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More than $1 billion at stake in school referendums Tuesday

Milwaukee Plate Glass’ Jeff Gordon (left) and Doug Buska lift a window into position on July 20 at the new Ninth Grade Center on the Oak Creek High School campus. Schools across Wisconsin will ask voters for $1.3 billion worth of projects on referendums during Tuesday’s election. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

Milwaukee Plate Glass’ Jeff Gordon (left) and Doug Buska lift a window into position on July 20 at the new Ninth Grade Center on the Oak Creek High School campus. Schools across Wisconsin will ask voters for $1.3 billion worth of projects on referendums during Tuesday’s election. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

Tuesday will provide the answer to everyone’s billion-dollar question.

And no, no one’s talking about whether Americans will elect a billionaire real-estate mogul as the next commander-in-chief.

As in many elections years, school districts throughout Wisconsin will be using referendums to gain residents’ approval this November for a long list of big-ticket projects. The $1.3 billion worth of building projects and operating costs up for approval on Tuesday is the most that schools have asked for since the start of the new millennium, according to data gathered from Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction records.

That means that, with inflation only having made such projects more expensive over time, this year’s total is likely the largest ever to be put on a Wisconsin ballot. This comes after voters were asked in April to consider nearly $854 million worth of referendums, the second large amount since 2000.

Dan Rossmiller, director of government relations with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said one likely reason for school districts’ increased reliance on referendums is the return of some measure of prosperity.

“The economy is improving and voters may be more willing to support referendums,” Rossmiller said.

He noted that interest rates remain low, making now a relatively cheap time to borrow for school projects.

But Rossmiller also pointed out that two-thirds of school districts are seeing declining enrollment. This means students are concentrating in fewer districts. Many of the most-popular schools are in the suburbs, including places just outside the Twin Cities or north of Chicago.

Beyond that, districts are prevented by state law from raising local property taxes beyond a certain point every year. One of the few ways to get around those limits is to get voters’ permission in a referendum.

COSTLY 10

Here are the highest referendum asking totals in Wisconsin since 2000:

Date and Amount (in millions)

  • Nov. 8, 2016 — $1,337.9
  • April 5, 2016 — $853.2
  • Nov. 4, 2014 — $696.9
  • April 3, 2007 — $632.3
  • April 7, 2015 — $627.5
  • April 1, 2008 — $463.8
  • April 2, 2013 — $420.7
  • April 1, 2014 — $408.4
  • Nov. 7, 2006 — $394.1
  • Nov. 4, 2008 — $376.7

The biggest request on the ballot Tuesday will be in the Chippewa Falls Area School District. Voters who live there will consider two separate referendum questions asking for a total of about $159.2 million.

The first referendum, asking for $61.2 million, would allow the district to rebuild Stillson Elementary School; add a gymnasium and media center to Halmstad Elementary School; add a gym, music room and art room to Jim Falls Elementary School; purchase land for a high-school site; and make various improvements to district buildings, including repairs to roofs and heating-and-cooling, plumbing and electrical systems.

A separate $98 million referendum would meanwhile allow the district to build a new high school, move students and programs to other buildings and use interior space for various purposes, including as a orchestra room.

Heidi Eliopoulos, superintendent of schools for the Chippewa Falls school district, said the Board of Education originally looked into going to voters just with a request for repairs and renovations, and putting the second referendum off for 10 years.

Board members changed their minds only after hearing from residents who were concerned that waiting on the second referendum would only give inflation time to drive up the cost of the project. Eliopoulos said that a 4-percent rise in construction prices would make a $98 million referendum into a $145 million referendum.

Eliopoulos noted that it has been 20 years since the Chippewa Falls school district last held a referendum.

“We’re in a place where we have some unmet condition and facility needs,” she said.

And now is likely as good a time as any to catch up on the district’s two decades of deferred maintenance, especially given the success many school districts have seen with their recent referendums. Of the more than 70 referendums considered in April, only 16 failed, according to the Department of Public Instruction.

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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