Modern Woodmen Justin

Guest Editorial | Lack of transparency in the total $74 million West Bend School District referendum | By Carol Heger

March 21, 2019 – West Bend, WI

Dear Editor:

Are you prepared to pay more for your property taxes over the next 20 years?  If that’s something you can’t wait to do – pay more taxes, that is – then vote Yes for the West Bend School District (WBSD) Referendum on Tues. April 2.

Don’t forget, in addition to paying an increase in property taxes, you’ll also be paying more to the City of West Bend in 2019 (see Daily News, Nov. 15, 2018), and thanks to our new governor, there will be additional taxes and fees in the neighborhood of $1 billion, including a vehicle title fee increase and an 8 cent per gallon tax increase.  (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 6, 2019)

How many of you are doing so well that you can afford all these additional tax increases?

As for me, I will be voting “No” on April 2.  The WBSD referendum is being forced on West Bend citizens by the school district and its school board.  They have been waging a less than transparent campaign with less than honest facts for several years now.

Item 1:  The Superintendent, Don Kirkegaard, does not like to mention that the referendum will cost taxpayers $74 million (which is a figure that includes estimated interest over the course of 19 years).  He prefers to mention only the amount that the district will be borrowing:  $47 million.  How can a referendum be discussed honestly if the Superintendent doesn’t want to share that there will be about $27 million that the community will owe as a result of interest payments?  By the way, the community – your tax money – is still paying on the two previous school referendums:  a total of $34 million won’t be paid off for 9 more years (until 2028).

Item 2:  The Superintendent is refusing to talk about the fact that the number of children in West Bend/Jackson, as well as in Wisconsin, has been declining drastically for about a decade.   He says that the referendum is not about “capacity.”  In fact, the low birth rate is historic, and projections state West Bend will lose another 500 students by 2024.  Reasons are many for the dramatic decline in enrollment, in addition to the birth rate, such as the rise of parental choice schools (like Good Shepherd and Kettle Moraine Lutheran), an increase in home schooling, open enrollment where many students attend districts like Slinger and Germantown, virtual schools/online learning, and the liberal ideology of our public schools.  River Edge Nature Center is even opening a charter school.  By 2024, five years from now, I suspect there will be disappearing students and idle classrooms at Jackson and other West Bend schools, and as a result there will be less tax dollars coming into the WBSD coffers. (State funding is based on the number of pupils in a district.)  Less income means staffing cuts and not enough money to maintain (and continue paying for) the gleaming new edifice that is to be built south of Rt. 60.

Item 3:  The Superintendent did not answer questions from the audience at the large informational meetings held at Jackson and the high schools. He referred the audience to “experts” stationed at tables at the rear of the room, a convenient way to prevent audience members from learning the “rest of the story” by listening to each other’s questions.  Just another tactic to keep the playing field uneven for the taxpayers.

Item 4:  The Citizens Facilities Advisory Committee (CFAC) that met during the 2017-18 school year was used as a prop to justify the “needs” of Jackson Elementary and the high schools.  First, many of its members were WBSD employees, retired employees, or their family members.  The majority of committee members nodded and agreed when the architects led the discussions and created the list of “needs.”  The natural gas pipeline that is adjacent to the site of the new Jackson School was obviously not a safety concern of the majority of CFAC members or with the architects.  Bray Architects is the same firm that will get the contract to build the new school at Jackson and the renovations at the high schools.  Believe it or not, CFAC was not even given a chance to present a final report of its findings, although the committee was initially told it would make recommendations regarding the district’s needs.  Yet the referendum survey created by School Perceptions last summer stated that not Bray, but CFAC “developed the options explored in this survey.”  If the referendum wins, I predict there will be a tall, energy-inefficient lobby or atrium that will be built at the new Jackson School, designed by Bray Architects but paid for by the taxpayers.  (Check out Bray’s 2-story open, window-filled space at Kewaskum Middle School that is furnished on two levels with sofas & chairs.  How much learning is being done there?)

Item 5:  Jackson Elementary has been presented on tours as a dungeon-like building, while in contrast it’s a warm, welcoming facility with classroom cabinetry and furniture in good shape and classic style.  Many of the “needs” that were tallied by the architects were maintenance items that had been deferred over the years (replacing ceiling tiles, new urinals, etc.).  Replacing Jackson’s roof is listed on the referendum flyer as a “need,” but CFAC members learned from the WBSD Facilities and Operations Manager that roofing is always included in the operating budget, and each summer a different roof or several are replaced totaling $800,000 per year.  Why then is Jackson’s roof used as a referendum need? At its peak, Jackson held about 525 students compared to the current 350 that are pupils.  Moving the fifth graders to Silverbrook about five years ago freed up four classrooms.  The current building, larger than needed, could be re-configured and consolidated to take advantage of that extra space.  It wouldn’t surprise me if the old 1900 portion might not even be needed, thereby eliminating the use of steps and an elevator.

There are many questions that have not been adequately answered about remodeling the current Jackson, including the cost.  Does anyone know what it would cost to remodel or simply upgrade Jackson Elementary?  Certainly the Superintendent must know as do the school board members, but no one’s telling the taxpayers.    At a school board work session on April 30, 2018, a board member stated that he thought it was a waste of money to investigate what it cost to close Jackson and build new.  He thought spending money on boilers and air conditioners (i.e., maintenance upgrades) was not worthwhile.  The referendum plan calls for a new building at a price tag of $24,400,000 (not including 19 years of interest).  And the number of students is continuing to decline annually.

Item 6:  The twin high schools’ 50-year-old “major building system components,” as described on the referendum flyer, have “exceeded their useful life” and “are in need of replacement.”  After the CFAC behind-the-scenes tour, positive comments were made by committee members that it was “a clean and solid plant” and “well-maintained” and “a sense of pride” was evident.  Older equipment with a good operator is sometimes better than new equipment, a member suggested.  “Newer isn’t always better” was added by another member, while other members recalled that a new storage tank installed at the new Badger Middle School had ruptured.  (CFAC meeting, Oct. 17, 2017)

Commentators have weighed in, stating that the desire of Wisconsin voters for “world class” programs and facilities is apparent, since 90% of 82 communities in 2018 voted in favor of school referendums.  (Daily News, March 6, 2019)  Of course, does that mean that the West Bend population of lemmings should jump off the tax-and-spend cliff because others have?

The three candidates for the school board have finally been identified and appear to be following in quick step behind the previous trio of self-described “fiscally conservative” board members who were elected a couple years ago.  One candidate has stated the WBSD “has worked hard to carefully steward the money given for the upkeep of the buildings.” (Daily News, March 9, 2019)  He obviously has slept through the last year or so when the school board rewarded all teachers with a $1 million raise across the board, not taking into account any merit, innovation, or awards, something that is allowed due to Act 10 (see below).  The school board also presented the last two superintendents with hefty salary increases above each previous administrator:  Erik Olsen was awarded a higher salary than Ted Neitzke before him, and Mr. Kirkegaard was given $20,000 more than Mr. Olsen.  This is particularly disrespectful to taxpayers since the school board also voted to pay Mr. Olsen $300,000 so that he would resign from his position.  Yes, he received $300,000 for not working for our schools and our children!  In addition, usually when an employee moves to take a new position, their benefits include moving costs.  Do you think that the school board will let us know how much they paid for Mr. Kirkegaard to move from South Dakota to southeastern Wisconsin?  Let’s not forget that $360,000 was appropriated to re-pave the high schools’ tennis courts last summer, when the school board knew that they would be headed to a referendum.  And the school board even spent $16,500 of tax money on a referendum survey designed to persuade taxpayers to vote “Yes” on this same referendum!  So how conservative has our school board been, how careful have they been to “steward” the tax money provided by its hard-working residents?

Another candidate for the school board states “there is no reasonable alternative” if the referendum fails. (Daily News, March 9, 2019)   She obviously wasn’t paying attention to the teachers protesting in our state capitol building when Act 10 was passed.  Act 10 provides the tools for schools districts to create savings without taxing their residents. The largest portion of a school district budget involves salaries and benefits.  Prior to Act 10, teachers and other state employees paid no share of their health insurance premiums.  Their health insurance was free. (I don’t have enough space to talk about their lack of pension contributions as well.)  Act 10 gave districts the ability to negotiate with health insurers other than the WEA Trust (run by teachers), so that employees would pay at least some share of their health insurance, as is done in the private sector and even by federal employees.  But West Bend has not availed itself of the hundreds of thousands of dollars it could save from using cost-effective insurers.  Since Act 10, which dates to 2011, WBSD teachers are paying as little as 3% for their share of health premiums and taxpayers pick up the remaining 97%!  Compare this 3% share with the state average of almost 12%.  Most people who work in the private sector pay about 33% of the cost of their health insurance.  (Boots & Sabers, July 25, 2018)  The resulting savings could go towards operating, maintaining and improving all the schools in West Bend/Jackson.  There would be no need to close schools, as yet another school board candidate has threatened, if the referendum fails. (Daily News, March 9, 2019)  The school district could also wait for Gov. Evers’ promised $1.5 billion in state aid to schools. (Washington Post, Nov. 1, 2018)

By the way, don’t be fooled by another threat heard from these school candidates: that the safety of our students will be in question if the referendum fails.  The WBSD has already received something like $350,000 for upgrading the security of our schools; this is a state grant and is separate from the money requested by the referendum for security upgrades at Jackson and the high schools.

Finally, Jackson student test scores consistently rank among the highest in the district, second only to McLane among elementary schools.  Both Jackson and McLane are the oldest buildings in the district.  Although the school board has plenty to say about the age of Jackson, it can’t list any educational needs that the school lacks.  In general, some of the best test results come from older buildings and low-funded schools.  The amount of money spent on education has no relationship with educational outcome.  As mentioned, the largest portion of a district’s budget is spent on personnel.  How does paying more for benefits such as expensive health insurance improve the education of our children?  Why one district is “better” than another is not because of its fancy buildings or the amount of tax monies spent on a referendum.  Spending a fortune on upgrading facilities means nothing when it comes to learning.

One last point:  Jackson Elementary – students, faculty, and parents — recently raised about $10,000 to buy books for their library.  The great success of this effort suggests that maybe WBSD should contract with the Jackson students to raise money to pay for the “needs” of their own school.  Obviously the high school tennis courts were more important to the school board than funding the Jackson library with new books or upgrading the school’s physical plant.

Let’s hold the line on out-of-control spending by this current school board.  Do you want to be stuck holding the bill for 20 years of referendum payments?  Vote “No” on Tues. April 2!

Sincerely,

Carol Heger

 

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