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.