HAZEL GREEN—The Southwestern School District is pursuing a two-part referendum in April seeking a total of $12.5 million.
The first question includes $10 million for adding middle school classrooms at the high school, creating a middle school band room, adding a gymatorium and fitness center and attaching the phase three building to the rest of the high school.
The second question asks for $2.5 million to rearrange the athletic fields to include a baseball and softball diamond, the football field with a track around it and a concession stand with restrooms.
Last year, Performance Services, an engineering and performance contracting firm working with the school on the Act 32 and referendum projects, completed a detailed assessment of the school’s facilities. Through that process, it was determined that significant updates and improvements were needed to keep the building safe for students and staff and to prevent further deterioration. The school board has pursued a portion of those improvements through Act 32, a state statute that allows schools to exceed the revenue limit for energy efficiency projects without going to referendum.
Performance Services identified areas for improvement at Southwestern’s school buildings, including air quality issues, leaky roofs, aged equipment, restrooms that aren’t compliant with ADA, unsecured entrances, unreliable fire alarm systems and controls that need upgrades. Money secured through Act 32 will address the following improvements to both the elementary and high school buildings:
- Ventilation upgrades
- Water heater replacement
- Heating equipment replacement
- Roof upgrades
- Electrical service upgrades
- Tunnel repairs
- New lighting
- In-lay ceilings in elementary classrooms
- Fire alarm system upgrades
- Update toilet rooms to ADA
- Add vestibules
- Occupancy sensors for lighting
- Upgrade of temperature control system
- Replace boilers
- Add cooling in auditorium, gymnasium, classrooms, band and choir rooms
- Replace three gas fired duct furnaces
- Upgrade caulk and sealing of building envelope
In October 2016, the school board approved the sale of $5.5 million in general obligation bonds at an interest rate of 2.41 percent for 20 years for Act 32 projects. The mill rate was raised from $8.11 to $10.32 per $1,000 of valuation to also incorporate a potential $7 million referendum for projects that are not eligible through the Act 32 statute.
“The goal was to raise the mill rate at or close to the state average so the community wouldn’t see continuous increases,” John Costello, the school’s district administrator, said. “Based on the community engagement committee and listening to the community members and what they want for our school and the improvements they felt were important for our kids, it has prompted adding more to that initial plan. If we don’t do it now, I would be afraid that our facilities would become beyond repair.”
The school currently has a mill rate of $10.32. If no referendum passes, the mill rate could drop to approximately $9.45. The state average is currently $9.97.
A $7 million referendum was built into the tax base while securing $5.5 million through Act 32 last fall.
The first question has a tax impact of a $0.69 per $1,000 of valuation, or $69 per $100,000 property. The second question would decrease the mill rate to $10.03 per $1,000 of valuation. Combining the two questions, for a total referendum of $12.5 million, the mill rate would increase by $1.27 to $11.59.
The mill rate estimates are based on a 0 percent growth within the school district and 4 percent interest rate. In the last two years, the school district has seen approximately 7 percent of growth, which has increased helped lower the mill rate for the school.
The school board ultimately voted 4-3 to approve the two-question referendum option for $12.5 million. Those who voted against made it very clear that they weren’t against a referendum, just the price tag.
Comments from the crowd of approximately 50 at the school board meeting on Jan. 11 discussed the taxes already increasing, but also knowing that this is overdue and that the school needs some serious changes. The crowd also discussed how interest rates are currently low and building expenses increase every year you put the project off.
Board president Jodi Fritz said the school will be saving money on operational expenses once the improvements are made through Act 32.
“We really want to improve the curb appeal of our school,” Costello said. “We want our kids to have a sense of pride in going to Southwestern.”
If the referendum questions pass in April, the projects would be completed by the end of summer 2018. The Act 32 projects will begin at the end of this school year and should wrap up before the end of summer 2017. The middle school wouldn’t move to the high school until the 2018-19 school year.
“The school brings the entire community together,” Costello said. “We are investing in our kids. No one wants their taxes increased, but at least we can see the dollars going back into our community. We are investing in our kids, in our future.”
Costello clarified some specifics about the gymatorium. It is anticipated to be a gymnasium with seating for approximately 750 people with a stage and two locker rooms. The gym should be a similar size to the current high school gym, which seats 1,200. The current elementary gym can accommodate approximately 300.
The transformation at the athletic fields will mainly consist of reallocating space to accommodate both baseball and softball fields, a concession stand with functional bathrooms and installing a track around the football field. There are approximately 50 students in track and they practice by running on the streets in Hazel Green. Softball games are played in the city’s park. The track would be available for the public to use. Costello said the baseball and football fields share space as they are currently laid out. There are currently no restrooms with running water at the fields.
“Many may think that all of the work is being done at the high school, even though our elementary needs a lot done,” Costello said. “Act 32 funds will be addressing a lot of the needs at the elementary school.”
Costello said the community engagement committee, a group of approximately 40 volunteers who met to become educated on the school’s needs and form a recommendation for the school board, will be regrouping to prepare a marketing strategy for getting the word out about the referendum.
“I commend the community engagement committee and the school board for their progressive thinking forward to provide a better learning environment for our students,” Costello said.
Southwestern School District has only attempted one other referendum in the school’s history. In 2004, the board sought a non-recurring $300,000 a year for five years for operational expenses. That vote failed 264 for and 343 against.
Costello can be reached at 608-854-2261 to answer questions or set up a tour of the facilities. For more information, see the link on the school’s website, www.swsd.k12.wi.us/.