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With record-setting referendum, Neenah district to deal with only part of maintenance needs

After an all-time high was set by the more than $2 billion worth of school referendums passed last year, voters in Neenah will get a chance this April to consider a record-breaker of their own.

The Neenah Joint School District plans to hold a referendum on April 2 to seek permission to spend $129.6 million on a new middle school and various infrastructure projects throughout the district. If successful, the referendum would be the fourth-largest approved in state history.

Neenah’s referendum comes as a result of more than two decades of deferred maintenance on district property. Yet, even though it would constitute one of the largest such requests in state history, it would provide only about a third of the $300 million that an architecture firm recently found was needed for such work.

The Neenah district isn’t alone in turning in recent years to referendums to pay for new building projects.

Voters last year approved a combined $2 billion worth of school spending requests, beating the previous record: $1.8 billion, set in 2016, according to a Wisconsin Policy Forum report.

The spending proposals have drawn criticism from some lawmakers and led to the formation of an industry lobbying group to protect the state’s current system of approving school projects. Unlike most other public entities in Wisconsin, schools are not required by law to bid out construction work.

In Neenah, the large referendum request is the result of a years-old policy to avoid tax increases and borrowing as much as possible — the district has no debt — and put off needed maintenance spending, said Jim Strick, communications manager for the Neenah Joint School District. When district officials convened a study group in 2016 to study their options, they already knew much of the district’s property was in rough shape. It still came as a shock, though, when the Milwaukee firm Bray Architects found there were $335 million worth of maintenance needs.

“There’s kind of a frustration of why things were put off for so long,” Strick said. “For so long we’ve had these low tax rates. It’s kind of like, if you don’t do any home repairs for 50 years, your budget is going to look a lot better than your neighbor’s.”

With a survey mailed to residents, the Neenah district learned that asking voters for $335 million would most likely guarantee failure. Though about 75 percent of the 4,000 respondents to the survey said they’d support a referendum of some kind, most preferred to go for an amount less than $335 million. Instead, Strick said, the survey found that a majority would support a property-tax-rate increase that would allow the district to spend $129.6 million on maintenance.

If voters approve the proposal, Neenah plans to direct much of its spending, about $84 million of it, toward an overhaul of its outdated middle school. An additional $31 would go toward repairs throughout the district. Some plumbing, for instance, dates back 70 years. Another $5 million would go toward technical instruction at the district’s high school.

But Strick said the vote, even if successful, will leave plenty of needs unmet. The district hasn’t held a capital referendum since 1995, when voters approved $15 million worth of spending. After that, the district spent less than half a million dollars on maintenance a year — a sum that has proved inadequate for structures that were built 90 years ago in some cases, Strick said.

“It wasn’t feasible to do everything,” he said. “That was probably the trickiest part. There were serious needs at every single building in our district.”

About Nate Beck, [email protected]

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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