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School districts resist stimulus from bonds

Paul Snyder
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Gun-shy administrators might undermine a federal stimulus program that encourages school construction by helping districts pay down debt.

Some district leaders say they gladly are accepting a piece of $125 million in no-interest bonds but are reluctant to invest the savings in new projects.

“The climate out there is terrible and with the cuts made in the state budget, it’s just really difficult right now,” said John Whalen, president of the Sun Prairie Area School District Board of Education.

“I don’t anticipate this will encourage us to do more projects,” he added.

The district received $23 million in federal bonding, more than any other district in the state, though the bonding did not encourage additional construction. Sun Prairie used it to help pay off the $30 million it put on taxpayers for construction of a new high school and conversion of the old high school into a middle school. Both schools are scheduled to open in fall 2010.

While Sun Prairie stands pat, other districts might jump at the opportunity. The School District of La Crosse received $6.6 million in bonds to help pay off debt from $18.5 million in expansion, renovation and upgrade projects.

“The fact is the projects we’re doing are still the bare bones of what we need,” said School Board President Christine Clair. “This will get us by for a period of time, but, in the long run, I hope if we have to go back to the community, they’ll see how much money this has saved them.”

Wisconsin school districts requested $526.4 million in bonds, almost four times the amount given to the state, said Patrick Gasper, spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

The Milton School District did not receive federal bonds and carries little construction debt. Even so, Robert Roy, president of the district’s Board of Education, said school officials are in no hurry to start building.

“We’re only at about 4 percent of the debt we’re legally allowed to carry by the state,” he said. “But unless we were able to cite a very specific need and get people behind it, I don’t think we could push anything.”

Milton has twice delayed a referendum to build a new school. Roy said the district might wait two more years before testing voter response.

“We need to maintain programs and staff and play a bit of catch-up before we can even think about new projects,” he said. “It’s going to be challenging for another year at least because this state budget cut school funding. We’ll have to see what happens in the next one.”

Sun Prairie’s Whalen said the federal stimulus bonds are a big help for school districts, but they might not stimulate new construction.

“It’s nice to drive by the new high school site and see a parking lot full of cars and workers out there with jobs,” he said. “But I think it’s going to be awhile before we see that regularly.”

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