Task force shows path to build more without spending more

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

Last week the West Bend School District Private Task Force (WBSDPTF) presented its facilities findings to the West Bend School Board. The Task Force is an unsanctioned group of local private citizens led by West Bend Mayor Kraig Sadownikow who took it upon themselves to dig into the school district’s facilities after the failed referendum earlier this year. While much of the excitement is around the bold ideas around restructuring the elementary schools and updating the high school, the focus should be on the hard work that comes before the shiny new buildings.

Amongst the Task Force’s findings were three key prerequisites that must be met before putting a shovel in the ground. The district needs to create and maintain a meaningful facilities plan; the facilities must be adequately maintained; and the district must live within its means by creating efficiencies. None of these are easy, but they are necessary to provide the facilities that our kids deserve and our community can afford.

First, the district needs a plan. About a decade ago, the West Bend School Board sanctioned a community committee and spent a lot of time creating a 25-year facilities plan. At the time, the plan made some sense. Based on projections that showed continued enrollment growth for the foreseeable future, the plan laid out the updates and new construction that the district would need to support that growth.

After the plan was created, it was used as a guide for facilities spending up to and including the most recent referendum. The problem is that the plan was not sufficiently updated. Since it was created, enrollment had declined and projections are for it to decline further. Some items on the plan were completed. Other items were not. Meanwhile, the School Board continued to use the plan as a basis for making decisions. Before any more money is put into facilities, the School Board must update the facilities plan with current data and create an ongoing process to keep it updated.

Second, the district needs to fund the plan. One of the Task Force’s findings was that the capital maintenance budget is woefully underfunded. The West Bend School District has about 1.4 million square feet of buildings and has an annual capital maintenance budget of about $1.5 million. That $1.5 million budget is the highest it has been in years thanks to the School Board steadily increasing it over the past several years.

With slightly more than a dollar per square foot of funding, the district’s capital maintenance budget is underfunded by a multiple of two or three by normal standards in the private sector. This leaves facilities to decay before their time due to lack of proper maintenance. Well-constructed, properly-maintained buildings will last for generations. If we fail to properly maintain them, however, we will be forced to replace them before their time.

Third, once the district has a valid long-range facilities plan and an adequate funding to execute that plan, the School Board must do the work to execute without increasing spending or raising taxes. The Task Force found that there is sufficient money in the current budget to pay for extensive upgrades to the district’s facilities without increasing spending or raising taxes.

The Task Force’s finding that the school district could consolidate six current buildings into one would generate some of the savings necessary to keep spending flat. The savings in staffing, grass mowing, snow plowing, custodial, food service, administration, building maintenance, etc. are substantial when there is only one building instead of six. But more efficiencies can be found in the sourcing of functions that are not core competencies of a school district.

While services like food service, grounds keeping, information technology, custodial, etc. are necessary, they are not the primary purpose of a school district. There are private businesses that deliver these services better, faster, and cheaper because they are their core competencies. Each of these departments must be evaluated to see if outsourcing would provide more value to the taxpayers for less cost. In some cases, outsourcing might not make sense. Experience in the private sector shows that most of the time it will. We will never know unless the school district puts them out to bid.

The Task Force did a lot of research and study, but still only scratched the surface. Even with that scratch, however, they found that there are significant areas where the school district can save money and reallocate the spending to upgrade and maintain the district’s facilities without negatively impacting education delivery. And those savings are there without even touching the much larger spending items in the budget like staffing levels, employee benefits, and wages. Much more could be done with a bit more scratching.

Make a plan. Take care of what we own. Live within our means. These are guiding principles that citizens should expect from our government. They are principles that must be followed as the West Bend School Board considers the future of the district’s facilities.

NOTE: I am a member of the WBSDPTF. While the findings are those of the Task Force, the opinions in this column are solely mine.

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