Incumbent wants to see referendum projects through, opponent says he could help district like he has village
Longtime Port Washington-Saukville School Board member Sara McCutcheon, who is running for re-election in the Tuesday, April 4, election, said she is determined to finish what she and her fellow board members started with the $49.4 million referendum that paved the way for the ongoing Port Washington High School project.
Her challenger, Scott Fischer, who opposed the referendum, said he thinks it’s time for a change.
Appointed to represent the Village of Saukville on the School Board in 1997 and elected the following year, McCutcheon, 52, said approval of the referendum in April 2015 was a highlight of her tenure on the board, but noted there is still work to be done overseeing the $45.6 million high school project. She said the board’s decisions to hire Bray Architects and C.D. Smith Construction to design and manage the projects have been key to the success of the work so far.
“From the very beginning, things could not have gone better,” she said. “I generally don’t believe in people sticking around (in elected office) as along as I have, but my hope is that I get to see the referendum projects finished.
“I am so proud the referendum passed.”
Fischer, a Village of Saukville trustee, said the School Board should not have had to ask voters for permission to borrow $49.9 million to maintain and improve schools.
“I feel that with the amount of money the district receives from taxes, it should have been able to maintain its buildings,” he said.
That, McCutcheon said, is unrealistic under a state school funding system that makes it difficult for districts to balance their budgets without cutting educational programs and impossible to finance major building projects.
She noted that about 15 years ago the district created a budget line item for capital improvements and currently earmarks $200,000 annually for that purpose.
“The board has remained committed to setting that money aside every year, even during some very challenging budgets,” McCutcheon said. “We take very good care of our buildings with the dollars we have to work with.”
Fischer and McCutcheon said they both support a high school outdoor athletic field improvement plan that calls for artificial turf football and baseball fields, a new track and new bleachers, as long as the recently formed non-profit PWSSD Education Foundation raises the money for the project. The cost of the project has not been determined.
“If it’s paid for through fundraising, then yes, I’m in favor of it,” Fischer said. “In the village, if we want a new pavilion or benches, we call on groups and organizations rather than taxpayers to help.”
McCutcheon said, “Athletic field upgrades would finish off the high school project nicely, but it will have to take donations to make that happen. My priority is making sure the referendum projects are finished on time and on budget.”
If the district is to invest in the athletic field project, it could do so with proceeds from the sale of 54.5 acres it purchased in 1969 as a future school site and is now working to sell. Proceeds from the land sale must be spent on capital improvement projects if the district is to avoid losing millions of dollars in state aid.
McCutcheon said that is an option, but first the district should make sure the referendum projects are completed.
Fischer said the proceeds from the sale should be set aside for building maintenance.
“With projects at only two schools included in the referendum, it makes me think that there could be another referendum if the district doesn’t have money for building maintenance,” he said.
McCutcheon said the board has worked to make sure the district offers a strong core curriculum while also supporting the arts and technology education. That is critical, she said, to the district’s mission to prepare students for life after high school.
“I think things like the arts and tech-ed are as important as the core curriculum,” she said. “We need well-rounded students, and without things like the arts, that’s impossible.
“I see us continuing to offer as many opportunities for our students as we possibly can.”
Fischer said he too believes that a well-rounded education, one that prepares students for a number of different paths in life, is important.
“Not every kid is cut out to be a college student,” he said. “We have employers looking for employees, so things like the industrial arts are important to teach.”
McCutcheon said the most formidable challenge facing the school district is cuts to state education funding.
“We’ve been very creative, but I believe our students deserve more,” she said, calling the expansion of the state school voucher program a “threat to public education.”
Teacher recruitment and retention is also a challenge at a time when fewer college graduates are choosing teaching as a career, but the district’s reputation as a premiere place to work has helped it maintain a staff of talented educators, McCutcheon said.
“Those teachers who are leaving other districts but staying in education are coming to us,” she said. “But we have to continue to look at ways to help out new teachers in terms of salary so they can afford to remain in education.”
Fischer said finding ways to pay for infrastructure maintenance is the district’s most pressing challenge.
“We have to come up with the money for the maintenance of our schools without referendums,” he said.
Fischer said he would bring “a new vision” to the board along with a fiscally conservative philosophy.
“I don’t spend money until I have the money to spend,” he said. “I don’t go to work and say, ‘Hey, I need a raise because I want to buy a lot of new things.’
“I believe that I’ve been able to help the village since being on the Village Board. I thought now I can help the School Board.”
McCutcheon said her 20 years on the School Board give her the historical perspective needed to make educated decisions about the district’s future.
“I bring a voice of history to the board,” she said. “I’m extremely proud of the work the board has done over my 20 years as a member.”
In particular, McCutcheon said, she has been driven by a commitment to providing the best education possible for students of all abilities.
“I have a passion for children,” she said. “We have an obligations to educate all students to their highest ability, whether they are students who struggle, excel or are right in the middle.”
Also in next week’s election, Port Washington-Saukville School Board member Brian McCutcheon will face challenger Aaron Paulin for seat representing the City of Port Washington. (See story on page 3.)