The West Bend School District has sent out the survey asking about the appetite for a referendum. As explained when it was announced, this is the survey created by the propaganda group School Perceptions. You can see the whole survey here: school-referendum-survey-2018. As expected, it is more of a propaganda piece than a survey. Given that the survey is designed to elicit a specific, pro-referendum, response and I have almost no faith in the accurate tabulation of the results, I hesitate to even go through it. Still, as a dutiful citizen, everyone who received one should answer it. Here are a few key facts to consider when responding:
- No, there’s no free money. The survey says that “in 2019, the District will pay off a portion of the referendum debt from past building projects, and by 2028 the District will make the final payment on all existing referendum debt.” That’s misleading and is intended to give the impression that there is free money to be had.In truth, the district is already carrying the debt from previous referenda to the tune of over $60 million. As with any debt, the district is slowly whittling down the principal, but the interest if front-loaded in the payment structure. What happens next year is that the payments go down a bit as part of the schedule, but the debt is still being paid off. The Survey positions that as “this drop in loan payments gives the community an opportunity to borrow up to $35 million in facility upgrades with no tax increase over the current level.”Let’s put this in terms of personal finance… this is like when a person has a $10k credit card limit. After paying on it for a while, it frees up $1k of credit limit and the minimum payment has dropped. The person says, “I can borrow another $1,000 and my minimum payment will only increase back to what it already was.” That’s exactly how people run their lives without ever getting out of debt.Essentially, what the District is saying in the Survey is, “we have increased your tax burden through previous referenda and we can borrow and spend another $35 million just by keeping your taxes as high as they are now.” They are assuming that the current baseline tax burden, which is already inflated by previous referenda, is the new normal.It doesn’t have to be. The alternative is to pay off the previous referenda as planned and enjoy a tax DECREASE.
- The numbers cited are not the total debt. The West Bend School Board actually did a great thing a couple of years ago. They passed a policy that said that when talking about proposed debt, they needed to be honest about the total amount. The needed to include the project interest that is part of any debt. They ignored that policy in this Survey. Whether talking about $40 million or $80 million, remember that’s borrowed money with interest for years.For example, the $22.8 million referendum that the voters passed back in 2012 was actually a $31.975 million debt paid back over 15 years. We’re still paying on that. So if the voters pass a $80 million referendum, the total payback would likely be between $100 million and $115 million – depending on the interest rate and payback period. At 4% over 15 years, it’s $106.5 million.
- The Survey starts with a falsehood. In the introduction, the Survey says, “the Board of Education created a Citizens Facility Advisory Committee (CFAC) last summer. The CFAC, consisting of 28 parents, business leaders, and community members, has studied the educational and facility needs at each location and developed the options explored in the survey.”That’s just not true. Not only was CFAC a sham that was run with a predetermined outcome, but some of the information presented in the Survey was never discussed by CFAC. For example, the Survey discusses the “need” to remodel the cafeteria for $2.2 million. The cafeteria was not covered in the CFAC information packet and I’m told it was not part of any discussion.You will also note that in the CFAC schedule (page 8), the “Committee Presentation of Recommendation to School Board” is scheduled for Late May/ Early June. Well, it’s June 1st and the survey that is supposed to be based on those recommendations is already issued.So what the District is doing is trying to pretend that all of the “needs” cited in the Survey were identified and vetted by a group of concerned community members. It gives the impression that this was a “bottom up” assessment that included community input. Not so. They are using CFAC as cover to give a false impression to the community. It is a dishonest tactic. Frankly, I would be very angry if I had donated my time to CFAC and was used in this way.
- Remember that enrollment is declining. Enrollment has been declining for a few years (see page 83). Specifically in Jackson Elementary, it served a peak of 536 kids in 2009. This year it has 370 kids and is the smallest elementary school in the district by enrollment. Part of the decline was due to a restructuring of the middle schools, but it has declined every year since then too. The overall district enrollment projections from the February board meeting are below. You will notice that the district is projecting a steady decline in enrollment over the next several years. This has very little to do with the quality of the district. It is a demographic trend of a lower birthrate combined with increasing educational choice. This begs two questions. First, why would we invest in a massive school building expansion for a district that will serve almost 900 fewer kids in 2023 than it did in 2014? Second, as enrollment declines, so does State Aid. That means that more and more of the tax burden will be shifted to local taxpayers unless the district actually reduces spending and taxes to match their enrollment. Why isn’t the district actually reducing spending and taxes if they are serving fewer kids?
Credit where credit is due… the Survey does provide an option of “I would not support any referendum.” I encourage everyone to check that box.