Meadowview School

Meadowview Elementary School 4th grader Emma Blade, center, and classmates, prepared to leave school Wednesday. A school district panel has convened for the first time this year to explore alternate ways the district can make money — their suggestions include hosting cell towers at school facilities, and reaching out to community vendors for sponsorship opportunities. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

A new Eau Claire school district panel has resumed exploring money-saving and fundraising efforts, eyeing tight district finances in the future.

While the district is bound by state law to only levy a certain amount in property taxes, it can only raise that levy through a successful referendum — an option the school board is considering for 2021.

That’s where the new Revenue Committee — made up of school board members, school administrators, parents and employees of local businesses — comes in.

The panel will search for ways for the district to bring in new revenue — whether that’s fundraising or cutting costs, said Abby Johnson, the district’s executive director of business.

It’s been “very common” for the district to project a roughly $1 million deficit, Johnson said Wednesday. For the 2018-19 school year, it projected a $3.2 million deficit. That would have begun to impact the district’s credit rating, and it would have had to pay higher interest rates when issuing debt.

“Our ratio was getting out of balance for some things. That was setting off some alarms,” said board member Aaron Harder. “We’re looking for ways to move that needle.”

While the district passed a balanced 2019-2020 budget and saw a successful $87.9 million referendum in 2016, it’s bracing for obstacles ahead: Roughly 80% of its operating budget each year is spent on salaries and benefits, and the district is expecting retiree health and dental payout costs to rise in the 2019-20 school year, Johnson said in summer 2019.

“Cuts traditionally have been made in that 20% of our budget, and not so much in the 80%,” Johnson said. “Even in tight budget times, you don’t want to lay off people.”

Finding funds

Many of the group’s ideas have focused on bringing in new revenue, rather than trimming existing costs.

One proposal: Inviting vendors to sponsor academic facilities — like outfitting a computer lab — and receive naming rights to the room in return, Johnson said.

The panel will also look into agreements to host cell towers at school facilities. A company interested in paying rent to host cellular equipment on the roof of the Chippewa Valley Montessori Charter School has approached the district in the past. That project fell through, Johnson said, but the committee plans to look for other interested parties.

Some of the panel’s ideas haven’t come to fruition. A 2019 proposal for a district reward card —that would give the district a small percentage of purchases made with the card — didn’t garner interest from any local financial organizations, Johnson said.

But a school district-branded debit or credit card might not be impossible, Johnson said, a proposal the committee might pursue more seriously in 2020.

“That might be one thing we talk about as a group, maybe revisit or rework it,” Johnson said.

Other ideas include soliciting alumni donations and vendors placing advertising on sporting event scoreboards.

The committee itself cannot approve any proposals, but can explore, research and recommend them to the school board.

Some of the panel’s recommendations have already been approved. The district last year hiked fees for people to rent its facilities, like gymnasiums, classrooms or auditoriums. For for-profit groups or people, the fees now sit at $20 per hour to rent a classroom, $120 per hour to rent North High School’s east gym and $224 per hour for the Memorial High School auditorium for a minimum of four hours. (Fees are halved for nonprofit groups, and eliminated completely for district-affiliated groups or groups made up primarily of Eau Claire students.)

It’s too early to tell if upping rental fees will result in profit for the district, Johnson said: “We do want to be competitive, but don’t want to create barriers for people to use our facilities.”

The district also began partnering with Amazon in a program that allows the district to claim a small amount of money for Amazon purchases when people visit the site through a specific link on the district’s website.

Another successful proposal is a plan to charge child care organizations $10 per day to use school facilities. That change will take effect July 1, Johnson said, although she expects the organizations to raise child care costs to cover the increase.

“When this committee was put together, we knew we weren’t going to raise $3 million today,” Johnson said. “It’s very much a long-term goal. You developed these ideas and work with them.”

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter