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Vote on new Sun Prairie school buildings would come at time of referendum boom

If there ever were a time to ask the residents of a school district for $253 million over the next five years to build three new schools, recent referendum successes suggest it’s now.

The opportunities presented by voters’ seeming willingness to support new construction projects have not been lost on those in charge of the Sun Prairie Area School District. At a recent school-board meeting, school officials called for the district to respond to the steep enrollment increases predicted for coming years by adding two new elementary schools and a high school.

The recommendations come on the heels of a study conducted by the Sun Prairie district’s School Space Planning Committee. The committee’s resulting report predicted the district would pick up nearly 2,000 additional students within the next 8 or 9 years.

Given that likelihood, the committee recommended using three separate referendums to secure the public’s approval for financing the construction of each of the new schools. The estimated cost of the three schools is a little more than $253 million.

Sun Prairie School District officials are looking to have the first referendum – seeking permission to build one of the new elementary schools – on the ballot in November. Recent history gives them plenty of reason to believe they’ll be successful.

In this year’s spring election, held on April 5, Wisconsin saw the largest monetary amount sought in a single round of referendums since 2000. The 71 referendum questions put to voters this year asked for approval of spending $853.2 million in total.

What’s more, the majority of these referendums were successful; 55 of the 71 passed.

Among the approvals was one given to the Superior School District’s request for $92.5 million to spend on renovations and new construction. The Hudson School District, meanwhile, won voters’ support in a three-part referendum seeking $90.4 million for various additions, renovations and construction projects.

Jon Bales, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, listed several reasons why referendums have become so common in recent years.

He pointed out that many of the districts that are asking for additions or new construction are in places where population growth is occurring at a quick pace.

Bales also said that many districts no doubt held off from pursuing much-needed building projects during the recent recession.

“You combine that with (population) growth, and now they can’t wait anymore,” he said. “These districts are just playing catch-up.”

In Sun Prairie, the School District’s School Space Planning Committee is calling for the referendums needed for the three proposed new schools to occur over the course of five or six years. The referendum recommended for November would seek voters’ approval for $58.1 million to be spent on a new elementary school, renovations to existing schools and land for subsequent phases of the overall project. It would also seek $1.4 million to fund operating costs at the new school.

The next referendum would include $152.4 million for the proposed new high school and another $4 million to operate the school. The district’s recommendation calls for that referendum to be held in November 2018.

The final referendum, which would give the district $42.7 million to build the second elementary school and $1.7 million to operate it, would take place in November 2021.

In coming up with the recommendations, district officials have received help from Eppstein Uhen Architects, a design firm in Milwaukee, and J.H. Findorff & Son, a general contractor headquartered in Madison.

Matt Breunig, director of project management for Findorff’s education sector, said company officials have seen an increase in school construction in recent years. Like Bales, he said the recession might have led to the postponement of some projects.

“There were some pent-up needs that were sitting there for a while,” Breunig said.

About Alex Zank, [email protected]

Alex Zank is a construction reporter for The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at 414-225-1820.

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