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Building referendums trump resistance to higher taxes

9thGradeCenterSept5_klh Dave Roguszka, an employee of VJS Construction Services Inc., Pewaukee, sets door frames Wednesday, Sept. 28 at the Ninth Grade Center located at the Oak Creek High School campus. VJS Construction is overseeing the construction of the 192,798-square-foot building, two-story building. When completed in August of 2017 the school will house 1,000 students. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

VJS Construction Services’ Dave Roguszka sets doorframes on Sept. 28 at the Ninth Grade Center on the Oak Creek High School campus. Voters on Tuesday handed school districts around the state victories on building referendums. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Voters took some politicians to school on Tuesday — and they handed various school districts across the state good news in the form of approved building referendums.

As happens in most years, some of the school referendums on the ballot Tuesday did not win voters’ approval. Among the biggest proposals to go down to defeat was one seeking permission for a $159 million, two-part referendum in Chippewa Falls.

Most referendums, though, were successful.

School districts across the state on Tuesday asked for voters’ permission to spend about $1.3 billion on projects and operating expenses. The request was the largest seen at least since 2000 and quite possibly the largest ever, according to a review of Department of Public Instruction records.

Of the nearly 70 referendums on the ballot, only a dozen failed.

The two-question referendum rejected by residents of the Chippewa Falls Area Unified School District would have allowed 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; and build a new high school, among other things.

The first referendum question, which asked for $61.2 million, failed on a vote of 9,522 to 8,016. The second, totaling $98 million, failed 10,348 to 6,376.

Among the referendums that did pass was one asking voters in the Sun Prairie Area School District for permission to spend $89.5 million on building two new elementary schools, purchasing land for future projects and performing maintenance on other district buildings. The referendum passed 14,223 to 7,430.

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The referendums were part of a trend that has seen school districts asking for more and more money from local residents in recent years. Before Tuesday’s election, the spring election held in April had set the record for any statewide referendum going back at least to 2000.

Voters then considered $853.2 billion worth of referendum proposals, according to Department of Public Instruction records. The next highest asking total came in November 2014, when the asking total was $696.9 million.

Jon Bales, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, said the increase in referendums for school construction projects is the result of various influences. Enrollment has been increasing in many districts, interest rates remain low and the national economy is gaining steam.

Bales also noted that many school districts have buildings that are old enough to be in dire need of repairs and upgrades.

“You do have a wave of aging buildings that can no longer be ignored,” he said.

Districts are also finding that they struggle to find room in their tight budgets to pay for maintenance projects. Oftentimes, Bales said, repairs simply end up being pushed off.

School districts, meanwhile, are not only bringing costly construction projects to the ballot. They are seeing a lot of success with voters. Of the more than 70 referendums considered in April, for instance, only 16 failed.

“Frankly I think it’s a statement of the communities’ value they still put in their public schools,” Bales said.

So far, there is no sign that things will slow down for school district projects either. Bales said the demand for more and improved space will only increase in school districts that are experiencing an influx of students.

Dan Rossmiller, director of government relations with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said Friday that students tend to be concentrating in fewer districts. Many of the fastest-growing schools are in the suburbs, including places just outside the Twin Cities or north of Chicago, he noted.

BUILDING MOMENTUM

Here are the referendums that were approved by voters, including the margin by which they won, on Tuesday.

(CLICK THE BLUE LINK FOR THE CORRESPONDING JOBTRAC LISTING)

About Alex Zank, alex.zank@dailyreporter.com

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

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