Tag Archives: West Bend School District

Vote ‘no’ on foolish referendum

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

On April 2, the citizens of the West Bend School District are being asked to borrow $47 million, with an estimated payback of $74 million, to build a new Jackson Elementary School and to renovate portions of the high school building. Adhering to the old wisdom that we should not spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need, I will be voting “no” on the referendum. I encourage you to do the same.

Let us start with the money. $74 million is a lot of money. That should go without saying, but in the swirling debates around government spending, that fact tends to get lost. By any measure, $74 million is a LOT of money. To put that in context, there are roughly 40,000 adults in the West Bend School District. $74 million is $1,850 for every single adult in the district. That is not a trivial amount of money for most of us. That is what the school district is asking every voter to spend.

Not only is it a lot of money, it is money that we do not have — as evidenced by the fact that the district needs to borrow the money. The district is also still paying off two previous referendums. If this referendum passes, the citizens of the West Bend School District will be on the hook to pay back a whopping $106 million. Now we are up to $2,650 for every adult just to pay off the district’s debt.

And while it might be easy to brush off such debt in our current booming economy and rising housing prices, we must remember that the district intends to take out a 19-year loan for this spending. The Great Recession was only 12 years ago and there will be recessions in the future. Yet when jobs are scarce and property values are crashing again, the tax burden to pay this debt will remain. Paying off the government’s debt will come before paying for your family’s needs.

What makes the prospect of spending and borrowing this much money so incredibly irresponsible is that it will be for something that we don’t need. Sure, we might want it. Fancy new buildings are fun and cool. But we don’t need it. The Jackson Elementary building is perfectly serviceable and safe. The building has been used to safely educate kids for decades and it can continue to do so for decades if properly maintained.

The high school building could use some renovations. Consolidating the libraries is a good idea. Some of the infrastructure is due for replacing. Some classrooms could use a fresh coat of paint. But almost all of the proposed renovations are wants, not needs. The couple of needs are things that could, and should, be done as part of the normal maintenance cycle of managing a building. They should be budgeted and completed with the normal operating budget. The fact that the school district has failed to properly budget for the routine maintenance cycle of the infrastructure they own is a mark of incompetence that should not be covered with swaths of borrowed cash.

Furthermore, we can’t lose sight of the fact that enrollment is declining and is projected to do so for at least the next decade. According to the district’s own projections completed less than a year ago, total district enrollment will decline by anywhere from 15 percent (baseline method) to 23.5 percent (kindergarten trend) in 10 short years — nine years before the proposed loan is paid off. That’s over a thousand fewer kids in the district in a decade.

Specifically for Jackson Elementary, a building that once held 536 kids 10 years ago is projected to have as few as 307 kids in it 10 years from now. Is it wise for the taxpayers to borrow and spend tens of millions ofdollars to build a brandnew, colossal 82,000-squarefoot school for 43 percent fewer kids?

Finally, what continues to get lost in the debate over referendums is the purpose of a school system — to educate kids. The school district officials and other advocates for the referendum don’t even pretend that spending all of this money on pristine, new facilities will actually improve education. They rightly don’t make that claim because it is demonstrably true that the building in which education happens has nothing to do with the quality of education taking place in that building. Some of the best education in the world occurs in some of the oldest buildings. Education is an activity — not a place. All of our efforts and money should be directed to providing a great education for our kids — not building monuments to the egos of adults.

The West Bend School District has needs. With dramatically declining enrollment and mediocre educational outcomes, new and refurbished buildings are not one of them. Let us put the money we have into improving the quality of education instead of borrowing money we don’t have to pay for things we don’t need.

Vote ‘no’ on foolish referendum

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Here’s a sample, but go pick up a copy.

On April 2, the citizens of the West Bend School District are being asked to borrow $47 million, with an estimated payback of $74 million, to build a new Jackson Elementary School and to renovate portions of the high school building. Adhering to the old wisdom that we should not spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need, I will be voting “no” on the referendum. I encourage you to do the same.

[…]

Finally, what continues to get lost in the debate over referendums is the purpose of a school system — to educate kids. The school district officials and other advocates for the referendum don’t even pretend that spending all of this money on pristine, new facilities will actually improve education. They rightly don’t make that claim because it is demonstrably true that the building in which education happens has nothing to do with the quality of education taking place in that building. Some of the best education in the world occurs in some of the oldest buildings. Education is an activity — not a place. All of our efforts and money should be directed to providing a great education for our kids — not building monuments to the egos of adults.

The West Bend School District has needs. With dramatically declining enrollment and mediocre educational outcomes, new and refurbished buildings are not one of them. Let us put the money we have into improving the quality of education instead of borrowing money we don’t have to pay for things we don’t need.

 

Referendum Meeting Recap

I attended the referendum informational meeting at Jackson Elementary last night. For the uninitiated, the West Bend School District is asking the voters to borrow $47 million with a $74 million payback to build a new Jackson Elementary building and do a bunch of renovations at the high school. I have already stated that I oppose the referendum for a myriad of reasons, but I’m always open to change my mind. I went to the meeting to see if I was missing something. For the record, I’m not, but it was an interesting meeting nonetheless.

I like the referendum process and am glad that we have it. While I disagree with this one and will vote against it, the process itself allows the community to have a robust discussion about spending, tax increases, and priorities. This little act of direct democracy in a republican form of government is healthy. Here are a few thoughts on what transpired last night:

  • The format of the meeting was manipulative. Normally, in a meeting like this, the superintendent or leader would present the facts and then take questions. I this case, the superintendent gave a short 15 minute presentation, but then instead of taking questions, the audience members were instructed to go to the back of the room and speak individually with the architects, finance people, or school district people to get their answered their questions. The stated reason for this format was to make sure that the “experts” could give more detailed answers. The practical effect was to prevent people from hearing what other people were asking, isolate them, and diffuse any appearance of opposition.
  • Joel Ongert, the President of the School Board, was there. He neither introduced himself to the audience nor answered any questions.
  • The superintendent’s presentation was fine. He stated multiple times that he was just there to give the facts and not advocate. He did not overtly advocate, but the bias is in the presentation of the facts. He presented the misleading view of the tax burden to support the referendum and a skewed version of the timeline leading up to the referendum. But he did also point out that many parts of the buildings were much newer than the original 100+ year-old parts.
  • Interestingly, the superintendent and a couple of other school officials repeatedly made the point that state law forbids them from using referendum money for anything not stated in the ballot question. True, as far as it goes, but the referendum question is very vague and leaves a LOT of room for interpretation. Methinks they protest too much.
  • I took the tour with the principal and about 25 other people. My overall impression was that the school is perfectly fine. The building has some quirky things because of the way it was appended over the years, but it was solid, functional, clean, and generally in good shape. It certainly did not appear to need to be demolished. There were a few maintenance items that needed to be done, like replace some ceiling tiles, but the building was in pretty great shape. Most of the complaints were about theoretical issues. For example, one hallway has a long ramp that might be difficult to navigate for a kid in a wheel chair. Might. Has it ever been an actual problem in the history of the school? Not that anyone could cite.
  • When I returned to the gym, I spoke with the principal and a couple of other people. I ended up in a rather lengthy discussion with a guy who lives in Slinger but sells real estate in Jackson. He was adamant that building the new school would attract people to Jackson and boost property values. When I brought up the projections for declining enrollment and the demographic shift driving it, he brushed it as “projections.” He did admit, however, that building a new building would not actually contribute anything to educating kids. Property values, population growth, etc. may all be good things, but the school district’s mission is supposed to be to educate kids.
  • At the end of the meeting, there was a lady standing at the door handing out pro-referendum yard signs and flyers. Yes, you read that right. On school grounds. After the informational meeting. The School District officials permitted a person to hand out pro-referendum materials. This way, the district can claim to not be “advocating,” but they are giving their support group the space to advocate and bringing the audience to them. It’s a sham end-around of the law. Maybe I’ll print out a bunch of opposition flyers and see if I can hand them out at the next meeting.

My overwhelming impression from the meeting was that there are a lot of people lining up to tell me what a great idea the referendum is who don’t live here and won’t be paying the bill. Bray, the architecture firm? Says it’s a great idea, but is based in Milwaukee. Baird, the finance folks? Says it’s the best time to borrow, but won’t be paying for it. The real estate guy? Lives in Slinger, but wants Jackson real estate prices to rise. Even the Superintendent… it did not escape my attention that he still has South Dakota plates on his car. He’s at the end of his career and I am certain that he will not be living in the West Bend School District for the next 19 years to pay off this referendum.

Many of the people pushing the referendum won’t have to pay for it, but they will receive financial benefit for it. Bray will make a fortune building the schools if it passes. Baird will make money off of the financing. Real estate guy will make money off of rising property values (assuming that happens). The superintendent will cash in his retirement benefits as he moves back to South Dakota. Everyone there seemed to have their hands in my pocket and not a single one of them even pretends that spending $74 million will make one kid smarter. It won’t improve test scores. It won’t improve educational outcomes. It won’t improve graduation rates.

What is more and more clear is that the West Bend referendum isn’t about education at all. It’s about the shakedown of taxpayers for the financial benefit of a few.

So I guess I did learn something new at the referendum informational meeting. I learned that it is worse than I thought.

West Bend School Board Member Raises Concern about Biased Referendum Presentations

Good for Ken Schmidt.

WEST BEND — The $47 million April referendum and allegedly presenting biased, persuasive information on its issues were discussed at the West Bend Joint School District Board of Education regular monthly meeting Monday night.

Board member Ken Schmidt said he heard some district officials were encouraging residents to vote one way or another, which is illegal.

“I want to make sure the district is doing what’s legal,” he said.

In response, Superintendent Don Kirkegaard said he was aware of the legality of attempting to persuade people to vote one way or another and is not urging voters in that manner. No materials are encouraging them one way or the other, he said.

Here’s the game they play… it is illegal for the Superintendent or district staff to advocate for or against a school referendum because they are paid by tax dollars. But the definition of “advocacy” centers around the use of specific words like “vote for,” “please support,” etc.

So they avoid those words, but the material is heavily slanted. For example, take this comment:

If the referendum fails, there is indeed no backup plan, Superintendent Don Kirkegaard said. These improvements need to be done; waiting isn’t much of an option…

Putting aside, for a moment, the fact that it is management malpractice to not have alternate plans, this makes it clear that Kirkegaard wants people to vote for the referendum.

Or this:

“I can say with full honesty that I wasn’t the driving force in making this recommendation,” Kirkegaard said. “But if I was here three years ago, I would’ve made this recommendation because I think it makes sense.”

That is Kirkegaard offering his opinion. That isn’t a factual presentation. If the Superintendent says that it makes sense, then isn’t he, ergo, advocating for its passage?

The most egregious area where they advocate is in the information they choose to share and how they present it. For example, their misleading way of presenting the tax load. Or the fact that their materials label everything as a “need.” Is replacing cabinetry really a need that requires a massive tax increase? Or the way they continue to throw out phrases like, “some (high school) classrooms have not been
updated in nearly 50 years. THE SCHOOL IS ONLY 49 YEARS OLD and the vast majority of them have seen multiple updates over the years. Frankly, I’d like to see the proof that ANY of them haven’t seen some updates.

I doubt that school officials have done any illegal advocacy by the letter of the law, but it is certainly clear to anyone listening to them that they are advocating for its passage.

Break free from debt in the West Bend School District

Here is my full column that appeared first in the Washington County Daily News.

Nothing quite strangles a person, family, community, or nation like debt. Whether it is credit card debt, student loan debt, medical debts, the national debt (now a crushing $22 trillion), or school referendum debt, it not only drains resources in the present, but it robs the future of its choices. Debt is the master who brokers no dissension or leniency. Debt must be served before all others. Why then, does the West Bend School District want to saddle the taxpayers with another generational debt when they are so close to being debt-free?

One of the ways that credit card companies, car dealers, student loan companies, and other people who make money off of your debt sell their products is to focus on the payments instead of the actual debt. By taking a $50,000 car and stretching out the loan to 10 years, suddenly a person earning $30,000 per year can “afford” a really nice car. That works great until it is year eight, the car needs expensive repairs, and there are still two more years of payments due.

This is exactly the misleading game that the West Bend School District is using to sell a massive debt to the citizens. In April, the citizens will be asked to approve borrowing $47 million for a new Jackson Elementary school and revamping parts of the high school. It will cost approximately $74 million to repay the $47 million loan.

One of the selling points for the referendum is that it will “only” cost an additional 13 cents in the annual property tax mill rate to buy shiny new buildings. The mill rate is simply a term that gives the tax rate per $1,000 of property value. So if you own a home valued at $200,000, the 13 cent mill rate increase would cost you $26 per year. That seems cheap, right? “Less than a cup of coffee a month,” the advocates will tout. “Can’t you spare a cup a coffee a month for the children?” And so it goes. We have seen the arguments before. But let us look at the math.

If you add up all of the property in the West Bend School District, it has an aggregate value of $4,720,140,099. A 13 cent additional mill rate would generate $613,618.20 in additional tax revenue per year. How long does it take to pay off a $74 million debt at $613,618.20 per year? Even allowing for moderate annual increases in property values, it would take over 100 years to pay off the debt. How is the West Bend School District going to pay for the fancy new schools with only an additional 13 cents in the mill rate? What sort of financial sorcery is this?

The answer, of course, is that it will not cost just an additional 13 cents in the mill rate. It will cost much, much more. In the current tax levy, the taxpayers of the West Bend School District are paying a $1.01 mill rate to pay off the old referendums passed in 2009 ($27.4 million) and 2012 ($22.865 million). For that same $200,000 house, the homeowner is paying $202 per year just to pay for debt issued in the past decade.

The old debt is being steadily paid off and will be completely paid off by 2028 — nine years from now. Some of that debt begins to be paid off this year. In short, if the citizens vote against the referendum, they will see this portion of their property taxes decrease starting next year and will be eliminated in less than a decade. If the referendum passes, the district will simply redirect that money to the new debt.

The notion that we can pay $74 million in debt with a 13 cent mill rate is ludicrous and to claim so is intentionally deceptive. The truth is that it is not only a tax increase, but forgoing a sizable tax decrease. However one manipulates the mill rate, $74 million is still roughly $1,850 for every adult in the West Bend School District. That is a lot more than a cup of coffee.

Getting out of the debt cycle is a choice. It starts at home by paying off old debt while resisting taking on new debt. It starts in the West Bend School District by paying off the old referendums before passing new ones. Instead of stacking debt on top of debt, the citizens of the West Bend School District should break free of the debt trap and vote “no” on the referendum on April 2.

 

Break free from debt in the West Bend School District

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. I take a look at the math behind the rhetoric of the upcoming referendum in the West Bend School District. Specifically, I take issue with this lie being promoted on posters around town:

Here’s a part:

One of the selling points for the referendum is that it will “only” cost an additional 13 cents in the annual property tax mill rate to buy shiny new buildings. The mill rate is simply a term that gives the tax rate per $1,000 of property value. So if you own a home valued at $200,000, the 13 cent mill rate increase would cost you $26 per year. That seems cheap, right? “Less than a cup of coffee a month,” the advocates will tout. “Can’t you spare a cup a coffee a month for the children?” And so it goes. We have seen the arguments before. But let us look at the math.

If you add up all of the property in the West Bend School District, it has an aggregate value of $4,720,140,099. A 13 cent additional mill rate would generate $613,618.20 in additional tax revenue per year. How long does it take to pay off a $74 million debt at $613,618.20 per year? Even allowing for moderate annual increases in property values, it would take over 100 years to pay off the debt. How is the West Bend School District going to pay for the fancy new schools with only an additional 13 cents in the mill rate? What sort of financial sorcery is this?

The answer, of course, is that it will not cost just an additional 13 cents in the mill rate. It will cost much, much more. In the current tax levy, the taxpayers of the West Bend School District are paying a $1.01 mill rate to pay off the old referendums passed in 2009 ($27.4 million) and 2012 ($22.865 million). For that same $200,000 house, the homeowner is paying $202 per year just to pay for debt issued in the past decade.

The old debt is being steadily paid off and will be completely paid off by 2028 — nine years from now. Some of that debt begins to be paid off this year. In short, if the citizens vote against the referendum, they will see this portion of their property taxes decrease starting next year and will be eliminated in less than a decade. If the referendum passes, the district will simply redirect that money to the new debt.

The notion that we can pay $74 million in debt with a 13 cent mill rate is ludicrous and to claim so is intentionally deceptive. The truth is that it is not only a tax increase, but forgoing a sizable tax decrease. However one manipulates the mill rate, $74 million is still roughly $1,850 for every adult in the West Bend School District. That is a lot more than a cup of coffee.

It really is distressing that the advocates for the referendum – who do so under the mantra of providing a better education for our kids – either don’t understand, or don’t care, about accurately explaining how debt works. This is why we end up with so many adults caught in a debt trap. They aren’t being taught any better.

On WISN @ 1705

I’ll be on the Mark Belling show this afternoon on AM1130 at 1705 with guest host Dave Michaels to discuss my story about West Bend teachers pushing their liberal ideology on kids.

Tune in!

Is West Bend Planning to Build a School For Germantown Kids?

Ever since the West Bend School Board started down the road of building a new Jackson Elementary School, something has struck me as odd about the location. Follow me here…

The plans for a New Jackson Elementary School in the West Bend School District call to build a new and much larger school building. The School Board has already purchased property to the south of the current school. Here’s the thing… Jackson Elementary already sits in the extreme southern part of the district. The new site moves it further south. Why? And why build a bigger building when enrollment is declining?

Here’s the thing about Jackson… it sits astride three school districts. Here’s a map:

As you can see, the site of the proposed new school is less than a mile from the Germantown School District and just about a mile from the Slinger District. The question becomes, where will the population growth be? If the population growth is going to be to the north of the village, then it would make more sense to site the new school further north. Due to the Jackson Marsh and the underground pipeline to the east of town, nobody really expects growth that way. The most likely areas for growth are to the West, in the Slinger District, or to the South, in the Germantown District.

Fortunately, we don’t even have to speculate too much. The Village of Jackson has approved a handful of new subdivisions. You can see the map here. One of those subdivisions is a 20 acre plat on the south side of town in the Germantown School District. Incidentally, Joel Ongert, the West Bend School Board President, and Don Kirkegaard, the West Bend School Superintendent, attended the Village Board meeting where that subdivision was approved.

Here is the same map where I’ve shaded in the approved new subdivisions:

This is just what the Village of Jackson has approved. I don’t know what Mayfield, Slinger, Germantown, and Richfield have planned for their pieces of this map. So the question remains… why does the West Bend School Board want to build a massive new school on the extreme southern boundary of the district? Is it to serve the kids currently living in the district or the ones who will move into the district? Or is the big new school designed to lure kids from the Germantown and Slinger Districts through Open Enrollment?

We know that the West Bend School District has been a loser in the Open Enrollment battles for years. Is this school designed to stop that bleeding? If so, why should the taxpayers of the West Bend School District shoulder the burden of building a fancy new school to serve kids who live in another district? IF the taxpayers are going to build a new school to serve their own kids, why not build it on the north side of town – further inside the district and closer to the potential growth around PV?

There has been a lot that doesn’t add up about the why, where, and how for the School Board’s push for a huge new school in Jackson. Perhaps the cartography answers some of those questions – even if they don’t want to say it out loud.

Another case of misplaced priorities

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

Faced with a mediocre state report card, a systemic decline in enrollment, and pressure from better-performing neighboring schools, the West Bend School Board has decided that they will ask the voters to hike property taxes and spend $74 million on … buildings. One could hardly have conjured a more flagrant example of misplaced priorities.

On the April ballot, the voters of the West Bend School District will be asked to borrow $47 million (with an estimated payback of $74 million) to build a new Jackson Elementary School building and make a hodgepodge of renovations to the high school building. There is no legal requirement that the district spend the borrowed money on the stated purpose once the borrowing is approved. They could spend the money on anything they want, which is why many school districts have ladled fat onto their referendums so that they could pay for myriad pet projects. But for the sake of argument, let us take the West Bend referendum at face value and assume that they will only use it for its stated purpose.

Jackson Elementary is advertised as the oldest school building in the district, but that is a stretch of the truth. One small part of the building is from the original construction. Most of the building was added on over the decades. The school educated as many as 528 kids in the 2008-09 school year, but a combination of reconfiguring the middle schools and the decline in aggregate enrollment eroded the student enrollment to 370 kids in the 2017-19 school year. Enrollment projections show that enrollment will continue to decline 10 percent to 20 percent over the next decade. In short, much of the space in Jackson Elementary is underutilized and unneeded.

The Jackson Elementary building is 59,176 square feet, or about 160 square feet per child. The draft design for a new building is a whopping 85,000 square feet, or about 230 square feet child at the current enrollment. The industry standard for elementary kids, according to the information provided by the school district, is 134 square feet per child. The school is already much bigger than needed and the plan is to build an even bigger one.

It is worth noting that despite the lamentations about Jackson Elementary being a dump of a school, it boasts the second-highest performance of any elementary school in the district. Clearly, what happens inside the building is more important than the building itself. Building a massive new fancy building is more about soothing the vanity of School Board members and staff than it is about educating kids.

In the high school building, there is a list of wants that the school board wants to borrow money to pay for and a few routine maintenance items that have been neglected for years. They are all things that were predictable expenses that should have been budgeted and completed as a matter of routine, but they were willfully ignored. Now the School Board wants to put the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars into debt to make up for years of poor fiscal management.

The School Board has failed to exercise the power given to it by Act 10 to properly manage its budget to improve education. They abandoned the fledgling merit pay system for teachers implemented by the previous superintendent in favor of a blanket $1 million pay increase for teachers. Merit pay may or may not save money, but it will improve education by recruiting and retaining better teachers. Much like the district’s curriculum, the district’s compensation plan for teachers is geared toward punishing excellence, excusing failure, and rewarding mediocrity. The district gets exactly what it is paying for.

Six years ago, an innovative School Board started a charter school in the district to offer diversity in educational experiences for kids. Over the past couple of years, the district has orphaned that effort. The current School Board is well down the path of killing it or, if they can’t, moving it into an existing building. Fortunately, due to declining enrollment, several of the district’s buildings have ample space.

The School Board still pays an exorbitant amount for staff benefits, has too many administrators compared to other districts, and wastes money on duplicative high school staffs. Like the compulsive gambler, the School Board is perpetually claiming poverty and trying to borrow money when the root of the district’s alleged financial distress is the unavoidable consequence of their own decisions.

While School Board members are obsessing over putting their names on a plaque in the new building, even more time and money is being wasted on things that will not improve education for a single kid. One can always tell what is most important to people by where they spend their time and money. The parents in the West Bend School District are waiting for educational excellence to be a priority for the School Board.

Another case of misplaced priorities

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. I start digging into all of the reasons why voters should vote against the referendum that the misguided West Bend School Board put on the April ballot. Here’s a piece:

Faced with a mediocre state report card, a systemic decline in enrollment, and pressure from betterperforming neighboring schools, the West Bend School Board has decided that they will ask the voters to hike property taxes and spend $74 million on … buildings. One could hardly have conjured a more flagrant example of misplaced priorities.

[…]

While School Board members are obsessing over putting their names on a plaque in the new building, even more time and money is being wasted on things that will not improve education for a single kid. One can always tell what is most important to people by where they spend their time and money. The parents in the West Bend School District are waiting for educational excellence to be a priority for the School Board.

 

West Bend Teachers in Pay Dispute with District

This is pretty straightforward.

WEST BEND — When the West Bend School District’s Board of Education met Oct. 29, Sally Heuer, a West Bend West teacher and member of the executive board of the West Bend Educators Association, voiced concerns about the lack of accountability and follow through for a compensation plan that allows teachers to earn stipends for meeting certain requirements like professional development.

The teachers claimed they were never told by the district there would be no stipend while they continued to work toward those requirements outside of the school day, on their own time and at their expense.

At the meeting, dozens of teachers sat in the audience to show their support as Heuer reminded the Board they have held up their end of the deal and trusted the district administration would hold up theirs.

[…]

In response to Heuer and the WBEA’s concerns, David Hammelman, human resources director for the West Bend School District, said administration turnover was to blame for teachers not being paid the stipends they worked for in the 2017-18 school year. He said the district is going to make a new plan for the year and revise the teacher salary framework.

There is a contract or there isn’t. Irrespective of whether or not one thinks the compensation plan is a good one or not, if the district agreed to a compensation plan with employees, then the district needs to pay up. Gross management incompetence is no excuse. And yes, failing to pay your employees correctly because you failed to manage staff transitions is gross management incompetence.

West Bend Annual Meeting, Budget, and Tax Levy

This post is going to be a little long, so strap yourself in. If you live in the West Bend School District, you’ll want to read it. The rest of y’all should find a good college football game to watch.

On Monday, the voters of the West Bend School District are invited to attend the Annual Meeting of Electors. This is an annual meeting where, theoretically, the voters approve some of the big ticket items like the tax levy and budget. In reality, all of the votes are non-binding, so the School Board can still do whatever they want. Still, it is an opportunity for voters to show up and have their voices heard.

On the agenda this year is:

7. Consideration of Proposed Resolutions

a. Resolution No. 1 – Tax Levy

b. Resolution No. 2 – Disposal of District Property

c. Resolution No. 3 – Board Member Compensation

d. Resolution No. 4 – 2019-20 Annual Meeting Date

The only thing we have any information on is the proposed budget and tax levy, so the voters will be walking in blind to whatever the resolutions are about board member compensation and the disposal of district property. We’re going to take a deeper look at the budget and tax levy, but first, let’s discuss the process a little.

In years past, the West Bend School Board began its budget process in the spring. If I remember correctly (I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong), we usually got a preliminary budget in the April/May time frame. That high-level preliminary budget was posted on the district web site and the people had some time with it.

This year, the first appearance of a preliminary budget from the school district that I saw was last Tuesday morning – after the Monday night board meeting.  Perhaps it was posted Monday night. But now the Electors are being asked to vote on it a week later. One. Week. That’s all the voters get to read it and understand it. There hasn’t been any time for the media or interested parties to ask questions. There hasn’t even been another board meeting where citizens could voice their opinions on it. There is really no excuse for this kind of opaqueness from the West Bend School Board. They have had this information for months, but failed to be transparent about it. Their lack of transparency is not incompetence. It is willful.


That being said, let’s look at the budget. As we get into it, we must remember the context of this budget. The West Bend School Board just postponed action on a $85 million referendum. Budgets are where we define our priorities. There is always an unlimited list of needs/wants (the distinction between the two often being in the eye of the beholder) and a limited amount of money to pay for it. The budget is where you have to prioritize that list.

 

There are two versions of the West Bend School District’s Preliminary Budget. Here is the summary document that is being provided for the meeting on Monday. Here is a slightly more detailed version that was presented at the School Board meeting last week. Neither version is nearly as detailed as what other districts, like Slinger, provides. Again… transparency…

Let’s start with the revenue side of the budget. There are two primary sources of revenue for a Wisconsin school district – the local property tax levy and state aid. The West Bend School District is facing a demographic and societal shift that is causing a decline in enrollment for the foreseeable future. The estimates range between a 10% and 20% decline in enrollment in the next 10 years. This is a significant impact on the state aid that the district receives because it is based on enrollment. Also, enrollment affects the property tax levy limit for the district. In short, the West Bend School District is facing a sustained period of declining revenue. In the preliminary budget (focusing on the operating budget and not the special parts), we see this manifest in a projected $233,405 decrease in revenue.

That decrease in overall revenue is despite a property tax hike. The School District wants to increase the property tax levy by $928,249 – the maximum amount allowed by law. Most of this is offset by a decrease in the levy due to some debt service coming off the books, so the impact will be minimal. But taxpayers could be enjoying a rare tax decrease if not for the School Board’s desire to tax to the max.

In light of that fact, let’s take a closer look at the spending side of the budget. Overall, the preliminary budget proposes a $1.3 million spending increase. You’re reading that right. The preliminary budget has a structural $1.4 million deficit.

The School District must have a balanced budget, so they are raiding their reserve fund to fill the gap. Superintendent Don Kirkegard acknowledges that this is not sustainable and he will be working to bend the district’s cost into the revenue number next year. I cut him some slack because he has only been on the job since July and was handed this budget. Also, he comes from another state and it takes a little time to learn the Wisconsin Way of school budgeting. This budget is the product of the interim Superintendent, staff, and most of all, the School Board.

What is driving the spending increase? Almost all of it is due to a planned compensation increase for the teaching staff. Although salary negotiations are still underway, this budget includes a 2.1% base salary increase. That is the maximum that the School Board would have to give under Act 10. That amounts to a $929,853 compensation increase. That umber is a little misleading because the budget number includes benefits, salary, and headcount fluctuations. But based on the commentary at the school board meeting last week, that number is about right. They are planning roughly a $900k salary increase.

The other increases are scattered around the budget. It is a little hard to tease them out because the district is also reallocating a lot of expenses. According to the Superintendent, they are working on reallocating expenses to the building level so that they can have better visibility to where the expenses are actually being spent. That’s a good thing, but it makes year-to-year trending data difficult.


The story of this budget is not really what it does, but what it doesn’t do. The West Bend School Board is facing declining enrollment and, consequently, declining revenue. Next year they are planning to ask the taxpayers to dig deeper into their family budgets and pay more for bigger, newer facilities. This budget is the School Board’s statement of priorities before asking the taxpayers for more money and they chose to kick the can down the road another year. They are choosing to not make any hard decisions nor demonstrate that they will be good stewards if the taxpayers give them almost the equivalent of an entire year’s budget to spend all at once.

Here are just a couple things this budget does not do:

Maintenance. Many of the facilities needs that are driving the perceived need for a referendum are due to years of poor maintenance. Jackson Elementary is old and falling apart, they tell us. The High School building needs serious renovations and repairs, we’re told. I defy anyone to look at the preliminary budget and determine what the school district spends to maintain their facilities. There isn’t a line item for it. According to the Superintendent, the large, capital projects like roof replacements and such are covered by the Capital Projects Fund and is about $2.3 million. More routing maintenance like carpet replacements, door repairs, fixture replacements, light bulbs, etc. are kind of tucked into the “other support services” or “central services” budget items. But those line items blend a lot of “catch all” expenses.

It is safe to say, however, that despite these pressing needs that are fueling a referendum discussion, the budget makes no serious effort to spend more on maintenance.

I tried to find some good benchmarks for what schools should spend on maintenance, but they are hard to come by. This data from the Building Owners and Managers Association says that for office space (roughly equivalent), people spend about $8.07 per square foot for annual operating expenses. That number includes some things like security, administration, etc. that are not really pertinent in a school setting. If we just include repairs, maintenance, cleaning, etc., it’s about $4 per square foot per year. The West Bend School District has 1,141,656 sq. feet of building space – not including grounds, sports fields, parking lots, etc. It is reasonable to expect that the district needs to spend $4 to $4.5 million per year just to keep their facilities reasonable cleaned and maintained. I don’t see anything near that much in the budget even as I add up the line items.

This points to a trend of School Districts intentionally under-funding maintenance, allowing facilities to decline into disrepair, and then pushing for a referendum to make up for their neglect. This budget looks like it will continue that trend.

Labor Costs. Without a doubt, labor costs are the largest expense in any school district budget. If the School Board is ever going to control costs and bring them in line with revenue projections, they have to control the cost of labor. There are only a few ways to do that. They can cut overall compensation – salaries and benefits. They can reduce the number of employees. Or they can force employee churn to create a younger, cheaper workforce.

At some point, the district needs to reduce the number of employees. There are fewer and fewer kids to teach. Therefore, there will need to be fewer and fewer teachers, administrators, and support staff to serve those kids. This needs to be done intelligently and carefully, but it needs to be done.

The School Board and this budget fail to take advantage of Act 10 to control the overall compensation costs for the employees. Employees still have a sweetheart deal on benefits. The School Board is assuming a maximum base salary increase. The School Board has not implemented merit pay or other performance-driven compensation models. They haven’t done much of anything. The compensation package for West Bend School District employees looks much like it could have in 1999 or 2005.

Once again, this budget just kicks the can down the road and fails to do anything about rising labor costs in the face of declining revenue.


The preliminary budget for the West Bend School District sends a very clear message to the citizens of the district. Despite virulent protestations about needing tens of millions of dollars in a referendum to pay for critical facilities, the School Board intends to just keep doing the same thing as if there isn’t any need at all. They are not making any hard choices or shifting any additional spending to address those needs. They are also not addressing the structural funding issues that are already impacting the district’s revenue. The School Board is planning to ask the taxpayers to dig deeper into their family budgets and give up their own priorities, but the School Board is refusing to dig deeper into their own budget. Instead, they are doing what far too many school boards do: tax to the max; give employees as much of an increase as possible; starve facilities; refuse to innovate; keep doing everything the same way and wondering why you keep getting the same results.

I will believe that there is a crisis in the West Bend School District when they begin acting like it. This budget sends the message that the School Board thinks everything is fine the way it is.

West Bend Referendum Fight is Not Over

The citizens of West Bend received a reprieve last night when the West Bend School Board decided to suspend the referendum effort. “Suspend” is the key word. At the meeting, School Board President Joel Ongert made it clear that he wants to put a referendum on the April or possibly next November ballot. It is worth noting that those elections also historically have much lower turnout. That makes it easier for the referendum to pass (if you’d like me to explain this, I will, but I think y’all get it).

Ongert also made a comment that he thought that the needs at the high schools warranted $60 million! In the current referendum proposal, they are asking for $31 million for the high schools. Ongert wants to spend so. much. more.

Over the next few months as the citizens of the West Bend School District and their School Board consider the prospect of a referendum, we should keep some hard numbers in mind.

$215 million. That is how much the taxpayers will be obligated to pay back if the referendum being considered is approved. The district already owes about $130 million due to the passage of previous referenda. If the referendum passes, it will bring that total to about $215 million in owed interest and principal.

$2,125. There are about 40,000 adults who live in the West Bend School District. If the $50 million referendum being considered passes, the share for each adult is $2,125. Each adult’s share of the total $215 million debt would be about $5,200.

$5.3 million. The taxpayers currently spend about $5.3 million per year on paying down debt. That is $5.3 million that is not spent on educating kids. It is being spent on paying off buildings. That number will increase substantially if the referendum being considered passes.

20. Under the proposal outlined by Baird for the School Board, it will take 20 years to pay off new referendum debt. On the payment schedule presented by Baird at the August 13th school board meeting, the taxpayers will paying only the interest payments for the first nine years. The taxpayers will not pay down a single dollar of the principal until the tenth year.

2.7%. Despite having the authority under Act 10 to control labor expenses, employees of the West Bend School District can still get a family health insurance plan for as little as $49 per month. That is 2.7% of the total cost of the plan. The taxpayers pay the remaining 97.3%.

307. Using the Kindergarten Trend Projection Model, which extrapolates kindergarten enrollment trends to forecast future enrollment, there will be 307 kids in Jackson Elementary in nine years. That compares to the 371 kids who were in the school last year and the 535 kids in the same building at the most recent peak in 2010. That is a 43% decline in student population in the Jackson Elementary building, but also includes the reconfiguration of grades that occurred in 2014.

5,289. Using the same projection model, the entire West Bend School District will have an enrollment of 5,289 kids in the 2027-2028 school year. That compares to the 6,634 kids in the last school year and 6,843 kids in the district in the most recent peak year of 2009. That is a 20% decline in enrollment over the next decade.

Different project models give slightly different numbers, but the declining enrollment matches the trend that the school district has seen in recent years. Due to generally lower birth rates, open enrollment, the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, and demographic shifts, the West Bend School District is seeing the same declining enrollment as many other Wisconsin school districts.

21%. In the most recent open enrollment figures, 21% of the kids who open enrolled out of the West Bend School District left to attend a virtual school. While the West Bend School Board wants to invest in buildings, families are seeking out modern ways to get a quality education.

20. The world of education is not immune from the societal and technological transformations taking place around us. Educational delivery methods now include online and hybrid learning, collaboration with industries, augmented reality, and so much more. The West Bend School Board is asking to spend $85 million on a 20th century education model.

Zero. If the voters approve allowing the West Bend School Board to dump tens of millions of dollars into buildings, they can expect zero improvements in educational outcomes. It has been proven time and time again that once the basic safety and space needs for school buildings are met, spending more on buildings does not result in better education.

For recent evidence, look at the test scores and graduation rates in the West Bend School District since the other school building referendums were passed. According to DPI data, all of the results are flat or declining. The new Badger and renovated Silverbrook schools look fantastic, but they did not make any kids smarter. That is why the school board has wisely not even attempted to claim that it will improve education in the district.

There are a lot of things that the West Bend School Board could do to try to improve education for the children under their care. Dumping money into fancy buildings is not one of them.

West Bend School Board Suspends Referendum Effort

Huzzah, huzzah… the West Bend School Board came to its senses and decided against putting a referendum on the ballot in November. They haven’t abandoned the effort yet, but at least they are pumping the brakes for a bit. The Washington County Insider has video of the discussion and details from the meeting. Here are some highlights:

“We have until next Tuesday to tell the county clerk what our intentions are,” he said.  “Are we going to a referendum in November and potential questions and how do we want it to look.” Board member Chris Zwygart spoke first and set the tone for the rest of the meeting.  “I’m not sure we’re ready to move forward. The board has a number questions,” said Zwygart.

Board member Ken Schmidt said he had doubts. “I question need and want,” said Schmidt.  “Those are two questions I have. Some things I see as needs with safety and that is a big need but here again I really have some questions about right sizing. Those are the two biggies.”

Schmidt also expressed concern about the cost to taxpayers in the future. “There’s no guarantee with a phenomenal economy. I’m a realist and there are cycles. I’ve seen several in my lifetime but I have sincere reservations.”

[…]

A couple of leaders from the West Bend School Board spoke after the meeting.

After the meeting Zwygart said as a person, “We have unanswered questions and limited time between now and the time of the election (Nov. 6, 2018) that just does not set us up for success as it relates to transparency with the voters and so I’m pleased with the decision.”

In particular, hats off to board members Chris Zwygart and Ken Schmidt for being good stewards of the taxpayers’ interests. Board members Joel Ongert and Tiffany Larson still seem hell bent on dumping tens of millions of dollars on buildings. This isn’t over. The debate continues…

“I would have to vote no and send the administration back to the drawing board.”

The West Bend School Board will vote today to put an $85 million referendum on the ballot. Here’s an interesting letter to the editor that originally ran on the Washington County Insider:

August 20, 2018 – West Bend, WI – I believe it is important to include the interest cost on the referendum so people know for a fact, what they will be paying.

I was on the Citizens Facility Advisory Committee and am very disappointed in the entire process of the decision to go to referendum.

The entire process has once again been less than honest. While we are following a 25 year plan, in what world of business do we have a 25 year plan without the plan on how to pay for it.

If I were to vote today, I would have to vote no and send the administration back to the drawing board.

There are way too many issues to address before moving forward on a building plan.

Being on the CFAC committee I had a first hand look at the issues they say they are trying to correct.  I could see many of them stemmed from very poor planning and execution to begin with.

These are things that have to be addressed so we don’t spend $85 plus million today and end up with the same issue in the future.

Dan Krier

West Bend

 

Investing in a 20th Century Education Model

Here’s an interesting bit of data from a report about Open Enrollment that was presented to the West Bend School Board last night. According to that report, 452 kids left the district through open enrollment compared to 193 who entered the district. That’s a net outflow of 259 kids. Of those who left, 19%, or about 85 kids, left to go to a virtual school. And of all of those who left, the top two reasons given for leaving were convenience or they moved. In other words, the physical location of the school buildings didn’t work for the family.

In the 21st century, why does the School Board want to invest tens of millions of dollars in physical buildings instead of investing in modern education delivery models?

UPDATE: I may be reading the colors on their pie chart wrong. It looks like it might actually be 21% left for virtual schools. Hopefully we can see the raw data at some point.

Increase in West Bend Teacher Salaries Since Act 10

Again to refute the claim made by a West Bend teacher in the newspaper that, “This would be the second double-digit teacher pay cut in eight years”… here’s the average salary data from DPI:

2011wbsalaries

2016wbsalaries

As you can see, the average salaries in the district are way up since the passage of Act 10. And the average experience of the teaching staff has also increased. It also looks like the average cost of fringe benefits have decreased. I’d like to see more data behind that to see if the decrease is due to an actual decrease in costs or just that fewer employees are taking some of the more expensive benefits.

The data does show a dip in the average salary in 2012. That was a year that saw higher teacher retirements in the wake of Act 10. The dip corresponds with a decrease in the average local tenure of the teaching staff. In other words, the departure of old, expensive teachers at the end of their careers were replaced with younger, less expensive teachers. It was not a cut in pay. It was a change in the age demographic of the staff. Since then, the average salary and average local tenure have increased together.

The assertion that West Bend’s teachers have experienced a pay cut is demonstrably false.

But again… merit pay has nothing to do with cutting pay. It has everything to do with rewarding better teachers who can achieve better results for our kids. As a taxpayer, I’m willing to pay more for better results. I am not willing to pay more for fancy buildings. Let’s reward, attract, and retain great teachers with merit pay instead of sinking more money into real estate.

West Bend teachers did get raises

Former West Bend School Board President, Rick Parks, also took issue with Jason Penterman’s letter to the editor in response to my column.

To the editor: While I do understand that Jason Penterman’s recent letter to the editor on behalf of the West Bend Education Association was provoked by Owen Robinson’s column on upcoming school referendums, that doesn’t relieve Jason of the need to be accurate in what he publishes.

The WBEA has presented the implementation of Act 10 as a pay cut to teachers since it was enacted in 2011. That’s just not true. Act 10 simply required school districts to pass on a percent of the cost for health insurance and retirement plans to employees, just like your employers do where you work. Did that reduce take-home pay? Yes. Does it reduce your takehome pay when your employer passes on your portion of these costs to you? Also yes, but most people would not present this as a pay cut.

Jason also misrepresents the merit pay system that was in place for many years in the West Bend School District. When he says “many veteran employees have received no pay increases for six-plus years” he also distorts reality. At the time I left the school board in April 2017, about 94 percent of the teaching staff received pay increases. The 6 percent that did not were on a performance improvement plan. I can’t say how that played out for veteran versus novice teachers, but knowing the range of experience in the district at that time it’s safe to say that almost all veteran teachers were receiving pay increases.

During my time on the school board I regularly pointed out to my board colleagues that Act 10 did make a real impact on real people’s pocketbook. I never discounted that. But after seven years it’s time to get over it and move on. It’s also time to stop distorting the facts.

Rick Parks

West Bend

West Bend School Board has not earned the right to ask for more money

Here is my full column that ran yesterday in the Washington County Daily News.

After conducting a sham survey that returned the results they paid to get, the West Bend School District’s Board of Education is deciding whether or not to ask the taxpayers for gobs more money via referendum.

Given they have been running the liberal playbook for passing a referendum, the school board is expected to punch it over the goal line and put a massive referendum on the November ballot. The school board should reconsider its reckless course and demonstrate the sensible fiscal management that the citizens deserve.

At issue is the manufactured facilities “crisis” at Jackson Elementary and the West Bend high schools. While the buildings are both perfectly functional and have decades of use left in them if properly maintained, some folks would like to remodel or replace them. Even though buildings have no impact on whether or not kids get a good education compared to what happens inside those buildings, constructing school buildings is easier than doing the hard work necessary to improve educational outcomes.

To that end, the school board created a Citizens Facility Advisory Committee last year that spent months in what proved to be manipulated process designed to tell the school board what it wanted to hear. Then the school board spent thousands of taxpayer dollars to conduct an equally fraudulent community survey that was also designed to tell it what it wanted to hear. On the weight of these two sham activities, the school board is now considering a referendum.

The survey results were presented to the school board last week. Of the approximately 40,000 adults in the district, 2,815 surveys were returned, constituting a 7 percent return rate. Of those 2,815 surveys, 93 percent lived in the district and 17 percent were employees of the school district. Even though the survey was disproportionally weighted with district employees and had a small sample, only 53 percent of respondents supported building a new elementary school in Jackson. The school board is interpreting the survey as telling them that the taxpayers would support a $50 million (not including interest) referendum.

There are many reasons that the taxpayers should not support a referendum in the West Bend School District, but let us highlight perhaps the biggest three.

First, despite the claims of builders and architects who make money from school construction, there is no correlation between fancy school buildings and the quality of education that takes place inside them. Once a minimal standard of safety and function are met, trendy reading nooks and naturally lit atriums do not help one child get a better education. If the school board wants to spend an additional $50 million of the taxpayers’ money, they should at least use the money to provide kids with a better education.

Second, enrollment in the West Bend School District is declining and is projected to continue the slide for the foreseeable future. This has almost nothing to do with the school district itself. It is a reflection of demographic trends and the expansion of alternative educational options. Online learning, School Choice, homeschooling, etc., all erode from an already shrinking student population. Why should the taxpayers invest an additional $50 million to build larger buildings for fewer kids?

Third, the school board has demonstrated poor stewardship of the taxpayers’ resources by failing to fully utilize the power given to it by Act 10 to manage the largest expense in the budget — personnel. Immediately after Act 10, previous school boards began down the path of implementing things like merit pay and benefits reform, but all of that progress stopped a couple of years ago.

Just last week, the Wisconsin Department of Administration released detailed description of the health insurance plans for every school district in Wisconsin. The data shows the least expensive family health insurance plan that the West Bend School District provides costs the taxpayers a whopping $21,864 per year. That compares to an average of $20,062 for all Wisconsin school districts and a national average of $18,764. The other plans offered are even more expensive. The West Bend School District is overpaying for health insurance.

Of that premium, a district employee can pay as little as $588 per year, or 2.7 percent, for their share of the premium if they receive a wellness incentive by passing a wellness screening and not smoking. This compares with an average of 11.7 percent for all Wisconsin school districts, 29 percent for state and local government employees across the nation, and 33 percent for private sector employees across the nation. On top of that, the district provides an onsite clinic for employees at no cost to the employees. Such clinics are supposed to lower the cost of health insurance, but the West Bend School District continues to pay well above the average cost for health insurance and asks employees to pay well below the average for their share.

A little quick math shows that if the West Bend School District simply paid the national average for a family health insurance plan ($18,764) and required employees to pay the national average share of the cost for state and local government employees (29 percent), it would save the taxpayers of the district $7,954 per family plan.

To date, the school board has failed to demonstrate sensible fiscal management on behalf of the citizens of the district.

Before the school board asks the taxpayers to sink tens of millions of more dollars into buildings for a district with declining enrollment, they must at least show that they are willing to use the tools available to them to manage the money they already spend.

Declining Enrollment At West Bend School District

Speaking of the enrollment… the Washington County Insider has more detail from the meeting last night. Here are the projections:

-When look at enrollment projections for facilities as district as a whole there are four methods. Baseline, 2 year projection, 5 year projection and the kindergarten-trend projects.

-Look out 10 years on baseline – the district would be down 772 students.

-Five year trend model indicates enrollment will decline as well by 840 odd students

-Two year trend – around 870 decline and kindergarten trend projection and that’s almost 1,350 students.

That’s anything from a 10% to a 20% decline in the next 10 years. That will also mean a decline in state funding since that is based on a per-pupil model. Why would the taxpayers buy new, bigger buildings? It would be like Sears building a new tower despite projections of a long term decline.