The Boscobel Common Council heard plans for the upcoming $21.8 million schools referendum when it met Monday night. City officials heard from District Operations Advisor Steve Wacker, as well as representatives from the La Crosse-based architectural firm working with the school district and financial advisor Robert W. Baird and Co.
“There are a lot of questions that are going around and we would like everybody to have the right answers,” Wacker said of the upcoming April 5 referendum.
Wacker went on to explain what led up to the failed November 2015 referendum, namely maintenance and energy efficiency issues at the district’s five buildings, including the bus barn.
“We’re having a hard time keeping up with ADA compliance and we have other problems with fire alarms, sewer, water, and we need to bring our buildings up to code,” Wacker said. “We wanted a plan that would last 40, 50 years. We lost that referendum in the fall by about 31 votes.”
That failed referendum sent Wacker and the school board back to the drawing board, so to speak, and they have now introduced a two part referendum to both exceed the state-imposed revenue cap by $1.8 million over three years, as well as consolidated the district’s four classroom buildings into one campus at the high school at a cost of $20 million over 20 years.
“So we put a different package together. Instead of fixing the four buildings, we thought maybe it’s a better idea to sell off three of them and get under one roof,” Wacker said. “By closing down all these buildings, which are costing us a lot of money to keep up and running, we will become much more efficient.”
Wacker mentioned economics and safety as major reasons to close the Rock School.
“Safety is a big concern of mine, especially in the Rock where our youngest kids are,” Wacker said. “When they did it a few years back to save that building I don’t think they had to worry about shooters so much like we do now.
“So there are a lot of issues that we’ve looked at. To be quite honest, to raise test scores, to be safe, to save money, become efficient, to draw people to our community. Right now as a young family if you were to drive through and you see the front of our building and you see the front of everybody else’s and you see our performance when compared to others would you stay here or would you go?
“So these are the reasons we looked at for shutting down three of the buildings, possibly, and hopefully doing something with them that the community might need.”
Wacker said they did not have specific plans for what to do with the Rock School, Elementary School and Annex Building, but rather ideas that they would like input from the community on.
He then went on to describe ongoing maintenance issues at the high school and the problems associated with teachers and students needing to move between the Rock School and Annex to the Elementary School for things like music, art, phy ed and lunch.
“Three buildings with our youngest kids doesn’t work,” Wacker said. “So hopefully with the concept of one building, a new look, a fresh start and community pride we can get this to move Boscobel forward.”
Wacker then introduced Brad Simonson and Tim Ruppert of HSR Architects of La Crosse, which came up with the design for the single campus school.
“We’re looking at a comprehensive plan that’s going to be a long-term solution for you guys and not just another band aid approach,” Simonson said.
“We looked at ways to improve the existing elementary school and what it would truly take to improve them,” Ruppert said, adding that they looked at housing all elementary school students in the current facility by closing the Rock and Annex buildings.
“To that the existing elementary does not have enough footprint, enough area to expand that current facility,” he said. “The Rock and Annex need significant work to remain educational facilities.”
With that in mind, HSR opted to go with the single campus concept at the current middle/high school, closing the three buildings at the current elementary campus, and expanding the high school site.
“We’re talking about adding another new gym, we’re talking about adding a commons space and we’re even looking at a new library,” Ruppert said. “A lot of those are very much community spaces.”
Property tax concerns
Mayor Steve Wetter said he has heard from a lot of people concerned that their property taxes are going to rise significantly if the referendum passes.
“We get a lot of questions at city hall and I take a lot of them on the phone as well,” Wetter said. “A lot of people have complaints. Well, of course you know what happened to the last one, and of course now the dollars are way, way, way bigger. Most of the people I hear from are people who don’t have kids in school anymore and say, ‘You know, my taxes are going to go up $600 a year, and wow!’ and that’s one of the big concerns.”
“Another big question that the community is really concerned about that’s what is going to happen to the Rock building,” Wetter continued. “I mean that thing is an icon, it’s on the National Register (of Historic Places), you don’t just remove, what happens?”
Responded Simonson of HSR, “That’s a great question and there’s been a lot of things that have been brought up as ideas. I know there was some talk that it could be an historical museum for the community, and it seems very appropriate that that might happen. There’s also a mixed use kind of situation where there’s some historical museum, but then maybe there’s a little bit of retail on the lower level that is able to help draw some people as well to the building.”
Wetter then questioned who would own the Rock building in that type of scenario.
“If that were the case, then somebody other than the school system would own the building and someone else would buy it?” asked Wetter.
“That’s exactly right,” responded Simonson. “The idea would be that the school district wouldn’t have to operate and own that building.”
After a discussion about open enrollment and the continuing loss of Boscobel students to other districts—and the resulting loss in state aid—Wacker introduced Mike Clark of Baird for a discussion on the referendum’s financial impacts.
Clark pointed out that state equalization aid to Wisconsin school districts continues to fall, resulting in the need for referendums to exceed the state-imposed revenue caps.
“The school district’s revenue limit authority between property taxes and equalization aid for this year is actually less than it was in 2005-2006,” he said. “Declining enrollment, declining state aids, those are the issues you’re facing.”
Clark said that this year the Boscobel School District’s mill rate was $6.62 per $1,000 of equalized assessed value. That compares to a statewide average of $10.25.
“So the district in comparison to other school districts is levying at a very low level, and has been for a number of years,” he said. “So some of these needs have not been addressed up to this point.”
Clark said interest rates are extremely low at this point and that they are using a 4 percent interest rate over 20 years in their calculations, although that figure could be as low as 3.25 percent.
“What that equates to on an $80,000 home is $512 a year, annually for a 20-year average,” Clark said, “$640 a year on a $100,000 home—that’s what we’re estimating.”
As far as exceeding the state-imposed revenue limit by $1.8 million over the next three years, Clark said that is a recurring referendum that could go on indefinitely.
“This is a recurring, it’s going to be an ongoing (referendum),” he said. “On the operating question (#1) the district is not required to levy, but would have the authority if needed.”
After continued discussion regarding open enrollment, and Wisconsin’s complicated school funding formula, Mayor Wetter thanked the speakers for coming and moved on to the rest of the agenda, which included:
• Approving a $50,000, 15-year UDAG loan to Don and Dana Wilson, DBA Thunder-Showers LLC, for the purchase of land and to construct a building for their business, location undetermined;
• Approved a series of resolutions in support of the Wisconsin River Trail Project, as well as their request to use the city parking lot next to Double K’s for their May 14 Taste of Boscobel. Last year’s event was held in September and had 20 vendors and 200 participants. This year’s event is expected to be even larger, with licensed businesses able to sell alcohol;
• Approved spending $19,345 for the purchase of an S.R. Smith Vortex Pool Slide. The Slide Pride group has to-date raised $23,146 to pay for the slide;
• Approved spending $32,494 to purchase two 2016 Ford F-150 and one 2016 F-250 pickup trucks from Fillback Motors, Boscobel. The total cost with trade-ins is $65,650, with Boscobel Utilities picking up the difference.