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Home / Construction / $1.6B in referendums up for vote Tuesday (UPDATE)

$1.6B in referendums up for vote Tuesday (UPDATE)

About $1.6 billion worth of construction-related spending for K-12 building projects was back on the ballot for Tuesday after the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Gov. Tony Evers’ order that would have postponed the election to June.

The bulk of the scheduled referendums is for the Racine Unified School District, which has put forward a $1 billion, 30-year proposal, one of the biggest such requests to go before voters in state history. But that’s only one among many big referendums that will be on the ballot.

Racine aside, more than three dozen school districts are seeking permission to spend about $600 million on everything from school construction and expansions to maintenance and building improvements, according to JobTrac, the Daily Reporter’s online bidding service. Of the 58 referendums on the ballot, 43 would pay for some sort of construction work.

The referendums follow on a series of recent elections that have brought billions of dollars worth of school construction to Wisconsin contractors. In April 2019, voters approved $678.4 million in construction-related referendums. In 2018, more than $2 billion worth of construction-related referendums were passed in total in the spring and fall elections — setting an all-time record.

The current coronavirus outbreak is likewise bringing much uncertainty for school officials. Jim Strick, communications manager for the Neenah Joint School District, said district leaders are unsure what a low-turnout election will mean for its referendum seeking $114 million for a new high school.

“Everything has changed over the last month,” Strick said. “For us, we’re moving ahead. We still feel this would make a great impact on our community.”

Besides the construction of a high school, the district is asking voters for permission to close a middle school it had sought to rebuild last year and move four grade levels into the district’s existing high school. The referendum would allow the district to spend $160 million on improvements — $150 million for the new high school and another $10 million for other projects.

The district is working with Bray Architects and Miron Construction for pre-construction work on the project. The companies had also worked on a referendum plan for Neenah last April.

Strick said the district’s middle school, first built in 1928, is falling apart. In December, a 1,000-pound chunk of the building’s original ceiling fell through a drop ceiling and onto the stage of the school’s auditorium. Luckily, Strick said, the outdated auditorium is rarely used and no one was then in the room.

Historically, the district has not put enough money aside for maintenance work, Strick said, and Neenah’s schools are showing their age.

“We’ve kind of taken a patchwork approach to facilities,” Strick said. “There have been no real serious renovations, no expansions of any kind.”

In Racine, officials are asking voters for permission to advance a 30-year plan that could cost more than $1 billion.

Shannon Gordon, the district’s Chief Operating Officer, said the plan would give the district authority to undertake a long-term overhaul of its schools rather than having to voters for permission for small improvements.

“Do we want to fund all of it upfront or do we want to come back to our community every four or five years?” Gordon said.

The referendum has earned endorsements in recent days from the Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, as has a $87 million referendum Milwaukee Public Schools wants to use to cover operating expenses.

Should Racine’s referendum be approved, Gordon said the district could begin construction in the summer of 2021, following the completion of a district-wide evaluation of classroom standards. Ultimately, Racine could spend nearly $600 million on new construction work.

The district could begin with a plan to turn an elementary school in Sturtevant into a K-8 school. Other early projects could include a new elementary school and improvements to a district football field.

As is true for many districts around the state, schools in Racine are getting quite old, Gordon said. The district has five schools that were built before 1900, including one that dates to 1855. The district also has 13 schools built to keep up with Racine’s then-booming economy.

“We have worked very diligently to band aid and repair these schools,” Gordon said. “But they have far exceeded the manufacturer’s recommendation.”

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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