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Editorial: Choice factor can only be backed up by quality

As reported in last week’s Journal, the coming year will see a modest drop of 1.5% in the school district portion of your property taxes. That’s the first drop in five years.

The main reason is more per-pupil state aid. The main reason for that is River Falls gained 70 students this school year. Half of that gain was from open enrollment — families living outside the school district but choosing to send their sons and daughters to River Falls.

Open enrollment works both ways. Local families can send their children to enroll in other school districts. River Falls, however, is always on the plus side of these  open enrollment exchanges — 2009-10, plus (gain of) 33 students; 2010-11, plus, 23; 2011-12, plus 22; 2012-13, plus 38; and 2013-14, plus 36.

Our school administrators claim this is no coincidence. Superintendent Jamie Benson last month called River Falls “a school district of choice.” He said young families often decide to move to River Falls or, if they live outside the school district, to send their children to school here based on the district’s quality education.

There seems to be some basis for such a claim. According to an analysis over the summer by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, out of 424 school districts in the state, River Falls tied for 10th.

Rankings were based primarily on student grades, various test scores and post-secondary school readiness upon graduation. The DPI’s report card ranked River Falls highest in this area of the state, including higher than Ellsworth, Hudson, New Richmond and Prescott.

The news should make parents in River Falls feel good about the learning needs and opportunities available at our schools. This is a well-earned reputation, one that didn’t just happen overnight.

There’s also a financial plus to being a school district of choice. More students — at least manageable numbers that don’t cause overcrowding — bring more state dollars to support the district’s budget. Benson, at the last school board meeting, said this year’s student and state aid gains caused River Falls’ budget to climb “out of the red and into the black” by $185,000.  Deficits mean program and staff cuts. Those were avoided while at the same time school taxes will decline.

River Falls school buildings, inside and out, are now upgraded thanks to the 2011 referendum passed by residents. This month the school board will decide how to further reinvest nearly $1 million in leftover referendum money. The aim is to make more essential upgrades in building security and maintenance.

While these are constructions issues, they represent a formula to leverage the continued high-quality reputation of the River Falls School District.