Public survey seen as key to gauging support for multi-million-dollar plan
The Port Washington-Saukville School Board is not about to head blindly into what promises to be the most ambitious referendum in the history of the district — a multi-million-dollar plan to expand elementary schools, renovate buildings and either extensively remodel the existing high school or build a new school on a different site.
The Building and Grounds Committee on Monday recommended the board hire the Slinger-based research firm School Perceptions to poll district residents and give school leaders a good idea of which projects voters will support and how much they are willing to pay for school improvements.
The survey, which will likely have both direct mail and Web-based components, will be designed to collect objective feedback that is “viewed as credible” because it is done by School Perceptions, not the district, and “engage” the public in the referendum planning process, according to the company’s proposal.
“Simply stated, people are more likely to support a plan if they have a voice in creating it,” the proposal states.
Supt. Michael Weber said it will likely cost no more than $10,000 to hire the company, which in addition to conducting the survey will provide analysis and help determine a plan of action.
“Something we believe is very important as we proceed is to get a somewhat scientific view on where the public stands on the improvements and rebuilding we’re looking at,” Weber said. “One question that is on almost everyone’s mind is do we upgrade and significantly renovate and rebuild our high school or do we leave that site and build a new high school on another site?
“How would board members know what the community wants without a survey?”
Board member Brian McCutcheon, chairman of the Building and Grounds Committee, said he remembers well the lesson learned by School Board members in 2002.
“I was here when we had a failed referendum,” he said.
In April of that year, voters shocked school officials who were convinced they had strong public support for their plan by soundly defeating referendums that sought permission to borrow $3.94 million for building maintenance and athletic facility improvements.
The board then pared the project list and, seven months later, proposed a $2.6 million plan that was approved by voters.
“We listened to voters and we passed a referendum,” McCutcheon said.
“I think a survey is a great investment and a hugely beneficial tool for the eight of us (on the board). I wish we had this option years ago.”
Matt Wolfert, president of Bray Architects, the firm hired by the district to conduct a feasibility study that will be the blueprint for the referendum, endorsed the plan to hire School Perceptions and warned board members not to take the survey results lightly.
“One caution is to be prepared to abide by the results of the survey,” Wolfert said. “You’re not going to out-campaign the results of the survey. You don’t do this just to make the community think they have a say.”
Bray, which is expected to essentially complete the $12,000 study by early to mid-summer, made its first public presentation to school officials Monday, summarizing the conditions of mechanical systems in school buildings. Yet to come are plans and costs for elementary school building additions and the high school options.
Although the study is intended to result in plans that will address the needs of the district for the next 50 years, it was motivated by immediate needs. Lincoln and Dunwiddie elementary schools are at capacity. Plans for additions to these schools are in the works.
At Saukville Elementary School, the only open-concept school in the district, work would focus on interior reorganization and renovations.
The systems in the elementary schools are in good condition, in part because of a recent energy-savings initiative that replaced boilers in several district buildings, Wolfert said. Plumbing and electrical services, as well as Americans With Disabilities Act compliance issues, will need to be addressed if renovations are made and additions are built, he said.
Port Washington High School, however, is a different story, Wolfert said.
The school is a conglomeration of buildings dating to 1931 that will need extensive plumbing, air-handling and electrical upgrades, he said.
“These are big projects, but you’ve gotten a good life out of the systems you have now,” Wolfert said.
The school needs more lab and gym spaces and has a small cafeteria, he said. Parking has always been a challenge, and while the auditorium and art and music spaces are adequate, improvements could be made.
Although the school is in the heart of the city, which makes walking and biking to school convenient, it sits on about 24 acres, a site that is nearly 60 acres smaller than an ideal high school site, administrators said. There is, however, land to the north of the school for expansion, Weber said.
The alternative to remodeling and possibly expanding Port High on site is building a new school at a different location. The challenge, in addition to the cost, would be finding a suitable site.
The district owns about 50 acres on the city’s west side, but that site is probably too small for a new high school, Weber said.
For years, the district has looked closely at land in the Town of Port Washington known as the Simplicity testing grounds, which is now owned by Briggs & Stratton. This parcel off Highway LL is largely undeveloped and, although a little small, is bordered by undeveloped land that could be acquired.
But because the land is not in the city, there is no water or sanitary sewer service there. Ideally, the property would be annexed into the city, but that would not be easy to do for several reasons, Randy Tetzlaff, the city’s director of planning and development, said.
First, the testing grounds is not contiguous to the city, so other town property owners would have to agree to have their land annexed.
In addition, the nearest water and sewer lines are more than 2,000 feet away, making it costly and difficult to extend those utilities to the property, Tetzlaff said.
It would also be difficult to extend sidewalks that far, he said.
“There would be no walking,” Tetzlaff said. “This would be a drive-to facility.”
Elsewhere in the district, Thomas Jefferson Middle School, which was designed by Bray Architects, is in generally good shape, although administrators have said there is a need for a secure entrance to the Aquatic Center, which is at the school.
District-wide, the lack of gym space is a problem.
“There’s one regulation basketball court in the district, and that’s at the high school,” Wolfert said. “That’s very unique.”
Additional gym and other recreational spaces should be designed with community use in mind, he said. Currently, school gyms and other facilities are heavily used for city Parks and Recreation Department programs as well as by other groups.
“A huge need throughout the district is gym space and athletic facilities,” Weber said. “It’s a huge challenge to accommodate city recreation programs, our programs and all the other groups that want to use our facilities.”
Expanding the middle school gym is not an option because of the way the building is constructed, but there is available land at the nearby Lincoln Elementary School site, administrators noted.
School officials plan to review a more complete facilities study in July, then launch efforts to inform the public about the proposed improvements and distribute the survey in early fall.
“We have the opportunity to have a 50-year impact on our communities,” Weber said.