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0941, 01 Jun 18

West Bend School District Releases Referendum “Survey”

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


0941, 01 June 2018


  1. jjf

    Are you suggesting that if the invisible hand of the free market ever spurred a survey company that made surveys that would please Owen, they’d succeed in the marketplace?  Do ads for the lottery simply inform in a bland voice, or do they make it sound like fun?

  2. Owen

    You make my point exactly. Ads for the lottery are exactly that: ads. They don’t pretend to be anything else.

  3. MHMaley

    I’ve supported every referendum the WBSD has tried since I moved here in 1977.
    I would not support a new school in Jackson due to :
    The declining enrollments
    The fact that Jackson has never supported other referendums
    The relative ease that we could bus Jackson kids to the WB schools .

    Not including the option of closing the school and selling the building ( as the district would need to do anyway if a new school is built ) would be a mistake .
    Let’s hope the new Superintendant can be a voice for that third option only Included at the tail end of the meeting where all this was discussed .

  4. Kevin Scheunemann

    This is how all school surveys work. I filled one out for Kewaskum school district about 10 years ago. It was a farce. I had to scratch out the answers and write my own answer in half the questions with pre-suppositions. You know it just got tossed. I stopped filling them out after that.

  5. crusadeusa

    I would not support any referendum in the WBSD for these reasons: First, they don’t teach what they should be teaching: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. . . they are much to worried about being politically correct. They should not be encouraging politics such as the LGBTQ agenda. The WBHS is known as ‘the WB Pharmacy’ . . .what does that tell you? Kids these days cannot read at the level they should be reading at – far from it. Why should we support this garbage? This is why I felt the strong need to home school my own children because the community schools do not provide what they should be providing. They are always asking for more without giving anything in return to the children and leaving them unequipped to deal with life’s challenges. Most kids today are snowflakes that can’t handle people disagreeing with them much less be able to provide change without the use of the cash register.  These schools should also be teaching civics. . . what ever happened to that?

  6. Mark Hoefert

    Gee, MHMaley – kind of have to agree with you.  Like you, I had been supporter/advocate of previous referendum requests.  My hesitation has more to do with I don’t think WBSD has been in a position lately to properly put forth a future referendum request.  Too many new players that have no sense of history.

    And your mention of busing kids from Jackson kind of resonates with me.  Village of Jackson to Decorah Elementary is 6.5 miles. Village of Newburg to Decorah is 8.4 miles (where they are being bused now).  At one time, some Newburg kids were being bused to Green Tree which is 8.6 miles.  So, your comment is not that unreasonable. Been done in the past, being done now, and will continue to be done for the foreseeable future.

    I recall that in the run up to the $120M referendum, a long range projection indicated that most of the growth in the district would happen on the eastern side of the district – City of West Bend & Town of Trenton, and that some day a new school would need be built near those areas.  Now I doubt that it would be feasible to have Decorah absorb more students or reset attendance boundaries at the other schools to eliminate the need for Jackson School.  But assuming the need for a new replacement school (to replace Jackson) and that long-range outlook for the possibility of an additional school (although enrollment projections don’t bear that out), one option that should be considered is if a new school could be sited that can accommodate the current needs of Jackson as well as future needs of Town of Trenton & Village of Newburg.  For instance, the corner of Washington East & River Road is 7 miles from Jackson and 6 miles from Newburg (and Town of Trenton is between West Bend and Newburg).

    On another topic, since school security is an important issue, I wonder about the impact of having facilities in different police jurisdictions.  In West Bend, responses would come from the City of West Bend police department & Washington County Sheriff’s office. In Jackson, it would be Village of Jackson PD & Wash. Co. Sheriff’s Office.  I would also mention that City of West Bend is serviced with full-time fire & rescue personnel, whereas Village of Jackson is not.

  7. MHMaley

    Any parent who thinks the other schools are pharmacies but our school is safe is guilty of wishful thinking .

    In fact , I’ve lived here 40 years and been active in the district and never heard that phrase once .

    Here’s a question for you – is WB a meth town or a heroin town ?

  8. jjf

    Those aren’t lottery ads – those are “product information.”

    I quote from the Legislative Audit Bureau’s review:  “The Wisconsin Constitution prohibits the expenditure of public funds or of revenues derived from lottery operations for promotional advertising, and it directs any advertising to provide information about the chances of winning and the prize structure.”

    School district boards are allowed to raise referendum questions. You as an individual can do it, too.

    As for the nature of surveys and survey questions, it is communication and a bit of art and science. The survey is not the referendum question vote. It is informative, not binding.  I give people credit. They’ll be able to see if a question is too leading, and weigh the results accordingly.

    If they had a question that said “People who think the schools don’t have enough money are on Team Terrorist” that would be just crazy, right?

    Let me caricature it for you.

    Q: The school district does not have enough money.

    Owen: Strongly disagree, liberal bias scum!

    Q: The school district has just the right amount in its budget.

    Owen: We should probably reduce their funding regardless and give more money to prop up private religious schools.

    Q: The school district has too much money.

    Owen: Damn right, thank you for the honest question.

    The purpose of a survey is to gauge opinion, right? Is their value in a leading question?

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