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Green Bay schools brace for referendum vote

By Kevin Damask

GREEN BAY – As the Green Bay Area School District prepares to ask local taxpayers to fund $92.6 million in renovation and technology updates on the November election ballot, district officials are also working to share information about the referendum package and ease voters’ concerns over a recent spike in property assessments in the city of Green Bay.

The referendum, if passed on Nov. 8, will cover the cost of several school improvement projects, including safety, security, building infrastructure, capital maintenance projects, renovations and facility updates to secondary schools, construction of an addition at certain district buildings, athletic facility and site improvements, along with the purchase of furnishings, fixtures and equipment.

The district typically goes to referendum every few years, mostly with success.

The only referendum to fail in the last 25 years happened in 2007. That question asked voters to approve, among other things, a new high school on the east side.

This year, however, voters could be hesitant to vote yes due to the recent spike — from 30 to more than 60 percent — in property value reassessments.

The city-wide reassessment was the first time in 18 years Green Bay has evaluated property values.

But Josh Patchak, chief operations officer for the district, explained that the district mill rate is based on the fair market value of a home, not assessed value.

“It may affect the voters’ perceptions, so we’re working to try and get a different message out there,” Patchak said, referring to the high property tax reassessment. “With our referendum, the mill rate would go down by more than a dollar, but there’s no guarantee that taxes would go down for an individual property because every property is different.”

Green Bay City Assessor Russ Schwandt did not respond to a request for comment.

Fair market value is determined each year by the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, keeping pace with cost of home purchases.

As housing prices have risen in recent years, fair market value has increased somewhat, Patchak said.
The district last passed a large referendum package in 2017, requesting $68.25 million for renovation projects.

High inflation rates and the rising cost of goods and services might also deter taxpayers from voting yes.

Overall, though, Patchak said district residents have shown support for the referendum through a community survey last spring and from informational sessions.

Last winter, the district started hosting sessions to hear feedback from residents about what improvements they would like to see in their schools.

The survey included a list of potential projects.

“We had enormous support through our survey,” Patchak said. “That’s really good news and we’ve been really optimistic.”

Patchak admitted the property revaluation has thrown a wrench in campaigning efforts for the referendum.

Taxpayers have concerns and misconceptions, but district representatives are trying to quell their worries.
“We haven’t really seen any active campaigns for voting against the referendum,” Patchak said. “I have seen some yard signs going up recently in support of the referendum. We take all of that as a good sign. We’re cautiously optimistic.”

The final project stemming from the 2017 referendum was completed in 2021, and all debt has been paid off.

That’s usually not the case as at least some debt carries over into the next capital project.

“We were able to pay that debt off early and saved about $12 million,” Patchak said. “The community is used to (going to referendum) and we’re actually somewhat behind schedule.”

Paying off the debt early also helps lower the mill rate.

According to the district, the average mill rate, currently at $9.03, would drop to $8.24, the lowest since 1984.

Similar to many districts across Wisconsin, Green Bay is battling declining enrollment, which also caps the local tax levy, keeping mill rates low.

Broken down, the referendum is requesting $43.4 million for delayed facilities projects, energy efficiency and student and community safety; $48 million for secondary school upgrades; and $1.2 million for playground improvements.

The funding would help replace old playground equipment with ADA compliant equipment; improvements at West High School, including stadium renovations and upgrades to the large gym, small gym and locker room, weight rooms and auditorium; the replacement of HVAC systems, windows and roofs; upgrades to Preble High School, including work on the auditorium, expansion of the commons, the addition of eight classrooms, and stadium renovation; and improvements to the Edison Middle School auditorium for the first time since the school was built more than 50 years ago.

If the referendum fails, the district would need to dip into its operational budget to pay for renovation and equipment needs, taking funds away from classroom instruction.

“These needs won’t go away. The projects will need to be done somewhat into the future, but they’ll just keep getting more expensive,” Patchak said. “This is the time to get the best price for the taxpayer to get these needs addressed.”

Correction: This story was updated on Oct. 24. A previous version misquoted Josh Patchak, chief operations officer for the district. One referendum has failed in the last 25 years. That 2007 question asked voters to approve, among other things, a new high school on the east side.

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