Tasked with studying scenarios for a planned April 7, 2020, operational referendum in the School District of Fort Atkinson, focus groups have agreed in conversations that they want “stability” and “sustainability” in the district going forward.
During the board of education’s regular monthly meeting Thursday, Joe Donovan, of the consulting firm Donovan Group LLC, Milwaukee, presented the results from the recent community engagement focus group meetings.
“If there was one central theme in all of the focus group conversations, it was “stability,” Donovan told the board.
Focus group participants — consisting of parents, grandparents, retirees and local businesspeople, among others — noted that they appreciated that there was financial stability in the district, he said.
“Participants contrasted the School District of Fort Atkinson with a neighboring district that is facing dire financial challenges,” Donovan stated. “Participants also noted that they wanted ‘stability’ and ‘sustainability’ in the future. Often, these words were used to compare and contrast the various options under consideration.”
The focus groups initially met Dec. 2 with three community members. A second group held Dec. 3 included 11 staff participants. Also on Dec. 3, another meeting was held at noon in which four community members attended. Later that day, yet another group gathered, including two community members.
A final session, on Dec. 11, included six community members.
Each of the focus groups began with a welcome by Dr. Rob Abbott, interim superintendent. Later, Jason Demerath, district business manager, and Marissa Weidenfeller, district communication and community engagement specialist, stayed for the focus group meetings.
Demerath outlined the need for an operational referendum, recalling that in the fall of 2016, district electors approved a $2.25 million nonrecurring operational referendum for three years. As the district approaches the end of that period, the board of education has decided that it will go to a referendum in April of 2020.
The business manager then shared four referendum options, noting that these were not the only ones being considered by the school board:
• Base scenario: No referendum.
• Scenario No. 1: Three-year $5.2 million non-recurring referendum.
• Scenario No. 2: Four-year $5.9 million non-recurring referendum.
• Scenario No. 3: Four-year referendum targeting a $10.61 per $1,000 equalized value property tax levy.
• Scenario No. 4: Three-year $3 million non-recurring and $2.25 million recurring referendum.
Donovan, the focus group facilitator, then asked participants to direct questions about the need for the referendum and the various options under consideration to Demerath. In all cases, Demerath was asked similar questions:
• How would you describe the School District of Fort Atkinson to someone who is not familiar with it?
• A few minutes ago, Mr. Demerath provided you with some background about options being considered. What are your general thoughts about what he presented? Let us keep things general for now.
• As we were discussing your reactions to what Mr. Demerath presented, some of you provided your thoughts about which of the options plans you preferred. Do you prefer option No. 1, option No. 2, option No. 3 or option No. 4?
• The board has clarified that it is interested in your feedback. As the board considers an upcoming referendum, what advice or additional information do you want to make sure board members have?
Regarding focus group findings, the facilitator said participants are very pleased with the school district.
“There was clear consensus across all of the groups that the School District of Fort Atkinson is a good school district,” Donovan told the board. “In every group, participants spoke of it as being ‘forward thinking’ or ‘progressive’ in efforts to address the needs of students.
“Another popular theme is that the district was ‘diverse’ and that this diversity was a very good thing for the district,” he added. “It is worth noting here that the reaction of participants to the first question was not that the district is ‘just okay’ or ‘satisfactory’ but, as expressed by participants, far better than that.”
Another theme that emerged, the consultant said, is that focus group participants displayed “no sticker shock.”
“Often, when focus group participants are first presented with tax impact numbers for a potential referendum, there is a reaction of concern or even scorn or disillusionment,” Donovan said. “We call this sticker shock.
“We did not have sticker shock in any discernible way during our focus group conversations,” he added. “Some participants noted that the community had ‘come to expect’ the district coming to voters for a referendum and there was no concern for the district in doing so.”
A third theme of the focus group, the facilitator said, was there were no lack-of-trust indicators.
“Usually when we conduct focus groups, the issue of trust arises,” Donovan said. “Even if the focus group participants themselves note that they trust the district, often the issue of trust manifests itself with participants noting that their neighbors may not share their trust in the district. While this was not a major theme when we conducted focus group meetings in advance of the district’s last (operational) referendum (in 2016), the issue of trust did come up in focus group meetings, just as it normally does in such conversations.
“It is important to note that during our conversations, the issue of trust was never brought up,” he continued. “In fact, the opposite is true: Not only were there no indicators of lack of trust, there were plenty of indicators of strong trust in the community for its school administration and board.”
A fourth theme of the focus groups, the facilitator said, concerned confusion between the district’s operational needs and its facility needs.
“During the focus group meetings, participants asked several times if the operational information being presented related to the facilities-related work under way,” Donovan indicated. “Participants expressed some confusion on the subject. This should be resolved if the district moves forward with an operational referendum.”
Another theme from the focus groups was the district should pursue an operational referendum.
“Across the board, among all participants, there was unanimous agreement that the district should go to referendum to replace the expiring referendum,” Donovan shared. “No disagreements were voiced.”
Still another theme was the district should not make additional cuts.
“For all participants, there were no suggestions that the district should make cuts in light of its expiring referendum,” Donovan said.
Another theme from focus group participants was that the projected tax rate presented in the (suggested) referendum questions was not considered to be a barrier.
“As noted, there was no ‘sticker shock’ for any of the options presented, and the (tax) impact numbers suggested were not seen to be a barrier for any of the task force members as expressed in their conversations,” Donovan informed.
A ninth theme among participants involved the question of a recurring versus non-recurring referendum.
“As with the focus groups held in advance of the last referendum, among all focus group sessions there was wide discussions about whether the referendum should be recurring or non-recurring in nature,” Donovan said. “Most of the participants said that they personally liked the recurring nature of the referendum because it provided for ongoing sustainability for the district.”
But several of those same participants, he pointed out, expressed concern about whether their fellow community members would support such a referendum.
“A few participants noted that it was a positive for the district to make their case to the community every few years for the sake of accountability or because the funds the district needs may increase in time,” Donovan stated. “There was a general consensus that a non-recurring referendum, or one in which a non-recurring referendum was part of the solution, was preferred. Participants who asked about what was passed last time seem to desire the recurring and non-recurring option again this time.”
Lastly, he said, there was speculation among participants about whether the amount included in the referendums presented is enough.
“In one focus group meeting, participants noted that the four options were very similar and that, if passed, the increased revenue limit authority would not allow the district to increase programming, but simply keep pace,” Donovan said. “Several participants noted that they wished the district could continue efforts to improve programs and services with more revenue.
“Participants in all of the sessions asked if the amount requested were adequate and provided sustainability for the district,” he concluded. “They said, ‘What you (district) are doing — do more of that!”
Meanwhile also Thursday, the board heard Clerk Dick Schultz review the calendar for the school board election on Tuesday, April 7.
“The spring election will be for three seats on the school board — two for three-year terms and one for a one-year term,” Schultz said. “The incumbents currently holding these seats are Benjamin Knowles, myself (Dick Schultz) and Rachel Snethen. I (Schultz) have chosen not to run for re-election.”
Anyone interested in running for these seats should contact Debbie Kopps, the district superintendent’s and board of education administrative assistant, in the Luther Administration Center at 201 Park St., or by telephone at (920) 563-7807.
“Those interested will be given election materials including an election schedule, a Wisconsin Association of School Boards guide for candidates and necessary forms,” Schultz said.
The deadline for filing Declaration of Candidacy form and the Campaign Registration Statement, he noted, is 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 7.
“If more than six candidates file for the seats, a primary election will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 18,” Schultz indicated. “The elected board members will take office on Monday, April 27. “The top two vote-getters will serve three-year terms. The third-place vote-getter will serve one year, completing the vacated seat.”
Also Thursday, the board:
• Approved four-year-old kindergarten (4K) contracts; a 2021 student trip to Italy; and a district audit report.
• Accepted a donation of winter gear for students from the employees of Nasco, and a monetary donation to Purdy Elementary School to pay for overages in student lunch accounts from Stephanie and Frank Beran.
• Heard a spotlight on Classroom Community Circles at Barrie Elementary School.