008. Administrators at the time suggested the referendum was needed to save the school from closing its doors.

Per-pupil spending, including referendum dollars, is $12,531 this year.

Property values in Montello are $641,180,000, up from $619,450,000.

Enrollment increased by eight students to 722.

Montello does not have any students using private-school vouchers.

Staff salaries increased 1.26 percent, overall.

First 100 days

Banker is in her first year as Montello’s district administrator.

“It’s been excellent,” she said of her first 100 days, which have included several meetings with students, staff and members of the community. Banker is in the process of developing a strategic plan for the district, with the primary focus on bettering academic achievement for grades 6-12. The district is also focused on improving its facilities and building a comprehensive compensation plan for staff.

“We are striving to meet expectations on the state report card,” Banker added. Her district last year showed improvement in special education, she said, but it needs to improve state test scores in reading and math throughout the district after placing in the overall category of “meets few expectations” in the state report card.

Charter school success

Montello’s High Marq Environmental Charter School has demonstrated so much success recently that school leaders will apply some of its methods throughout the district, Banker said. At High Marq, which has two teachers and 38 students, leaders have seen “a perfect combination of student achievement, growth, satisfaction and engagement.”

Students at High Marq participate in conservation work, spending considerable time learning outdoors. “The advantage is its flexibility,” Banker said. Project-based learning, also referred to as experiential learning, allows the charter students to “engage in thoughtful writing and reflection” on a regular basis.

“We have very few discipline issues or behavior concerns (at High Marq), and the parents are reporting high levels of engagement,” Banker said.

“This is an equity issue and shines a light on the economic disparities for children in our state. We can do better. Our kids deserve it.” - Margaret Banker, Montello School District superintendent

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau

Portage Daily Register reporter