Damakant Jayshi

The Education/Operations Committee of the Wausau School District Board of Education on Monday approved a request for a potential April 2022 referendum resolution that would raise $181.9 million for facility needs for the schools.

But recognizing that the price tag could be a turnoff to voters, the committee also asked the administration to explore whether the amount could be reduced.

For a little over an hour and quarter, the committee discussed the cost, the necessity and the urgency of the district’s facility needs, and even whether the referendum could pass given the price that is $30 million more than what the district had sought through the last referendum in April 2021 that failed.

The nine-member committee approved a motion “to ask administration to work with bond counsel to develop all necessary documents for presentation to the Board for an April 2022 referendum for the purpose of issuing $181,900,000 in general obligation debt for the presented project.” The overall cost, if the existing plan is maintained, would be a little more than $210 million because of the interest – estimated to be $78 million. The amount also factors in state aid of $49.78 million. District officials said they have accounted for inflation.

The administration will present the reworked plan for the full Board’s consideration at their regular meeting on Jan. 10.

“The motion passes with the direction that in the Jan. 10 meeting we will review some potential options that will decrease number to a number to be determined,” said Board President Pat McKee.

After the motion was approved with one dissenting vote, McKee termed it a comprehensive and necessary debate given the price involved. Ka Lo issued the lone “no” vote.

The facility needs, according to the district administration, are urgent and necessary, as they involve safety and security of students and staff. Wausau Superintendent Keith Hilts said officials have tried to be prudent with the price. “We are absolutely responsible to the taxpayers,” he said.

After Hilts asked the Board to approve the motion, Treasurer Lance Trollop said he was concerned with the price tag. But Trollop also called the plan an overall good move for the district, and worthy of letting voters decide.

The project would represent a $12 annual property tax increase for every $100,000 in value. At $1 per month, Trollop said, he was not too concerned about the overall impact, yet the price tag could lead to the referendum failing again.

“I am more concerned about the voters who don’t know all that stuff and they just see $181 million,” said Trollop, adding he would rather see 85% of the proposal approved by the community than nothing at all. He asked if it was possible to remove some items.

Board Vice President Jim Bouche said the decision on facility needs has been “kicked down the road” and he was not sure how much of it is needed.

“What does this mean? You just can’t throw this to the community, and expect it to pass,” Bouche said. “What if the referendum does not pass?”

Bouche also asked if input from a wider segment of the community would be considered before finalizing a plan. He noted that “20- to 25 people” spoke during the three community engagement sessions that were held. Some also responded through a sample survey, but others told him they were unaware of the discussion or the needs the funds would address.

McKee pointed out that the community can obtain the information on the district’s website.

“It does a good job of showing the voters what they will be paying for,” he said.

Board members Jon Creisher and Karen Vandenberg asked if they were making a prudent investment, given declining enrollment numbers in the school district and given that a proposal to consolidate some schools is no longer the part of the plan.

Vandenberg, who is also the Clerk of the Board, noted that every elementary school is doing something great. She said she is aware the community loves having schools in their neighborhood and it would be devastating to see closure of any. But the board needed to have a “realistic view” about the current situation, she said.

“Are we putting money in places that ultimately, these schools, are not going to be here in five to 10 years because enrollment is going (down)?” she said, asking whether the district could predict the life of a particular elementary school in light of continued declining enrollment numbers.

Neither consolidation of the two high schools or merging some elementary schools is part of the current plan.

Bob Tess, chief finance and business services officer, said he couldn’t make such a prediction and it is the for board to decide whether they want a school to remain open or close.

“Things like these sometimes have a way of attracting more residents to school districts,” Tess said, referring to facility needs investment plan. “Even the employers…want to build strong school districts.”

Board member Jane Rusch agreed with Tess, pointing out that people needed to understand that condition of the schools and school district affect their home values, regardless of whether they have children of their own in a neighborhood school.

Members also discussed whether they could exclude certain item at the meeting itself, whether they could borrow money in installments and whether they could defer some of the upgrades to the future.

Member Ka Lo’s attempt to reduce the price tag by $4 million was defeated. Her two proposed amendments failed due to lack of a ‘second’ from another member.

To watch the discussions, click here. The segment on facility needs begins at 11:18 mark.

[Click this link for Superintendent Hilts’ presentation, and click on the two links under agenda item number V. For project summary and financial impact, see pages 33-35. Additionally, there are proposals with different price tags on the district website. To see the cost with or without athletic improvements, go to pages 33 and 34. For projected financial impact, see pages 35-28.]