Rejection of spending plans prompts board to revisit ways to upgrade school facilities, with first focus on Grafton Elementary
Taken aback by voters’ rejection of a $49.5 million referendum in last week’s election, the Grafton School Board on Monday began charting a new course for upgrading district facilities.
The first step, board members decided, should be an updated assessment of Grafton Elementary School, which they said has fallen into the most serious state of disrepair among district buildings.
“GES is the key to reconfiguring all the schools. We need to start there first,” Supt. Mel Lightner said.
Lightner spoke during a meeting attended by nearly 70 people, including teachers and other residents who voiced concern over the referendum’s failure.
Although district officials and other supporters of two proposals to upgrade facilities were optimistic heading into the April 5 election, both spending plans failed by wide margins.
By a 4,054-3,260 vote, residents turned down a plan to borrow $47.7 million for renovation and reconstruction work at Grafton High School, John Long Middle School and Kennedy, Woodview and Grafton elementary schools.
A second question asking to borrow $1.8 million to upgrade outdoor physical education, athletic and recreation areas failed by a 3,763-3,495 margin.
If both questions had passed, property owners in the district would have faced a tax-rate increase of $1.49 per $1,000 of equalized valuation, with the upgrades paid for through borrowing in a 24-year bond plan.
The owner of a $250,000 house would have faced an annual increase of $372.50 in school taxes.
Opponents of the spending plans argued that the cost was excessive and that the district hadn’t adequately explored other options. They also noted that property owners still have several years to pay off the debt from a 2000 school referendum.
However, several residents at the meeting said the referendum vote doesn’t address pressing needs in the district, including broken pipes, crumbling walls, flooding, cramped classrooms and storage areas, damaged parking lots and athletic fields and outdated and failing electrical, heating, air-conditioning and plumbing systems.
“What can we do about security in our buildings?” asked Casey Didier, who has children attending district schools.
“Our children are our most valuable resource. We don’t have the luxury of time in waiting.”
Adan Burgos, a parent who teaches in the Cedarburg School District, said the board needs to do more to inform residents about deteriorating conditions.
“We need to get the message out to those who voted no,” Burgos said. “This (vote) paints a really bad picture of our district.”
Throughout the meeting, the board accepted public comments on ways it could relaunch a bid to upgrade facilities.
In a presentation to the board, Lightner said he and other district officials have been asked, “What is Plan B if the referendum is defeated?”
“The answer, of course, has been that there is no Plan B,” Lightner said.
“Unfortunately, we don’t know what we’re going to do. The community has spoken, and it’s still up to them.”
Board member Clayton Riddle said an important starting point should be separating fact from fiction. He said many residents erroneously believe the district didn’t explore other options before presenting a $49.5 million referendum.
“This has been an ongoing process for over three years,” Riddle said.
“We looked at many different plans and received input from a large group of community residents. Hundreds of hours have been spent on this.”
When board members decided in January to hold a spring referendum, they cited the results of a community survey. About 75% of respondents supported holding a referendum, and 64% said they were likely to support a $49.5 million spending plan.
Lightner said the district has several options, including holding another referendum. If the board chooses that option, the $49.5 million plan should be downsized, he said.
“That was too much for most voters. That plan is dead,” Lightner said.
Lightner said that if another referendum is held, it should be in November or April because there is a larger voter turnout on those dates. Because the next general election in Wisconsin will be Nov. 8, the board needs to begin making changes to the spending plan as soon as possible, he added.
“If there is any plan to go to referendum, the board has to start planning now,” Lightner said.
“And all the planning has to be done at board meetings. That is transparency.”
Kristin Sobocinski, the district’s director of business services, said the board could opt for a different type of referendum. Rather than asking to borrow money for upgrades, the district could request permission to exceed the state-imposed revenue cap limit on a one-time or annual basis, she said.
That method has been used in other school districts to avoid interest payments on borrowing, board members noted.
The district could also forego holding a referendum and simply increase the amount of money it budgets annually for capital improvements, Sobocinski said.
“We have to look at all our options,” Lightner said.
“There were 4,000 people who voted against this. That’s significant.”
Greg Piller, a resident who said he voted no on the referendum, suggested the board do a better job of “separating necessities from growth projections” in upgrade plans.
“Having more information available would help people on the other side of pros and cons,” Piller told the board.
Citing growing concern with the condition of Grafton Elementary School, board members agreed that getting updated assessments on the building’s condition will be the first step. Although a 2013 study indicated the school was in poor shape, new data is needed, they said.
“We need new assessments. In 2012, we had $2.2 million in (districtwide) needs identified, and we took care of some of them,” Board Treasurer Paul Lorge said.
“But those numbers are four years old. In light of the vote, we need new data.”
“We have to start with GES. That’s the boil that has be lanced,” he said.
An updated assessment should also help the board decide what upgrade plan to present to residents, according to Board President Terry Ziegler.
“We’ve been working under the idea that it can’t be fixed,” Ziegler said.
“We can’t go forward with that. We have to provide a platform for everyone to take a look at.”
In response, Lightner said he will have Sigma Group, a consulting and engineering firm, prepare assessment information for the April 25 meeting.
Lightner noted that the board will have two new members — newly elected Mark Koehler and Jo Maehl — at its April 25 meeting. A decision on whether to hold a November referendum should be made at that time or in the near future, he said.
State law requires a board decision by Aug. 22, which gives the district 119 days to determine the scope of the referendum, Lightner told the board.
If the board decides on April 25 to begin working on a plan, Lightner said, a series of special board meetings will be scheduled to give residents a chance to provide input.
“If the district crafts Plan B, feedback from citizens is vital,” Lightner said.
The board had postponed work on the 2016-17 budget pending the outcome of last week’s referendum.
In a report to the board, Sobocinski said the district is expected to have an increase of $492,641 in revenue for its operating budget. However, she said the preliminary budget does not include two positions scheduled to be added: a library media specialist and a school psychologist.
Lightner said salaries and benefits for both positions and other projected needs will offset much of the increased revenue.
“The revenue increase gets eaten up real quick,” he said.