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Recession roughs up referendums

Building, expanding schools on hold statewide

Dustin Block

Tom Heegeman’s home building company is struggling to sell houses during the recession. But he still backed Appleton’s failed $15.9 million school referendum that would have raised property taxes to lower class sizes and pay for textbooks.

“We can build roads all over the place, but when it comes to educating our children, it seems like people without kids in school decide they should vote ‘no,’” said Heegeman, co-owner of John Andrew Builders Inc., Appleton. “That’s the wrong attitude to take.”

Wrong or not, all six school referendums in the state failed Tuesday, and school officials agree it was because of the recession.

School districts in Appleton, Salem, Clinton, Waupun, Highland and Siren lost bids to increase school spending over state-imposed limits.

Homebuilders have a particular interest in the votes because increased property taxes are a factor people consider when buying a home, said Christine Shaefer, executive vice president of the Valley Home Builders Association in Appleton.

The association didn’t take a stance on the two-question referendum, Schaefer said, but it did provide information to the public about the proposal’s cost.

If passed, the two questions would have increased property taxes by 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. A resident with a home valued at $150,000 would have paid an additional $1,125 in taxes annually.

“Voters decided the increase isn’t warranted now,” Schaefer said. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be a need in the future.”

Michelle Dawson, executive director of the Racine Kenosha Builders Association, said it’s not a good time for governments to increase property taxes. Her association didn’t take a formal stance on the Salem referendum, but Dawson said any tax increases now will hurt people who are already hurting.

“Homeowners are struggling to make payments,” she said. “We’re not in favor of additional taxes at this time.”

Twenty-one school districts around the state have referendums scheduled for April 7. Regardless of need, they will have a difficult time winning approval, said Appleton School District’s Chief Financial Officer Don Hietpas.

“Our (city’s) vote was more a reflection of the economy than it was support for schools,” he said. “We weren’t asking for anything unreasonable. Now is just not the time to ask people for more taxes.”

There’s little the state can do to help school districts with money shortages, said Pat Gaspar, spokesman for the Department of Public Instruction. He said it’s up to local communities to decide if they want to raise property taxes to secure extra money for their schools.

“In the current crisis, there will be a lot of discussion over whether this is an appropriate time to raise additional money,” Gaspar said.

Hietpas said it is unlikely Appleton will try another referendum before next spring. Instead, he said the School Board will cut teaching positions and programs and make do with what’s available.

In April, the West Bend School District is seeking $68.85 million to build an elementary school and to renovate its other elementary, middle and high schools.

Shane Pionkowski, co-owner of Highland Builders LLC, West Bend, said he will be happy regardless of whether the referendum passes. His reasoning? One way the community gets better schools, the other way it keeps taxes lower.

“Both are a plus,” said Pionkowski, who’s seen his 6-year-old company plateau in the past year after five years of steady growth.

The company is focusing on custom homes and remodeling jobs until the economy turns around.

“We’re bidding a lot more jobs now and not getting them,” Pionkowski said.

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