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Howard-Suamico talks potential 2021 referendum

By Ben Rodgers

SUAMICO – The Howard-Suamico school board learned, Monday, June 24, of early groundwork for a possible referendum question in 2021 that would maintain gains achieved by the passage of last year’s referendum question.

“If Howard-Suamico established a $9.49 levy rate in 2022-23 by passing a referendum in April 2021, then a generation of kids will realize a strong foundation of learning provided by adequate base revenue coupled with a low amount of allowable debt, allowing our facilities needs to be met,” said Matt Spets, assistant superintendent of operations.

During his budget presentation, Spets outlined what the district was able to achieve with the 2018 referendum and the need for those gains to continue.

The district is projecting a student-to-teacher ratio of 15.36 for the 2019-20 school year, down from 17.06 in 2017-18. The district wants to be as close to the state average of 14.6 as it can get.

The district also invested more than $4 million in salaries and benefits, and brought up some teacher salaries to be more in line with local markets in a move called a level set.

This was accomplished with a 5-year operational referendum that allowed the district to exceed the revenue limit by $5.85 million each year, while maintaining a stable $9.19 mill levy rate.

Some board members questioned the need for another referendum.

Spets said it was about maintaining what the district worked to achieve.

“We hired 30 teachers,” he said. “In the simplest form the decision would be which 25 don’t work here the next year. I hate to be that blunt, but that’s what it literally boils down to.”

With the 2018 referendum set to sunset in 2023, Spets said the question would need to be asked before the expiration date, so if it does fail, the district can plan to deal with the cuts that would be required.

The plan for the 2021 referendum question is also contingent on Gov. Tony Evers signing a state budget that was approved by the Joint Finance Committee.

“It’s a very pro-Howard-Suamico School District budget proposal,” Spets said. “The most that we’ve had at least in my time here and I’m willing to bet back prior to Act 10 as well.”

Based on what is signed by the governor and when, Spets said the district may have to change some its preliminary referendum plans.

He said those include work at Forest Glen Elementary, Bay View Middle School, facilities upgrades per the master plan, quality early childhood education, a wellness initiative, continued athletic excellence and an innovation center to increase workforce development with burgeoning area industries.

Spets, Superintendent Damian LaCroix and Dr. Becky Walker, assistant superintendent of academics and innovation, recently toured the St. Vrain Valley School District for Longmont, Colorado, just north of Denver.

St. Vrain boasts numerous programs which allow students to earn money and gain experience in their desired career paths while still in high school.

Spets mentioned a group of students that designs and builds unmanned drones and sells them to the public, with help from a Lockheed Martin partnership.

He talked about a group of ESL students who designed a device which uses underwater lasers to measure the size of great white sharks and has sold them to researchers.

Finally, Spets said St. Vrain has the only Apple Store located in a high school, where students can graduate as certified technicians.

“They leverage what they need to do to develop their local workforce,” Spets said. “So how does that relate to us? We got to be thinking about TitletownTech, Microsoft’s investment and IT needs across Wisconsin. We have that data and that’s what our linkages keep telling us.”

St. Vrain has an enrollment of more than 30,000 students across 58 buildings.

Spets said the district also has a funding system tied to property values, but with no revenue cap and an override, which allow for more fiscal flexibility.

LaCroix said HSSD has plateaued in attendance and the district does not have to worry about building any new schools, which allows for this type of thought process about the future.

“This is our first best guess at projecting and we’ll know more in the coming months,” LaCroix said. “That’s why it’s equational and aspirational looking to the horizon. It’s very strategic and we need you to be thought partners with us.”

A focus group of community members has already met a few times on the idea on a 2021 referendum.

“It’s a great time to have a conversation,” LaCroix said. “I think we’re really well poised, but it is going to necessitate some strategic thinking and some boldness of leadership on your part.”

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