OSD: $54.6 million referendum on Nov. ballot

For capital projects; teacher compensation waits for April
Scott Girard

Oregon School District voters will decide in November on a pair of referendums totaling nearly $55 million.

The two questions are both related to capital projects and maintenance on district schools.

A third potential referendum question that was discussed at the previous week’s special meeting related to teacher compensation was pushed back, as the board indicated a desire to instead put that on the April ballot.

That means the district would be asking taxpayers for money in two consecutive elections, which gave pause to some board members and a longtime district teacher who spoke before the vote.

“I really believe that a voter would ask the question ‘why would you have a referendum in November and now you’re asking me to pony up again in April?’” said board member Rae Vogeler, who was the only vote against the two November referendums, though others expressed hesitation during the discussion as well before ultimately voting to approve them.

The first question on the Nov. 4 ballot asks voters to approve $54.6 million in building renovations and improvements, while the second authorizes the district to exceed its revenue limit on a recurring basis by $355,864 to pay for the operational expenses of those capital improvements.

District superintendent Brian Busler said in an email the taxpayer cost of the $54.6 million dollar referendum would be only $36 per year per $100,000 of property value thanks to the district paying off existing long-term debt, lower than the $50 per $100,000 of property value proposed in the failed 2012 referendum.

While board members understood the concerns expressed by some, including longtime Oregon School District teacher Jon Fishwild, about asking voters for back-to-back approval, they felt the current costs of construction and timeline a November referendum would provide outweighed that risk.

“The plan is ready to go,” board member Steve Zach said. “There is great scheduling benefit to having this plan approved in the fall for purposes of the construction and design schedule.”

The likely higher turnout in a November election with a gubernatorial race on the ballot helped lead to the 6-1 vote, presenting a mostly united front on an issue that will have long-term effects on the district however it turns out.

“November is a brass ring and we've got to grab for it," said board president Dan Krause.

Communication is key

The last time the district went to referendum, voters soundly defeated a $33 million plan to upgrade the high school, middle school and athletic fields and a second referendum to exceed revenue caps by $150,000 a year to maintain the new facilities.

Board members said they felt it was a different time then, and pointed to the work the board has put in since that failed vote to put together a comprehensive plan for the district facilities moving forward.

The board also recognized the importance of reaching out to voters to avoid the same fate. In that, separating the two major referendums seemed like a good plan to some.

“I realize the danger and I'm hoping that we can convince the people who would rather wait that maybe it's okay to go forward and to do one thing at a time,” Krause said. “This way we don’t have to push two things uphill.”

Christin Milsna, a communications consultant from Findorff construction, also spoke at the meeting, saying that she had prepared a communications plan for the district that focuses on a “layered” approach to getting information to the community about a complicated issue.

“This is a complex plan,” Milsna said. “Sometimes you go into a referendum and it’s one new building … and it’s a simple message. This is more complex.”

The key, board and audience members said, will be the board taking a proactive approach in reaching out to the community rather than asking the community to come to them to hear what is in the referendums.

What it pays for

The details of the $54.6 million plan cover improvements to all of the district’s schools except Rome Corners Intermediate School, which is the district’s newest building.

District-wide, projects include a $1.3 million roof replacement and maintenance project, $700,000 for a new personalized learning initiative and a $480,000 HVAC upgrade at the pool.

Between the three elementary schools, the largest projects include a $2.3 million cafeteria and kitchen addition and $809,000 classroom addition at Brooklyn Elementary, a $1.5 million HVAC upgrade at Netherwood Knoll Elementary and a $777,000 storm water improvement and outdoor classroom at Prairie View Elementary.

Oregon Middle School would get a new $3 million music addition, a $1.8 million STEM addition and a $954,000 new secure entrance, among the more than $7 million total of projects at the school.

Oregon High School would see nearly $38 million, with projects including an $8.2 million two-story classroom addition, a $5 million physical education addition and locker room renovation and a $4.4 million three-station gymnasium.

District business manager Andrew Weiland noted the numbers are all conceptual.

One at a time

The major reason for deciding to wait until April for the teacher compensation referendum was the lack of a clear, final plan.

Although the initial proposal had a $3.5 million recurring number tied to it, members of the Teacher Compensation Committee indicated the details needed to be ironed out before the district could try to sell a plan to voters.

“We need a lot more time to look at that and to move that … to something we’re more comfortable with,” Zach said.

That was decided last Thursday at a Committee of the Whole meeting, but the board took action Monday night to commit to an April referendum, wanting to ensure it did not ignore the importance of changing the teacher compensation system in the wake of Act 10.

“We've had enough money to keep our buildings running, we’ve had enough money to make all the repairs we needed to make, and we’re in good shape mainly because and largely because these sacrifices that our teachers and staff have made in their salaries.” Krause said. “We are not overlooking that.”

He said he expects the plan will eventually put the district “head and shoulders” above its competition for new, skilled teachers.

The Teacher Compensation Committee will likely finalize its plans in September and bring a proposal back to the board for review.

Referendum questions:

Question 1: “Shall the Oregon School District, Dane, Rock and Green Counties, Wisconsin be authorized to issue pursuant to Chapter 67 of the Wisconsin Statutes, general obligation bonds in an amount not to exceed $54,600,000 for the public purpose of paying the cost of a school building and improvement program consisting of the construction of additions to and renovation and improvement of Oregon High School, Oregon Middle School and Brooklyn Elementary School; renovation and improvement of Prairie View Elementary School and Netherwood Elementary School; acquisition and installation of technology improvements; roof replacement at District buildings; HVAC upgrades at the swimming pool; and construction of storm water improvements and other site improvements on the JC Park East Property?”

Question 2: “Shall the Oregon School District, Dane, Rock and Green Counties, Wisconsin for the 2015-16 school year and thereafter be authorized to exceed the revenue limit specified in Section 121.91, Wisconsin Statutes, by $355,864 a year, for recurring purposes consisting of paying operation and maintenance expenses associated with new or upgraded District facilities?”

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