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Districts put happy spin on sad economy

Dustin Block
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The West Bend School District will fill a swimming pool with concrete to create additional classroom space if voters reject a referendum Tuesday.

“We already have trailers,” said Superintendent Patricia Herdrich, referring to trailers placed outside of schools to serve as auxiliary classrooms. “We’re out of space.”

But desperate as districts might be, school officials around the state are offering a surprising reason voters should agree to spend more on public schools: the bad economy.

Low interest rates and competitive bidding among work-strapped contractors have convinced school officials to optimistically pitch new projects in the midst of a recession.

Herdrich said analysts estimate the West Bend School District can expect to save up to 20 percent on construction costs if they build now. Low interest rates might let the district save $25 million of interest on money borrowed to pay for the $68 million referendum, she said.

“While the economy has people worried,” Herdrich said, “from a financial standpoint, these are historic low bonding and bidding climates.”

West Bend is not alone in trying to turn the negative economy into a positive situation. All nine school referendums on the February ballot failed, but this time around officials want voters to see an opportunity to build needed school space at an affordable price.

There are 11 construction referendums on ballots around the state Tuesday and 33 total school referendums, most to help districts balance budgets.

“The economy being the way it is, is certainly a negative,” said Steve Russ, superintendent of the Medford Area Public School District, which is trying to build a $13.2 million high school addition. “But interest rates are lower than they’ve ever been and may ever be.”

Not all districts are relying solely on the economy to convince voters. The Elk Mound School District paid off millions of dollars in debt ahead of schedule and conducted a population study last year in preparation for its $9.25 million referendum, said Ron Walsh, superintendent of the district west of Eau Claire. The growing district is asking voters to raise property taxes 24 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value to build additions to the elementary, middle and high schools.

“No one can remember a referendum failing here, but there are people here who don’t have jobs who have always had jobs,” Walsh said. “The impact to taxpayers is minimal, but if you just lost your job, it is a lot.”

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Walsh added. “The economy is the great unknown here.”

Maple Dale-Indian Hills School District officials in Fox Point met with district residents to gather feedback on questions before putting them on the ballot, said Gary Swalve, business administrator for the district. Those meetings led the district to ask voters to approve $4 million for maintenance and $8 million over 10 years for operating expenses.

Swalve said he thinks the questions will pass, but acknowledged voters may be cautious given the economic uncertainty.

“We’re hoping people see it as a long-term investment in their own children and their property values,” he said.

In West Bend, Herdrich said the need for school improvements is clear. The district added 400 students in the past decade and expects to add hundreds more in coming years, she said.

The district’s middle school has been cited twice for failing to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the School Board is prepared to study two shifts for students to attend the high school, Herdrich said.

She said she hopes voters realize the deal they can get.

“Past the immediate economy,” Herdrich said, “clearly, the timing long term presents wisdom.”

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