Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.
In the wake of the failed referendum for the West Bend School District, the mayor of West Bend, Kraig Sadownikow, organized a private task force of local leaders to evaluate the maintenance and capital projects at the district’s high school and Jackson elementary facilities and share independent findings.
The task force was generously provided funding by Kevin Steiner of West Bend Mutual Insurance and Tim Schmidt of Delta Defense to retain Zimmerman Architectural Studios to provide technical facilities expertise.
The task force presented its findings to the West Bend School Board Monday night. Those findings show a different way forward for the West Bend School District and a model for other school districts to follow.
I am a member of the task force. While the findings are those of the task force, the opinions expressed in this column are my own. I will admit that I was dubious about participating in such an endeavor. The process was enlightening and enriching. I encourage the reader to go read the complete findings in the minutes of Monday night’s meeting available on the school district’s website and elsewhere.
To summarize the task force’s findings, the West Bend School District could accomplish everything it wanted to do in the referendum and much, much more without spending a dollar more than they already are. To do that, however, it will take some smart decisions and hard work. The district has some real facilities needs. While spending money is necessary to meet those needs, spending more money is not.
First, there are some realities facing the district. Enrollment is declining and is projected to continue declining for the next decade or more. The most recent enrollment tally taken last month shows that enrollment is declining even faster than the projections made last year. This isn’t a problem with the district. It is a demographic trend that is happening throughout the state. Proactive management in an age of declining enrollment and revenues is even more crucial than in an age of plenty.
Second, the district has done a poor job of in terms of general maintenance and capital facilities management. This is a systemic problem that stretches back many years. For example, the current capital maintenance budget of about $1.5 million is woefully inadequate for a district with about 1.5 million square feet of buildings. In the elementary schools alone, there is about $22.5 million of capital expenses looming over the next decade that are mostly unfunded. Whether intentional or not, the district has been managing facilities by letting them decay prematurely due to inadequate maintenance, and then passing referendums to replace them.
Also, the school district built a 25-year capital plan several years ago. The plan was built on projections of increasing enrollment for decades to come. The reality is that enrollment is declining and will continue to decline, but the 25-year plan was never updated to reflect the new realities. A long-range capital facilities plan that is continually refreshed with current data and scrutinized in public is critical.
Before embarking on an ambitious plan to build and renovate buildings, the School Board must rectify these budgetary and planning deficiencies to demonstrate that the West Bend School District will break the cycle of neglect and replace. The district cannot make new investments in facilities before solving the problem of maintaining what they have.
The failed referendum sought to make some significant renovations to the high school and replace Jackson Elementary. For the high school, the task force validated that there are some true needs that require work.
There are also a couple of areas where the building could be upgraded to drive a lot of value for a reasonable cost.
The failed referendum also sought to replace Jackson Elementary. This is where the task force’s findings took a turn that I did not expect. The Jackson Elementary building has significant problems, but just replacing it was always folly. It is an expensive endeavor that pours a fortune into one problem while leaving all of the other problems wanting.
The task force found that the district could build a state-of-the-art new elementary school campus on the south side of West Bend. Into the new building, the district could consolidate Jackson Elementary, Decorah Elementary, Fair Park Elementary, the district offices, the maintenance shed, and Rolfs Education Center into the single building. By combining six district buildings into a single campus, the district could provide a 21st-century learning environment to far more kids while saving millions of dollars per year in operational costs.
The best part is that by taking advantage of the operational efficiencies of a streamlined district infrastructure and making a few other easily identified operational efficiencies, the task force found that the district could do upgrade at the high school, modernize the entire elementary school footprint, and increase the ongoing maintenance budget to adequate levels without spending or taxing a dollar more than they already are.
More work is needed and much more public discussion must take place, but there is a legitimate path to make significant upgrades to the West Bend School District’s facilities, break the cycle of neglect and replace, and do so without increasing spending or taxes.
The West Bend School District can lead the way. Other school districts in Wisconsin should follow.