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Schools eye stimulus for referendum projects (UPDATE)

By Sean Ryan

A few guys looking for work dropped by Market & Johnson Inc. project manager Mike Seichter’s office Friday morning in La Crosse.

Rhinelander/School District Building Plan

Hilbert/Addition and Renovations to Schools

Edgar/School District Building Plan

Bangor/School Renovation and Demolition Projects

That happens often, said Seichter. Some are former employees of Market & Johnson, which has 175 fieldworkers now compared with more than 275 a year ago. Others are unemployed union workers from Rochester across the Minnesota border, he said.

So Seichter said he’s happy school districts such as the Bangor School District are pushing project dates forward to take advantage of low prices in a weak construction market. Bangor hired Market & Johnson to build a $580,000 project if Tuesday’s referendum is approved.

“The way we’re going to operate,” Seichter said, “is whatever money is left over in the project is going to go back to the school district.”

Bangor — one of eight school districts holding referendums Tuesday — wants to borrow money to demolish an old high school and renovate a gym. The only reason to do the projects now is the district has a chance to get no-interest bonds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, said District Administrator Roger Foegen. The district, he said, cannot apply for the stimulus bonds until the referendum is approved.

Without the bonds, the district could not afford to borrow money for another four years, Foegen said.

“The harm in delaying is: Will the market be as good in four years as far as what you can get in terms of bang for your dollar in construction?” he said.

The Hilbert School District advanced its $4.7 million construction referendum to Tuesday instead of holding it in April, said Superintendent Tony Sweere. The district will have a better chance competing for the stimulus bonds if it can get its paperwork together earlier, he said.

But, he said, the district is not trying to oversell the potential stimulus savings to voters because there will be a lot of competition for the bonds.

“We’ve been very clear with that,” he said. “This isn’t guaranteed.”

If the referendum is rejected Tuesday, Sweere said, he expects to try again in April to make another play at the stimulus bonds.

The state last year received the authority to issue $160 million in stimulus bonds for school districts and had districts apply for the money in late spring. The Internal Revenue Service, which sets the bonding limits for each state, has not yet told Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction how much will be available this year, said Natalie Rew, DPI school finance auditor.

The Bangor job, which would last up to three months and put as many as 15 people to work during peak construction, is not a huge project, Seichter said. But he said the opportunity still looks good to him.

“I would say it’s a win-win for us now,” Seichter said, “not just that the project is happening now but because of the way things are.”

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