Rising referendums: Spending big in the suburbs
By Ben Rodgers
BROWN COUNTY – To keep his sights set on the future of public education, Howard-Suamico Superintendent Damian LaCroix keeps close a powerful reminder of the past.
Nestled on his office bookshelves are the original minutes from a community meeting held in the Town of Pittsfield on Nov. 15, 1856.
“The only thing on the agenda was this group recognizing the need if the community was going to prosper and thrive, they needed to invest in their schools,” LaCroix said.
On that day, those 17 community members in attendance agreed on a $200 tax to build a new school house and a $50 tax to pay for a teacher.
Fast forward 165 years, and school finance in 2021 is infinitely more complex, because the needs of students and the community have grown to levels that couldn’t be fathomed in the 1800s.
Since 2005, LaCroix has led a school district which has seen seven out of nine referendum questions successfully pass.
“Over 160 years ago, leaders in this community recognized education is not an expense, it’s an investment,” he said. “While we don’t deny the reality of the expense, what we’re asking is for our community to look at it more holistically.”
Most recently, on April 6, district voters approved two referendum questions.
The first was $98 million in debt to renovate learning spaces.
The second was an extension of an operational referendum passed to decrease class sizes, better compensate teachers and complete more facilities maintenance.
For those purposes, in 2018, voters approved a non-recurring referendum for the district to exceed the state-imposed revenue cap by $5.85 million a year for five years.
This year’s operational referendum decreases the amount the district would be allowed to exceed the state-imposed revenue cap by down to $5 million annually, starting in the 2023-24 school year.
“Our families send us the best children they have,” LaCroix said. “We have a duty, a moral and ethical obligation, to educate every child and help them maximize their potential.”
Howard-Suamico was a low-spending district back in 1992, and because of that, it has been hampered ever since, routinely being asked to do more with limited funds.
Before LaCroix came to Howard-Suamico in 2005, the district passed one referendum in 1998 issuing $36 million in debt to build what is now Bay Port High School.
Then after failed attempts in 2004 and early 2005 to get funding to build an elementary school and remodel other schools, the district found success in 2006 to the tune of $18 million in new debt.
In 2014, voters approved construction of a new aquatic facility and security upgrades in the amount of $14 million in debt.
In 2017, voters soundly rejected a measure that would have lessened the frequency of future referendum questions, by voting down a permanent $4 million revenue cap override.
“Our board frankly said, ‘Let’s be more bold in our ask,’ because I think the board in that time recognized the time and energy it takes every three to five years to do this and didn’t want that for the future,” LaCroix said. “Our community gave us a clear answer and response to that. That was the No. 1 thing (they didn’t like was), the recurring nature. Therefore, we have the five-year limitation we now have.”
He said he recognizes the growth of the district, where more students equal more dollars under the current funding formula.
However, Howard-Suamico peaked enrollment-wise in 2016-17 with 6,173 students.
The district also does not accept any general education open enrollment students, because it’s at or near capacity.
With the funding formula staying relatively the same, and a good idea of student counts, LaCroix said he learned to master the art of the referendum ask.
“It’s really an 18-month process,” he said. “That’s what the research would suggest.”
LaCroix said the 18 months leading up to a referendum question appearing on a ballot consist of four basic legs, and just like a table, without all four of the legs, the question will likely fail.
For every referendum question the district asks, he said it comes down to educating the voters on the need, which leads to trust, which leads to the ability to ask for permission, which hopefully ends with support.
As Election Day draws closer, LaCroix said more community engagement occurs to strengthen each leg and build those steps.
This year, from January to April, the district conducted more than 30 community engagement sessions.
“The burden and the blessing of living in the current age is there’s lots of different ways to communicate, but there’s lots of different ways to communicate,” LaCroix said. “It used to be you’d send out a mailing and do two or three presentations. Now social media has expanded the opportunity to communicate. I feel there’s more engagement, which is good. But I feel one of the downsides is this has the potential to be divisive at the community level.”
Now with community support behind him and the district, and no foreseeable referendum for another seven years or so, he said he can continue to focus on preparing students for a rapidly changing world.
“To know we got the community supporting us gives us the added drive and energy to continue showing up, waking up early, staying up late,” LaCroix said. “This is very missional work, this vocation. It’s not 8-to-4 or 9-to-5, it’s more than that. It extends beyond that.”
West De Pere
The West De Pere school district recently went to voters with a pair of capital referendums.
In November 2018, by a margin of 6,840 to 3,596, voters approved the district taking on $64.8 million in debt to build a new intermediate school.
“If you drive around our neighborhoods, there’s new subdivisions being put in, particularly the Village of Hobart and Town of Lawrence,” said Dennis Krueger, superintendent. “There’s foundations in the ground, there’s apartment complexes going up, there’s a myriad of plans involving expanding services for the community.”
Krueger said the district has been growing at a rate of about 80 students per year.
“Our elementary schools were nearing or at capacity, and exceeding capacity in some instances,” he said. “Building the intermediate school will allow us to relieve the pressure by moving the fifth-graders in the elementary school, and our middle school was nearing or at capacity as well. So we’re relieving the capacity by moving sixth-graders out of the middle school. In addition, we put a 14-room expansion on the high school.”
Krueger said without passage of the referendum, class sizes would have risen from the mid 20s per class to the upper 20s and beyond.
“There’d be a lot of internal issues and structural issues with education as we know it (if it hadn’t passed),” he said. “It’s just not good for learning or good for kids. We don’t believe it’s in the best interest of education or the community.”
West De Pere hit the most students it’s had in recent history with an enrollment of 3,628 in 2019-20.
It dropped slightly this year, as most districts have, because of the pandemic.
Krueger said the increased enrollment is positive because it means the district can afford more educators.
However, he said there would be no place to put them without a referendum for a new building.
“When you have student growth, you have more revenue and your class sizes get a little bigger…. and when we build a building and have to hire more staff, we’ll have less revenue,” he said. “For a couple of years we were putting a million (surplus dollars) or more into our fund balance. Now this next year, when we open our intermediate school, we have an additional $1 million to $1.5 million of expense, so we won’t be able to put that additional $1 million in the fund balance.”
Krueger said going to referendum was the only way to solve the issue, because there simply isn’t enough in the budget to fund a new building.
“I liken it to if you wanted to add onto your house or build a new house,” he said. “Most people could not just pay cash and do that. They need some type of loan, or they need additional dollars to come from somewhere, or they won’t make the ends meet. We could pay all our staff, our resources for curriculum, our utilities, so on and so forth, all of our costs, and somewhere in there if we added on a large debt payment, the ends wouldn’t meet.”
District voters also approved a second referendum question to borrow $9.9 million for a new multi-purpose indoor facility for sports, classes, testing and extracurricular activities, as well as stadium improvements.
The vote was tighter, passing 5,273 to 5,150.
“Our band will eventually be marching there and practicing,” Krueger said. “In Wisconsin, during our springs it can be very difficult to get outside for a variety of reasons. It’s even set up so we can deliver large-scale assessments in there with tables and outlets, etc. We’ll be able to use that for a variety of purposes. It really enhances our district and keeps us competitive with other districts, because this is a very competitive day and age in education.”
Of the districts surrounding Green Bay, De Pere has gone the longest without going to referendum.
De Pere last went to the voters in 2015, when they approved $7 million in debt for financing capital maintenance projects throughout the district.
“Because De Pere had experienced large economic growth, it really planned well and prepared for the future, and the community has really strongly supported the school district,” said Ben Villarruel, superintendent. “I’m amazed at the level of support it received.”
De Pere is also one of the few districts in Brown County to have passed recurring referendum questions, meaning voters approved the district going over state-imposed revenue caps on a permanent basis.
Voters approved a permanent $2 million override in 2000, and a permanent $1 million override in 2005.
Villarruel said those questions were tied into operations for facilities upgrades the district was working on for years prior.
“The community knew with building a new building there will be new additional fixed costs you can’t absorb in your budget – utilities, support personnel,” he said. “If you build a new building or new addition, you’re assuming a lot of fixed costs. Without those referendums, something would have to give, whether it’s higher class sizes or less program offerings. It’s a wonderful community and they’ve strongly supported the education of our students.”
Villarruel said in 2007-08 the district made major renovations to Dickinson Elementary School, which included replacing the HVAC system.
He said the board and administration used long-term planning and budgeted enough funds years in advance to complete the project with a loan small enough to not require a referendum question.
Villarruel said the district took a similar route when it updated the music wing at the high school in 2018.
“Not only have the citizens voted in support of these referendums, they’ve also personally given generously through various fundraising activities,” he said. “Project Red Bird (dedicated to redoing various outdoor playing surfaces) raised over $3 million due to the generosity of a lot of people and significant contributions to the district. Then (the community) raised about $1.5 million to make improvements on our stadium.”
District voters did not approve a question in 2015 for $3 million to improve outdoor playing fields and facilities, but they contributed with donations.
Villarruel said the credit belongs to the community as a whole, not the district.
“Through those generous donations we were able to improve our athletic facilities for our students to have a good experience and not be pinched in our budget for the learning that needs to occur in our district,” he said. “A lot of things have contributed to the good position we stand in.”
But growth continues to loom on the horizon for the De Pere school district.
In 2019-20 enrollment climbed up to 4,553 students from 3,956 in 2011-12, and the growth of Ledgeview and parts of De Pere means more students will eventually be enrolling in district schools.
“In the next five to 10 years, the big question is what do we do with the high school,” Villarruel said. “We have the land to add on, to grow our enrollment beyond 1,600 students, but do we want a high school that big? That’s what the community, parents and district are going to have to wrestle with.”
Villarruel will retire in June 2022 after working for the district since 2002.
He said the next district leader will come into a solid situation, but funding will continue to play a role in what the district can accomplish and how it can accomplish it.
“I think for everybody – from the Legislature to the governor, to the municipalities and the county – funding is always a discussion and will also continue to be a discussion, and it should be,” Villarruel said. “Could we do with more funding? Absolutely. I don’t want to say everything is perfect. But, this is what we were given, and we tried to manage it and be responsible in the best way we can, and be good stewards of the taxpayers.”
The Ashwaubenon School District held multiple referendum questions – some of which voters rejected and others they passed – since the current school funding formula was put in place.
The district’s most recent referendum questions, one for operational funding and another for capital improvements, both passed in April 2020.
By a margin of 2,603 to 1,728, voters approved an operational referendum to exceed the district’s state-imposed revenue limit by $730,000 annually, starting with the 2020-21 school year and ending in 2024-25.
This marked the first time in more than 20 years Ashwaubenon district voters approved a referendum to override the revenue limit.
The capital referendum for issuing up to $10.05 million in debt to pay for a districtwide facility improvement program passed 2,824 to 1,501.
It included installing air conditioning throughout the high school and Pioneer and Valley View elementary schools, initially estimated by the district at $4.35 million.
However, the air conditioning bids exceeded the estimate by more than $1 million, with some non-referendum funds used for the extra cost.
Other estimates obtained by the district placed the cost of improving school security at Cormier and Pioneer at $3.9 million.
The district’s estimate was $1.8 million for updating the facilities to remove asbestos, repair the Pioneer gym foundation, repair the high school track, replace three gym floors, replace light fixtures in the gyms and replace windows and doors at Parkview Middle School.
The possibility of building a new multi-purpose indoor facility next to the high school was proposed prior to holding the capital referendum, but the board did not include that after the district received negative feedback in public forums and surveyed residents about the facility’s estimated cost of more than $10 million, which would have more than doubled the amount of what voters ended up approving.
Ashwaubenon Business Director Keith Lucius said state law limits districts to two referendum questions a year, and district voters in 2020 considered an operational referendum authorizing annual spending above the revenue limit and a capital referendum authorizing borrowing.
Given the limit on the number of referendums per year and concern about a capital referendum being defeated had it included the multi-purpose facility, he said the district could not have held a separate capital referendum last year on the multi-purpose facility with the operational referendum also on the ballot.
Lucius said the district sought to override the revenue limit so it could hire additional staff and also fund the expense to operate air conditioning added throughout three schools as part of the capital referendum.
He said a non-recurring operational referendum was placed on the ballot last year, instead of the recurring variety, to show the community what the money would be used for.
Of the annual revenue limit override amount, the school board designated $650,000 for mental health services and the other $80,000 for annual operating costs for the additional air conditioning.
Without passing the operational referendum, Lucius said the district would not have been able to exceed the revenue limit to hire additional staff, which included school counselors, social workers, social-emotional learning coaches, etc.
Though the current revenue limit override ends after five years, Lucius said another non-recurring referendum could go before voters with the amount and term able to be adjusted from $730,000 and five years.
The Seymour school district is no stranger to referendums, with voters approving $6.5 million in debt by a vote of 1,372 to 571 this April.
With the successful passage, Seymour will be able to expand its tech ed department, which has seen a 52 percent increase in enrollment the past five years.
“What this expansion allows us to do is give more space to our tech ed department, its students and the programs we are implementing in that area,” said Pete Kempen, district business manager. “For example, we have students in home construction that actually build a house in the classroom. So right now, there is a two-room house sitting inside a classroom. And they will tear it back down at the end of the year because they need that space for their next class, next fall. What we are going to do now is build a tiny house and then actually sell it to recoup some of those expenses, so they can build another one the following year. That is one example. Right now we have our woods machines next to our metals machines, so sawdust and so forth gets into the oils and metals and creates not an ideal situation. The expansion allows us to separate those a little more, so that we can maintain the equipment to last a long time.”
Kempen said the expansion to meet the needs of a changing world would not have been possible under the current revenue limits and school funding formula, so it required the district to go to referendum.
Seymour also received some help from voters in 2017, when they approved going over the state-imposed revenue cap by $2 million on a permanent basis in the midst of declining enrollment.
“We knew that in order for us to continue, we needed to have that influx of revenue, and there wouldn’t be a sunset to it, which is why they chose to go recurring,” Kempen said. “Otherwise, we’d be asking the public every four years. And there are districts that do that.”
In 2011-12, Seymour had 2,500 students. That number was down to 2,014 for 2020-21.
Because enrollment is dropping, the district could face less funding because there are fewer students.
“If we continue to lose students, we have to cut expenses, which should happen,” Kempen said. “If you have fewer students, you need fewer staff to educate those students. That just goes with it. We try to be proactive by not replacing retirees, or people who resign. (We’re) looking to streamline at that point simply to try and keep expenses in line where our revenues are.”
Kempen and Superintendent Laurie Asher praised the work that came before their time in the district and the successful 2017 revenue limit override.
“Looking at our enrollment trend, we knew it was needed long term,” Asher said. “We didn’t think it was three or four years and then all of a sudden enrollment would increase. So I’m assuming that that was also part of the decision. Because when you look at our model, we will probably be declining enrollment over at least the next 10 years. So sometimes when you have to go back to your public every three or four years, that can be really frustrating for them.”
Press Times reporters Heather Graves and Kevin Boneske contributed to this story.
This story was produced by the NEW News Lab, a collaboration of newsrooms that focuses on issues important to Northeast Wisconsin.
Next week: Finding solutions
Next week will be the final part in the four-part series on Rising Referendums in Wisconsin. The piece examines what has been done and what could be done about issues forcing school districts to go to referendum.