Survey finds support for $6M referendum

But 25 percent oppose any tax hike
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A company hired to conduct a survey of Wittenberg-Birnamwood School District residents says the district could probably pass a referendum for about $6 million.

School Perceptions also found that 25 percent of district residents probably would not support any referendum proposal, according to a presentation at the school board’s Nov. 1 meeting.

The district has been working for months to educate residents about facility and program needs it anticipates over the next several years, estimated to cost as much as $22 million.

“The results are what they are, and the reason we went with School Perceptions is because they have a good track record of determining what the public will support,” school board member Bree Schmidt said. “Because the confidence level of passing a higher referendum amount is low, we will take that all into consideration when the board meets to review the data and how best to proceed.”

A district planning committee formed nearly two years ago developed initial plans, and a group of 35 community representatives and district staff held several meetings to create a long-term vision for the district.

The committee’s proposals include upgrades to buildings and grounds, a plan for academic success and opportunities for student engagement outside of academics.

Superintendent Garrett Rogowski met with residents at a series of town hall meetings over the last several months to discuss the plans.

About $22 million would be needed to address major issues such as upgrading technology labs, bringing the seventh and eighth grades to a new area of the high school, building an additional gym, enlarging the music area and making the two elementary schools pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, according to the district’s estimates.

School Perceptions mailed surveys to every household in the district and received 919 responses. The 28 percent response rate was well above the average of 18 percent, according to the company.

The survey listed each project and price tag associated with it. Top priorities included technical education and agricultural programs, upgrades to the buildings systems and infrastructure and building security systems improvements.

Lower priority was given to upgrades for the cafeteria and commons area, music classrooms, new gym and outdoor athletic areas. Adding the middle school to the high school was not listed as a priority.

The survey provided scenarios costing $6 million, $10 million, $14 million, $18 million and $22 million, with tax increases ranging from $64 to $236 per year per $100,000 of assessed valuation for a 20-year bond.

School Perceptions’ analysis showed “very high confidence” that a referendum seeking $6 million would pass.

Most parents with children in school would be willing to support up to $10 million in improvements, according to the survey, while most school staff supported up to a $14 million investment. However the data from School Perceptions indicate that neither of the plans, nor the more expensive ones, would muster enough public support to pass.

“Your school district has not had a major building project in 21 years and currently has no debt. This is good, but generally it makes many reluctant to take on debt,” Bill Foster, of School Perceptions, told the board.

The next step will be for the board to decide if it wants to move forward on a referendum.

“We have done what we could to educate people on the needs and the costs involved with making a decision,” Rogowski said. “We are appreciative of the feedback and will be absolutely responsive to the values and priorities reflected by our stakeholders.”

When the survey was being prepared, the district was anticipating a $500,000 operating deficit for next year. The state budget approved by the Legislature, however, increased funding to the point where the district no longer anticipates a deficit until at least 2019-20.

“The good news is we don’t need to go to an operating referendum right now,” Rogowski said.