School board readies for referendum this fall

2 questions’ total exceeds $18.7M
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Voters in the Wittenberg-Birnamwood School District this fall will be asked to support nearly $18 million in facility improvements and school updates in two referendum questions.

The school board got the details on the two proposed projects and their respective price tags from Lisa Voisin, managing director of Baird Public Finance, on May 31.

First, the board is looking to borrow $13.435 million to cover improvements to all three school buildings, including securing the entrances, adding family restrooms, and restructuring and building classroom space. In a second referendum question, the district will seek $4.42 million for additional high school gym space.

Voisin, who has been with Baird for 30 years, has worked on 172 school referendums, she said. She broke down the costs of the projects and the process involved to give the board a clear understanding of the tax impact. She noted the district is debt free — an accomplishment claimed by probably less than 10 percent of Wisconsin school districts, she said.

“It’s a great position to be in,” Voisin said, “but you have to weigh that with the facility needs.”

The current tax rate is $8.15 per $1,000 equalized valuation, which is below the state average of $9.79. In comparison to other local school districts, Marion is the lowest at $5.10, and Tigerton is the highest at $12.82.

Taxes for Wittenberg-Birnamwood have gone down four years in a row, from a tax rate of $9.48 in 2015 to $8.15 in 2018. “That’s a great message for the community,” Voisin said.

If the first referendum question passes, the tax rate would increase by $1.42 for a total of $9.57. If the second question also passes, that will be an additional 46 cents, for a total increase of $1.88, or a tax rate of $10.03.

A planning committee formed nearly three years ago developed initial plans regarding the district needs, and a group of 35 community representatives and district staff held several meetings to create a long-term vision for the district. Those visions came at a price tag ranging from $6 million to $22 million.

The board determined that $13.435 million would cover the district’s most pressing needs.

“When we demonstrate the fact that we’re only covering the areas of significant need and priority, we hope to get the support,” Superintendent Garrett Rogowski said. “We’ve chiseled it down to the bare amount.”

In discussing the need for additional gym space, it was pointed out that Wittenberg-Birnamwood High School — the newest of the three properties — was built in 1970. That was two years prior to the implementation of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity. Schools today are also participating in organized sports at elementary and middle school levels. If the referendum passes, the additional space would help accommodate all the practice and game time requirements, Rogowski said.

Voisin pointed out that $17.855 million would be on the high end of what most school districts borrow, but all three facilities need significant updates. The interest rate is less than 4 percent, which makes this a good time to borrow, she said.

“I think a month ago, the board was in disagreement on how much money was needed and where to spend it,” said Chuck Wendler, school board president. “But after tonight’s meeting, I feel we’re on the same page and able to move forward.”

To get the questions on the Nov. 6 ballot, the board will need to approve the language by Aug. 28. The board will then have a couple more informational meetings to explain the questions before the Nov. 6 election, according to Wendler.