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Referendum passage will mean lower tax rate in Howard-Suamico

By Ben Rodgers

SUAMICO – After six years of a stable tax rate of $9.19 per $1,000 of equalized value, the Howard-Suamico school board agreed Monday, Jan 25, to lower that to $8.99, the lowest rate in 12 years, upon the passage of both referendum questions it will ask voters in April.

Michele Wiberg, chief sales and marketing officer for PMA, a consulting firm hired by the district, said due to paying down debt early, and favorable interest rates, the district can achieve the $98 million worth of improvements and still lower the tax rate.

“If there’s any glimmer of good news in this world we’re living in – in this incredibly challenging political market, and the market conditions we’re witnessing as a result of the pandemic, and the economic downtown – is interest rates have hit really low levels,” Wiberg said.

She said PMA recently did a 20-year bond project for another district and was able to lock in an interest rate of 2 percent.

“This is a tremendous time in terms of the low-interest environment, and it’s incredibly important to you as you look at taking on debt service for these projects,” Wiberg said.

Normally, when a district asks a referendum question, she said the following year’s tax rate sees an increase, because the district is allowed to exceed the state-imposed revenue cap.

When Wiberg was asked if she has ever seen a district pledge to lower taxes with the passage of a referendum, she had a hard time finding an answer.

“I think this is my 28th year in Wisconsin school finance and I’m really struggling to think of one (other district),” she said.

Mike Juech, assistant superintendent of operations, said the district could lower the tax rate even more than 20 cents with the passage of a referendum, but it needs to consider needs in the future, some of which are even known today.

“We are going to have to talk about future phases,” Juech said. “What does that look like? Learning environments are going to be continuously updated, we’re going to need programs, we’re going to support at Bay Port our CTE (career and technical education) programs.”

The school board unanimously approved a declaration of its intent to lower the tax rate, pending the successful passage of the referendum question related to $98 million in school improvements.

The intent is to lower the rate from $9.19 to $8.99 for the final two years of the current operational referendum, and to maintain $8.99 for the five years of the proposed replacement operational referendum ending in 2028.

“The declaration of intent here is we want community support to move in this direction,” Juech said. “Absent of community support, it’s probably in the district’s best financial interest to rapidly pay down debt as fast as possible and come back and propose a different solution to the community.”

He said a 20-cent drop in the tax rate would be incorporated into future debt payments.

The low interest and debt defeasance will play out in the district’s revenue limit calculation, Juech said.

He said the district will balance the expenditures with the revenue relating to the general fund portion of revenue limits, a portion of the tax levy, state aid and federal funding.

However, board members questioned what kind of dent a 20-cent reduction would make in property tax bills, considering the district’s assessed value increased in recent years.

“I think a lot of the anger with the last (referendum) is we said we wouldn’t raise their tax rate, which we didn’t, but we have the assessed value going up every year and they’re seeing increases,” said Christina Antmann, board member.

Under the $9.19 tax rate, a $300,000 home in the district would pay $2,757 in taxes for the school district. Under the $8.99 tax rate, the same home would pay $2,697.

However, when the value of the home increases, the amount paid in taxes also increases when the tax rate remains the same.

Howard-Suamico is no stranger to increasing equalized values, said Joe Denor of Fair Market Assessments, a group that validates home sales in the district and sends the information to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue to compare sales to assessments, to determine the equalized value.

Denor wasn’t at the Monday meeting, but he provided information to The Press Times which shows a steadily increasing equalized value in the Howard-Suamico School District.

He said equalized totals each year will reflect changes in the assessments, due to reviews and new construction, and changes due to the market as determined by the DOR based on previous years sales.

The total equalized property value in 2014 in Suamico was $1.05 billion, and in 2020 was $1.52 billion.

In Howard, the 2014 equalized value was $1.44 billion and in 2020 was $2.05 billion.

“Saying the tax rate is lower doesn’t necessarily correlate with your taxes being lower,” said Superintendent Damian LaCroix.

Return to learning

In other news, the board heard from three administrators about the plan to return all students who opted in to full-time learning Feb. 15.

“Overall, it has been a joy to have kids back in schools,” said Kristin Ashley, Howard Elementary School Principal. “I know our kids feel known, feel loved and feel glad to be back. It’s good and challenging and has unique opportunities, but my word this year has been ‘hope.’”

The district’s COVID-19 dashboard showed Jan. 26, five positive staff tests, three staff in quarantine at Howard.

“(Students) come in, they sanitize – they didn’t know I was observing this, but it has really become how we do things, and it’s pretty incredible,” said Steven Meyers, Bay View Middle School principal. “At our level, some of these students grew 4-6 inches since September. You almost don’t recognize them. They actually go around at the middle school level and show how well they know and follow the guidelines.”

The district’s COVID-19 dashboard showed Jan. 26, one positive staff test and eight staff members in quarantine at Bay View.

“Our students follow the rules perfectly,” said Mike Frieder, Bay Port principal. “I’m surprised by that, I’m even bored by it. They’ll wear a mask, we have one-way traffic in hallways, they do what we tell them to do. It almost doesn’t feel like school.”

The district’s COVID-19 dashboard showed Jan. 26 one positive staff test and seven staff in quarantine at Bay Port.

After a question from board member Jason Potts, the administration agreed it would be impossible to have 6 feet of social distance at Lineville Intermediate School and Bay View when all students are back.

However, the administration said social distancing is only one of five ways to combat the spread of COVID-19 in Howard-Suamico schools.

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