Tag Archives: West Bend School District

Citizens look to future after failed school referendum

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. I till say… worst. acronym. ever. Here you go:

Earlier this year, the West Bend School Board asked the voters to approve a referendum to borrow $47 million to build a new Jackson Elementary and do some major renovations to the West Bend high schools. The referendum failed and now a group of community members are stepping forward to take a hard look at the facilities at Jackson Elementary and the high schools.

It should come as no surprise to readers of this column that I was quite happy that the school referendum in West Bend failed. I believed strongly that it would have been a gross misallocation of tax dollars that would have squeezed out higher priorities. Others in the community thought differently and thought that the facilities had become dilapidated enough to warrant the taxpayers absorbing more debt. The voters in the community had a robust public debate about the issue and decided against the referendum.

While the voters have decided that they do not want to spend $74 million (the loan plus interest) on new and refurbished buildings, there are legitimate facility needs. As long as the school district provides education to kids, those kids will need buildings with classrooms, gyms, lunchrooms, playgrounds, and more. The debate is not about the need for those facilities. The debate is about the size, features, and expense of those facilities. Resources are not infinite and there is an opportunity cost of every dollar spent on a building.

One of the aspects of the referendum debate in West Bend that sowed distrust was the people who the School Board engaged to develop the proposals. Always follow the money. Both the survey firm and the architectural firm that the School Board contracted with make their business getting school referendums approved. In the case of the architectural firm, they were paid to develop plans for new and refurbished building for which they would almost certainly receive the contracts to design and build. The financial motive for the firm to go big on the taxpayers’ dime is irresistible and many people in the community did not trust that the people putting together the plans had the community’s interests at heart.

In the wake of the election, several prominent members of the community put their heads together to help the community and school district make some tough decisions on how to move forward. Delta Defense CEO Tim Schmidt, West Bend Mutual Insurance CEO Kevin Steiner, and West Bend Mayor Kraig Sadownikow decided to assemble a private task force to take a hard look at Jackson Elementary and the high schools with an eye to assessing and prioritizing the needs. Schmidt and Steiner also committed financial resources to hire an independent architectural firm to help assess the existing facilities and provide expertise on the construction of modern educational facilities.

Members of the West Bend School District Private Task Force include people who supported the referendum, people who did not, engineers, construction experts, facilities management experts, current and former local elected leaders, and your favorite rabble-rousing local columnist, me.

The goal of the WBSDPTF is straightforward. It is to assess the facilities at Jackson Elementary and the high school and present the findings to the School Board. The WBSDPTF will not be making any recommendations about how to address those findings. That is up to the elected School Board. The WBSDPTF is not sanctioned or funded by the West Bend School Board. Perhaps most importantly, the WBSDPTF is not just another group looking for a way to build support for another referendum. It is purely an effort by a group of local private citizens who believe that education is important and are willing to donate their time, money, and expertise to help the community make some decisions.

The effort may be the start of a new chapter of uniting factional interests in the West Bend School District. The effort may be a useless waste of time and money that doesn’t go anywhere. Time will tell.

Special thanks should be extended to Kevin Steiner and Tim Schmidt. Both of these local business leaders have been generous in supporting countless local organizations, charities, public, and private initiatives. The WBSDPTF is merely the latest on a long list of things that these two CEOs have supported to help improve our community. West Bend is privileged to have such strong business leaders.

West Bend School District Private Task Force Tours Schools

Interesting. From the Washington County Insider:

June 27, 2019 – West Bend, WI – The West Bend School District Private Task Force (WBSDTF)completed tours of Jackson Elementary and the West Bend High Schools.

The WBSDTF is a group of citizens privately formed and funded whose mission is to generate and communicate independent findings related to maintenance and capital projects at the facilities mentioned.  The task force was formed in the wake of a failed referendum in April of 2019.  The goal of the referendum was the construction of a new K-4 elementary school in Jackson and safety and infrastructure enhancements at the high schools.

WBDSPTF members include Kevin Steiner, Tim Schmidt, Kraig Sadownikow, Randy Stark, Ed Duquaine, Dan Garvey, Mike Chevalier, Owen Robinson, Chris Kleman, and Chris Schmidt.  Members were chosen based on their design, construction, facilities management and communication expertise.

“We felt our first priority was to gauge for ourselves the condition of the high schools and Jackson Elementary to gain a full understanding of the intent of the failed referendum,” said task force organizer and City of West Bend Mayor Kraig Sadownikow.

“Maintenance and capital budgets for the District’s 1.2 million square feet of buildings has been a focus of discussions so far,” said task force member and former City of West Bend Alderman Ed Duquaine.  “We requested and were given past information related to pre-referendum work, the district’s 25-year plan and completed tours with the facilities director.”

To gain a full and complete understanding of the district’s physical condition, the task force is considering touring other facilities.  “We are looking forward to where the district can go in the future, rather than looking backward to debate where we’ve been,” said task force member Dan Garvey.

Zimmerman Architectural Studios has been retained by the task force.  Their firm, led by Dave Stroik, had mechanical and electrical engineers along for the tours.  “Our role is to help assess existing conditions and bring the expertise of how modern educational facilities should be designed,” said Stroik.

The task force expects to complete its work this summer and will present findings to the school board in October.

For additional information on the West Bend School District Private Task Force contact Kraig Sadownikow at www.teamacs.net.

Wait… what!?!? Oh yeah… yes, I am on the task force. The Mayor does a good job of explaining it, but allow me to elaborate a bit from my perspective.

I was pretty happy when the referendum failed. I truly thought that it was a waste of money that would not improve education and would hamstring the district with debt for decades to come. But I do acknowledge that the school district must maintain its facilities and that, from time to time, they will need to refurbished or rebuilt.

When I was invited to participate in this task force, I was skeptical. I was worried that it would be just a group of guys looking for another way to justify a referendum. But after more discussion and learning who else was on the task force, I thought it was worth the effort. The task force is comprised of a group of local leaders, several of whom have experience in facilities, who believe in having a great school system, but who have different perspectives on how to get there. Some of us opposed the referendum. Some of us supported it. We all want to have a great school district that provides a great education and is an asset to the community.

I’m thankful to Tim Schmidt (Delta Defense) and Kevin Steiner (West Bend Mutual) for putting up the money for the architectural firm. West Bend is blessed to have strong local business leaders who care about our community.

So we are giving it a try. I don’t know where it will lead. My experience so far has been very positive. Right now we are in data-gathering mode. We have met as a group and toured both Jackson Elementary and the High Schools – the subjects of the referendum. I toured both before the referendum too, but we were able to tour as a group, ask questions, and the district has been very helpful in providing documentation, plans, studies, etc. We are probably going to tour a few more buildings and meet several times over the summer to discuss the information we received, develop our findings, and prepare them for presentation to the School Board. At that point, who knows what the School Board will do with the findings. That’s up to them. I’m hopeful that we can help be part of a solution.

Principal Wants to Reward Staff with New Building

I can’t tell you how wrong-headed I think this comment is.

WEST BEND — West Bend East High School’s principal Darci VanAdestine is on a similar path as West Bend West’s assistant principal Jennifer Potter, both of whom will begin roles with elementary schools this fall.

VanAdestine, who is moving to Jackson Elementary School, said she is proud to be part of such a thriving, positive culture where she can succeed among students, staff and parents that genuinely care and want what is best for all.

“My main priority is to keep this positive energy and success rolling,” VanAdestine said. “I would love to be able to reward the dedicated staff, community and students that through their perseverance and dedication we will get a new building sooner than later.”

The reward of good elementary schooling is not a fancy new building. The reward is kids who are smarter and better prepared for going into middle school. The building is just a necessary part of delivering an education and should not be positioned as a reward for doing your job.

Not to mention that this is as close to express advocacy as you can get by a government official. If the school board decides to put another referendum on the ballot, such advocacy would be inappropriate.

Independent Task Force to examine facilities in West Bend School District

From the Washington County Insider:

June 17, 2019 – West Bend, WI – There was a presentation Monday, June 17 at the West Bend School Board meeting as a community group stepped up to complete a facilities study in the West Bend School District. The Task Force is led by West Bend Mayor Kraig Sadownikow, West Bend Mutual Insurance CEO Kevin Steiner and Tim Schmidt of Delta Defense.

Topic and Background from WBSD Superintendent Don Kirkegaard: In May I had a discussion with three individuals from the community: Mayor Kraig Sadownikow, Kevin Steiner/West Bend Mutual Insurance, and Tim Schmidt/Delta Defense that are forming a committee to look at our facilities. They have asked to have access to our facilities and have an opportunity to visit with Mr. Ross to discuss projects that have been completed, as well as projects that are being planned.

There is no district involvement with the committee.

They will submit a report to the Board in September and/or October. The Board can use all of or part of the information as the Board determines future facilities’ improvements.

The committee is not authorized by the Board or the Superintendent. The report will be informational only with the Board being responsible to make any and all decisions.

 

West Bend School Board Evaluates Facilities Priorities

Wait… what?

Decorah, roofing projects top maintenance list

WEST BEND — The West Bend School Board recently toured district facilities to determine maintenance priorities following the failed April referendum, and for some members, it was the first time in a particular building.

[…]

Since the money that would have been allocated by the referendum is not available, funding is the big question attached to each of these district projects.

One item at the top of the long list is Decorah Elementary School.

“A front office remodel project will start as soon as school gets out for a new secure office entrance at Decorah Elementary,” Ongert said.

Another focuses on structural integrity of multiple buildings.

“Although not glamorous work, several buildings around the district will have sections of roofs replaced this summer,” he said. “Of our $1.4M annual capital budget, nearly $800,000 of that is spent on replacing roofs each and every year.”

Some of you might remember that we just went through a referendum process in West Bend. The District was asking to borrow $48 million ($84 million payback with interest) to build a new Jackson Elementary and do some major remodeling of the High School. The argument was made that these projects were absolutely critical for the safety and education of the kids. Presumably, these were projects that were so imperative that they required getting more money from the taxpayers – way above the already existing tax burden – to pay for it now. These projects were imperative… so we were told.

Fast forward a few weeks. The referendum was rejected. Some members of the school board (not all of them) toured all of the buildings in the district for the first time. And now we hear that Decorah Elementary and roofing projects are the highest priority? Setting aside the obvious point that the board members should have actually toured the buildings and determined priorities before going to referendum, why wouldn’t repairs on Jackson Elementary be a higher priority? Or refurbishing some of the allegedly ancient classrooms in the High School? So now the priority is remodeling the front office of Decorah Elementary?

I guess the issues at Jackson Elementary and the High School weren’t as critical, after all.

New Compensation Plan Being Considered for West Bend Schools

From the Washington County Daily News

WEST BEND -— The school district’s teacher compensation committee met with the school board and other informative figures to discuss a recently developed teacher compensation plan, which is close to its final version and should be implemented by June.

The committee had eight meetings over the past five months, but this week marked the first time for the school board to hear recommendations. No votes were cast or decisions made; it was an informational committee meeting to share updates.

[…]

The replacement is not what he called a “step and lane” model, the commonly-used plan prior to Act 10 that correlates a teacher’s further education with increased salary.

“That model doesn’t address teacher performance, and we want to recognize our top performing teachers and those who are proactive,” Ongert said. “I truly believe this model will reward teachers based on things they’ve earned.”

[…]

Being competitive with nearby districts is important as well, he said, and West Bend is among the leaders in the area.

This model, although in its early stages, does that, Ongert said. It rewards teachers for continuing education either related to their educational emphasis or in courses related to literacy, as that is an area of emphasis within the district.

Where some members disagreed was in determining whether or not a teacher would be eligible for a pay

increase based on the district’s estimation of their professional future.

West Bend teacher Tanya Lohr disagreed with the district’s role in determining the mobility of a teacher. She said it is not their place to tell a teacher they have no future within a different area of the district and, therefore, would not pay for additional education in that area. Ongert said these type of leadership and mobility discussions happen frequently in other career fields and it is appropriate for the district to decide not to reward a teacher for a position they do not see themselves moving into in the future.

[…]

“It has to be financially viable because the school district only has so much money, and we can’t be promising teachers pay raises and bonuses if we can’t afford it,” Ongert said. “We’re using taxpayer dollars to pay our employees, so it has to be a plan that’s sustainable.”

I especially like Ongert’s last comment in the excerpt. The purpose of a compensation plan is to attract and retain talent, motivate behavior in alignment with the organization’s goals, and keep costs to the minimum level needed to accomplish that purpose. In the small window into this discussion, it appears that the district is considering a merit-based system again. That’s great – as long as the system includes sticks as well as carrots. A good comp plan should reward great employees, but also encourage bad employees to improve or move on. It should not be a system where everyone gets a trophy. Otherwise, it is just adding cost for no good purpose.

Also, I’m glad that they have a committee giving feedback to the board. Employee feedback is always good. The School Board should, however, take the committee’s feedback for what it is: input from one of several stakeholder groups in the district. The committee is made up completely by employees of the district – most of them teachers. In fact, six members of the WBEA (teachers union) leadership, including the union president, ended up on this committee (That’s actually pretty interesting considering that there are almost 500 teachers.) The committee is basically a union negotiation under another name. They will, of course, advocate for their financial interests. As would I. As would you. It is up to the School Board to weigh those interests against those of the students, taxpayers, district residents, administrators, and other stakeholders to come up with a plan that best moves the district forward in its mission of educating kids.

 

More Reaction to Failed Referendum

There are a couple of interesting pieces in the Daily News today in response to the referendum. First this, from local columnist and business leader John Torinus who expresses surprise at the failure of the referendum:

Note that all seven sitting School Board members supported the passage of the $47 million project. They sincerely believe that Jackson needs a better building and that the high school needs upgrades for safety and STEM education purposes.

So does Superintendent Don Kirkegaard.

So does the business community for economic development purposes. It’s hard to recruit talented employees without a first-class school system.

None of them will drop this issue from their priority lists for the district. They will undoubtedly listen to the voters and come back with a lesser number in 2020.

This is the vein that I commented on yesterday. There is an arrogance and condescension dripping from the view that all of the “right” people in town supported the referendum but the little people were too stupid to vote correctly. There is no willingness to accept the will of the people. No, the only thought is to bring a referendum back in another election with better packaging. This kind of elitism and disdain for regular folks is the same attitude that feeds support for Trump.

Then this from Superintendent Kirkegaard:

While a majority of residents who voted did not support the referendum, this provides the West Bend School Board and me with valuable information regarding improvements.

I sincerely hope that residents feel they had adequate information to make their decision. Through informational meetings, mailings, website posts, social media posts and emails, we tried to offer all the details on the proposal.

In addition, I am grateful to have met many people in the community through my presentations and less formal interactions.

As the West Bend School District and the board move forward, we will continue to engage with the community on the issues of facilities improvements and their funding. We will seek feedback from some who voted “no” and some who voted “yes” to gain insight on their reasons for their vote.

The vision of the West Bend School District is “Excellence for All.” Let there be no doubt that regardless of referendum voting results, our staff each day lives that vision to provide the best education and the best experience possible for the amazing children we are lucky to serve.

That’s a very nice note. As a citizen of the district, I appreciate his attitude, willingness to accept the will of the voters – even though he disagrees with it – and the forward-looking focus on executing the mission of the district. Well done.

Voters vote ‘no’ on school referendum. Now what?

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

The voters in the West Bend School District voiced a definitive “no” to the referendum question to raise taxes and borrow $47 million to build and renovate buildings. Now that the School Board has that answer, they must plan to meet the needs of the district within the taxpayers’ means.

Going into the election, the superintendent and School Board president said that there was not a “plan B” if the referendum did not pass. Such a statement is a gross admission of poor management. That kind of planning is like a guy running up his credit cards and neglecting his house because he plans to win the lottery. Well, the district did not win the referendum lottery. Now they need to manage the taxpayers’ finances responsibly.

When it comes to schools, everything is driven by one number: enrollment. It determines both the revenue and expense side of the equation. According to the most recent enrollment projections prepared for the West Bend School Board by the Applied Population Laboratory at UW-Madison, enrollment for the district will be declining substantially for the foreseeable future. Using four modeling techniques, they project that by the 2027-2028 school year, enrollment will decline between 11.6 percent and 20.3 percent across the district. That is between 772 and 1,345 fewer kids in the district in less than 10 years.

This decline in enrollment is not a reflection on the West Bend School District. It is a trend that is impacting government schools across the state due to the availability of more school options and a demographic shift of young adults having fewer kids. The decline in enrollment is neither good nor bad. It just is. And our government schools are responsible for providing a great education for the kids we have — not the kids they wish we had. This is the reality that the School Board must manage to.

On the revenue side, this means that the district can expect flat to declining revenue every year. Most of the district’s revenue comes from two sources. The property tax levy raises about $38.5 million. Due to revenue limits imposed 25 years ago, the school district is limited by how much they can raise property taxes every year. State taxpayers kick in about $30.7 million to the West Bend School District. Both the revenue limits and state aid are driven by enrollment. As enrollment declines, the School Board can expect less state aid and they will not be able to raise property taxes enough to compensate due to revenue limits.

The good news is that as revenue declines with enrollment, so do expenses. While it is difficult to reduce spending with a decline in enrollment of one child, a reduction in enrollment of 10 percent to 20 percent is a different story. All fixed costs become variable costs with time. Roughly 70 percent of the district’s expenses are for salaries and benefits for employees. The other 30 percent goes to everything else. It is reasonable to expect that the district should reduce the number of employees commensurate to the number of children being educated. Likewise, with 1.14 million square feet of buildings in the district, it is reasonable to expect that the district can reduce the number of buildings to match what the kids need.

What does this mean in real terms? It means that the West Bend School Board should plan on reducing the number of employees in a controlled manner. The easy way is to not backfill retirements and resignations, but if that is not enough, then separations based on the needs of the kids and the district must be done. It is not an attack on teachers to let them go when they are not needed. It is responsible planning to meet the needs of fewer kids.

Similarly, as the buildings in the district become less utilized, the School Board must consider plans to consolidate facilities. The school district has five elementary schools. Would four be enough if there are 20 percent fewer kids? Of course. This is always a contentious issue, but it does not have to be. The mission of the school district is to educate kids — not operate unnecessary buildings.

As the School Board manages a projected decline in enrollment, they should also work to eliminate unnecessary expenses by fully utilizing Act 10. For example, asking employees to pay the same percentage of their health insurance premiums that most taxpayers pay would free up hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. This budgetary liquidity would allow the district to pay great teachers more money by implementing the merit pay system that was abandoned last year.

The voters of the West Bend School District sent a very clear message to the School Board. The voters expect the School Board to work with the money they already have. Knowing that the district is facing a systemic decline in enrollment, the School Board must manage to that reality.

Voters vote ‘no’ on school referendum. Now what?

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. You really should pick up a copy. Here’s a taste to encourage you:

Going into the election, the superintendent and School Board president said that there was not a “plan B” if the referendum did not pass. Such a statement is a gross admission of poor management. That kind of planning is like a guy running up his credit cards and neglecting his house because he plans to win the lottery. Well, the district did not win the referendum lottery. Now they need to manage the taxpayers’ finances responsibly.

When it comes to schools, everything is driven by one number: enrollment. It determines both the revenue and expense side of the equation. According to the most recent enrollment projections prepared for the West Bend School Board by the Applied Population Laboratory at UW-Madison, enrollment for the district will be declining substantially for the foreseeable future. Using four modeling techniques, they project that by the 2027-2028 school year, enrollment will decline between 11.6 percent and 20.3 percent across the district. That is between 772 and 1,345 fewer kids in the district in less than 10 years.

This decline in enrollment is not a reflection on the West Bend School District. It is a trend that is impacting government schools across the state due to the availability of more school options and a demographic shift of young adults having fewer kids. The decline in enrollment is neither good nor bad. It just is. And our government schools are responsible for providing a great education for the kids we have — not the kids they wish we had. This is the reality that the School Board must manage to.

West Bend School Referendum Fails

Excellent! Nice work, neighbors.

It is good to see that even though all of the “right” people in town supported this referendum, the people still saw through the malarkey. Now we look to the School Board for actual leadership within the means of the district’s taxpayers. The fact that they are bragging about not having a Plan B speaks to their poor management of the district to date. Let’s hope that now that there isn’t a bailout on the horizon, they get serious about their jobs.


On another note, here are the results of the West Bend School Board.

What is interesting about this is that there is a significant undervote. Remember that voters were voting for two board members. Even though over 14 thousand people voted on the referendum question, the highest vote count for school board was less than 7 thousand. It’s impossible to know exactly how many people voted because people could have just voted for one candidate. But it’s likely that most people voted for two candidates as instructed, which means there was a very large undervote in this race.

Why? All three candidates ran supporting the referendum, which failed by a large margin. Without an anti-referendum choice of candidates, I’m sure that many people didn’t bother to cast a vote or wrote in (there’s an unusually large number of write-ins too). I’m one of those. I didn’t vote in this race because it didn’t matter.

I hope that the two candidates who were elected are humble enough to recognize that they would have lost had there been an anti-referendum candidate on the ballot. And shame on the conservatives in the district for the fact that there wasn’t an actual fiscal conservative on the ballot.

 

A View from Inside the Process Selling the West Bend School Referendum

This guest editorial a the Washington County Insider by Dan Krier, a former member of the CFAC, gives a damning perspective of the crooked process that led up to the current referendum. Below is the start, but please be sure to click through and read the whole thing.

March 30, 2019 – West Bend, WI – As a long-time resident of the West Bend School district, and an advocate for quality education in West Bend, I need to share my experience in regard to the proposed referendum. I have read and heard so many say it’s for education so we have to vote for it.

If it were about education I could vote for it, but it isn’t.

It is about buildings, and more specifically the maintenance of and lack of planning in regard to the buildings. And, the fact that some just want a new school to provide the fancy alternative work spaces that Bray Architectural Firm is flashing before them. We had an alternative learning program in our charter school and we chose not to fund that. Yet we want to push for the alternative space, which is what the new school is really about. Is our school district in the business of buildings, or is it education. I would choose spending on education. I went to a school built in the 1800s and when I entered West Bend East HS I was ahead of most of my class. The building certainly didn’t deter from my education.

I have been very active in getting information in regard to this referendum as I was on the Citizen Facilities Advisory Committee (CFAC). I believe this referendum will do more damage to the district than good. I was at the city council meeting when superintendent Kirkegaard presented the plan. Many of the Aldermen were concerned with the level of debt this would levy on the district. They know the city was strapped for several years under massive debt. And it was only when they got the debt under control they are able to now repair the roads that so desperately need it. They and I know that this debt will strap the district just as it did the city. The approximate $105 million of debt would dwarf that of the entire city of West Bend.

Besides the debt issue, at least one alderman had issue with the presentation stressing need. He said to Kirkegaard that while you claim you are not dictating which way to vote, it certainly sounds as if you are. Yes it was definitely a sell job as I was at several of the presentations.

This district continues to be dishonest with the citizens. And while many support the decisions, I wonder how many wouldn’t if they knew just how dishonest this process has been and the truth behind the spending. The level of dishonesty is to the point where the lack of credible planning to address objective issues, is a detriment to the district. Even many of the School Board members either don’t know enough to realize it, or are just taking an administrators word. Some said these fixes will prevent spending on maintenance in the future. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Many of the real issues have not even been addressed when instead we are fulfilling someone’s wish list. Poor planning got us to where we are today, just as the current lack of credible planning will have the district back at the table for more money in the near future. Yes another referendum in just a few short years.

Back to CFAC. We took tours of both Jackson and the high school during the first couple meetings of the CFAC. The committee was supposedly assembled to address the objective needs. But on the 4th meeting Bray presented a list of needs to the committee including 113 items from Jackson and 76 From the HS most of which we never even discussed. Objective needs like “dated doors.” Not worn, rusted or unusable, but dated. When questioning where they came from, there was a lot of uncertainty and the Bray representative finally even admitted we were not there for what we were told. We were there because the 25-year plan said Jackson and the HS are the items to address next, and we were gathered to decide on how to sell it to you the people.

Vote “No” on West Bend School Referendum

Here is a repost of my column from a couple of weeks ago. Sometimes (perhaps usually) saying “no” is the smartest thing you can do. This is TOO much money for something we DON’T need that won’t do a thing to IMPROVE education. Let’s focus out money and efforts on the kids – not monuments to the egos of adults.

On April 2, the citizens of the West Bend School District are being asked to borrow $47 million, with an estimated payback of $74 million, to build a new Jackson Elementary School and to renovate portions of the high school building. Adhering to the old wisdom that we should not spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need, I will be voting “no” on the referendum. I encourage you to do the same.

Let us start with the money. $74 million is a lot of money. That should go without saying, but in the swirling debates around government spending, that fact tends to get lost. By any measure, $74 million is a LOT of money. To put that in context, there are roughly 40,000 adults in the West Bend School District. $74 million is $1,850 for every single adult in the district. That is not a trivial amount of money for most of us. That is what the school district is asking every voter to spend.

Not only is it a lot of money, it is money that we do not have — as evidenced by the fact that the district needs to borrow the money. The district is also still paying off two previous referendums. If this referendum passes, the citizens of the West Bend School District will be on the hook to pay back a whopping $106 million. Now we are up to $2,650 for every adult just to pay off the district’s debt.

And while it might be easy to brush off such debt in our current booming economy and rising housing prices, we must remember that the district intends to take out a 19-year loan for this spending. The Great Recession was only 12 years ago and there will be recessions in the future. Yet when jobs are scarce and property values are crashing again, the tax burden to pay this debt will remain. Paying off the government’s debt will come before paying for your family’s needs.

What makes the prospect of spending and borrowing this much money so incredibly irresponsible is that it will be for something that we don’t need. Sure, we might want it. Fancy new buildings are fun and cool. But we don’t need it. The Jackson Elementary building is perfectly serviceable and safe. The building has been used to safely educate kids for decades and it can continue to do so for decades if properly maintained.

The high school building could use some renovations. Consolidating the libraries is a good idea. Some of the infrastructure is due for replacing. Some classrooms could use a fresh coat of paint. But almost all of the proposed renovations are wants, not needs. The couple of needs are things that could, and should, be done as part of the normal maintenance cycle of managing a building. They should be budgeted and completed with the normal operating budget. The fact that the school district has failed to properly budget for the routine maintenance cycle of the infrastructure they own is a mark of incompetence that should not be covered with swaths of borrowed cash.

Furthermore, we can’t lose sight of the fact that enrollment is declining and is projected to do so for at least the next decade. According to the district’s own projections completed less than a year ago, total district enrollment will decline by anywhere from 15 percent (baseline method) to 23.5 percent (kindergarten trend) in 10 short years — nine years before the proposed loan is paid off. That’s over a thousand fewer kids in the district in a decade.

Specifically for Jackson Elementary, a building that once held 536 kids 10 years ago is projected to have as few as 307 kids in it 10 years from now. Is it wise for the taxpayers to borrow and spend tens of millions ofdollars to build a brandnew, colossal 82,000-squarefoot school for 43 percent fewer kids?

Finally, what continues to get lost in the debate over referendums is the purpose of a school system — to educate kids. The school district officials and other advocates for the referendum don’t even pretend that spending all of this money on pristine, new facilities will actually improve education. They rightly don’t make that claim because it is demonstrably true that the building in which education happens has nothing to do with the quality of education taking place in that building. Some of the best education in the world occurs in some of the oldest buildings. Education is an activity — not a place. All of our efforts and money should be directed to providing a great education for our kids — not building monuments to the egos of adults.

The West Bend School District has needs. With dramatically declining enrollment and mediocre educational outcomes, new and refurbished buildings are not one of them. Let us put the money we have into improving the quality of education instead of borrowing money we don’t have to pay for things we don’t need.

 

Curious Happenings in the West Bend School District

It’s been a curious day in the West Bend School District. Here’s the scoop…

The School District has a policy that states, “It shall be the policy of West Bend Joint School District No. 1 to provide disclosure to District
residents and taxpayers regarding the total costs of any proposed referendum…” The stated intent and purpose of the policy is that the school district will disclose the full cost of a referendum – including the interest cost – on every district communication about the referendum.

Last week, the school district sent out a third (yes, you read that right) mailing about the referendum. In it, they did not disclose the full cost. Some concerned citizens filed a formal complaint against the school district for violating the policy.

That’s when things started getting weird…

I got an email this morning from the district’s HR Director at 9:18 telling me that there would be a press conference at 11 AM. There are several things odd about this. First, this is the first time the school district has reached out to me proactively under this superintendent. Second, why is the HR Director doing this? The school district employs a full time PR flak. Isn’t that her job? And if not her, why not the Superintendent himself? This is not a reflection on the HR Director. I appreciate his effort. It’s just an odd task for him to be doing. Third, I’ve been following the West Bend School District for over 15 years. This is the first time I ever recall them having a press conference. Ever. And they do so with less than two hours’ notice? Very odd.

Then there was the press conference… I couldn’t attend. I have a job. But the HR Director was kind enough to send me a full recording. The press conference was only about 15 minutes. In it, the superintendent acknowledged that a complaint was filed, but he refused to admit that the school district violated the policy. Instead, he said that the district would be send out a FOURTH mailing, at taxpayers’ expense, that would include the full cost of the referendum. The superintendent refused to explain the policy in question and refused to admit any wrongdoing. Yet, the entire press conference and reaction was clearly a reaction to the complaint. In fact, the response is in line with what the complaint demanded. If they didn’t do anything wrong, then why is the district conducting the remedy demanded in the complaint?

Then, intrepid reporter Judy Steffes asked who filed the complaint and if she could have a copy. Superintendent Kirkegaard refused to say and told her to file an open records request. Why? A complaint is clearly public information. Why not just share it? Why make someone jump through hoops? Isn’t the entire purpose of a press conference to give information to the press? And if the school district is doing all of this in the name of transparency, then why not be, you know, transparent?

This whole fiasco seems to be another chapter in the story of incompetence, duplicity, and waste that have become the hallmarks of the current West Bend School District leadership.

Vote ‘no’ on foolish referendum

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

On April 2, the citizens of the West Bend School District are being asked to borrow $47 million, with an estimated payback of $74 million, to build a new Jackson Elementary School and to renovate portions of the high school building. Adhering to the old wisdom that we should not spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need, I will be voting “no” on the referendum. I encourage you to do the same.

Let us start with the money. $74 million is a lot of money. That should go without saying, but in the swirling debates around government spending, that fact tends to get lost. By any measure, $74 million is a LOT of money. To put that in context, there are roughly 40,000 adults in the West Bend School District. $74 million is $1,850 for every single adult in the district. That is not a trivial amount of money for most of us. That is what the school district is asking every voter to spend.

Not only is it a lot of money, it is money that we do not have — as evidenced by the fact that the district needs to borrow the money. The district is also still paying off two previous referendums. If this referendum passes, the citizens of the West Bend School District will be on the hook to pay back a whopping $106 million. Now we are up to $2,650 for every adult just to pay off the district’s debt.

And while it might be easy to brush off such debt in our current booming economy and rising housing prices, we must remember that the district intends to take out a 19-year loan for this spending. The Great Recession was only 12 years ago and there will be recessions in the future. Yet when jobs are scarce and property values are crashing again, the tax burden to pay this debt will remain. Paying off the government’s debt will come before paying for your family’s needs.

What makes the prospect of spending and borrowing this much money so incredibly irresponsible is that it will be for something that we don’t need. Sure, we might want it. Fancy new buildings are fun and cool. But we don’t need it. The Jackson Elementary building is perfectly serviceable and safe. The building has been used to safely educate kids for decades and it can continue to do so for decades if properly maintained.

The high school building could use some renovations. Consolidating the libraries is a good idea. Some of the infrastructure is due for replacing. Some classrooms could use a fresh coat of paint. But almost all of the proposed renovations are wants, not needs. The couple of needs are things that could, and should, be done as part of the normal maintenance cycle of managing a building. They should be budgeted and completed with the normal operating budget. The fact that the school district has failed to properly budget for the routine maintenance cycle of the infrastructure they own is a mark of incompetence that should not be covered with swaths of borrowed cash.

Furthermore, we can’t lose sight of the fact that enrollment is declining and is projected to do so for at least the next decade. According to the district’s own projections completed less than a year ago, total district enrollment will decline by anywhere from 15 percent (baseline method) to 23.5 percent (kindergarten trend) in 10 short years — nine years before the proposed loan is paid off. That’s over a thousand fewer kids in the district in a decade.

Specifically for Jackson Elementary, a building that once held 536 kids 10 years ago is projected to have as few as 307 kids in it 10 years from now. Is it wise for the taxpayers to borrow and spend tens of millions ofdollars to build a brandnew, colossal 82,000-squarefoot school for 43 percent fewer kids?

Finally, what continues to get lost in the debate over referendums is the purpose of a school system — to educate kids. The school district officials and other advocates for the referendum don’t even pretend that spending all of this money on pristine, new facilities will actually improve education. They rightly don’t make that claim because it is demonstrably true that the building in which education happens has nothing to do with the quality of education taking place in that building. Some of the best education in the world occurs in some of the oldest buildings. Education is an activity — not a place. All of our efforts and money should be directed to providing a great education for our kids — not building monuments to the egos of adults.

The West Bend School District has needs. With dramatically declining enrollment and mediocre educational outcomes, new and refurbished buildings are not one of them. Let us put the money we have into improving the quality of education instead of borrowing money we don’t have to pay for things we don’t need.

Vote ‘no’ on foolish referendum

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Here’s a sample, but go pick up a copy.

On April 2, the citizens of the West Bend School District are being asked to borrow $47 million, with an estimated payback of $74 million, to build a new Jackson Elementary School and to renovate portions of the high school building. Adhering to the old wisdom that we should not spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need, I will be voting “no” on the referendum. I encourage you to do the same.

[…]

Finally, what continues to get lost in the debate over referendums is the purpose of a school system — to educate kids. The school district officials and other advocates for the referendum don’t even pretend that spending all of this money on pristine, new facilities will actually improve education. They rightly don’t make that claim because it is demonstrably true that the building in which education happens has nothing to do with the quality of education taking place in that building. Some of the best education in the world occurs in some of the oldest buildings. Education is an activity — not a place. All of our efforts and money should be directed to providing a great education for our kids — not building monuments to the egos of adults.

The West Bend School District has needs. With dramatically declining enrollment and mediocre educational outcomes, new and refurbished buildings are not one of them. Let us put the money we have into improving the quality of education instead of borrowing money we don’t have to pay for things we don’t need.

 

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.

West Bend School Board Member Raises Concern about Biased Referendum Presentations

Good for Ken Schmidt.

WEST BEND — The $47 million April referendum and allegedly presenting biased, persuasive information on its issues were discussed at the West Bend Joint School District Board of Education regular monthly meeting Monday night.

Board member Ken Schmidt said he heard some district officials were encouraging residents to vote one way or another, which is illegal.

“I want to make sure the district is doing what’s legal,” he said.

In response, Superintendent Don Kirkegaard said he was aware of the legality of attempting to persuade people to vote one way or another and is not urging voters in that manner. No materials are encouraging them one way or the other, he said.

Here’s the game they play… it is illegal for the Superintendent or district staff to advocate for or against a school referendum because they are paid by tax dollars. But the definition of “advocacy” centers around the use of specific words like “vote for,” “please support,” etc.

So they avoid those words, but the material is heavily slanted. For example, take this comment:

If the referendum fails, there is indeed no backup plan, Superintendent Don Kirkegaard said. These improvements need to be done; waiting isn’t much of an option…

Putting aside, for a moment, the fact that it is management malpractice to not have alternate plans, this makes it clear that Kirkegaard wants people to vote for the referendum.

Or this:

“I can say with full honesty that I wasn’t the driving force in making this recommendation,” Kirkegaard said. “But if I was here three years ago, I would’ve made this recommendation because I think it makes sense.”

That is Kirkegaard offering his opinion. That isn’t a factual presentation. If the Superintendent says that it makes sense, then isn’t he, ergo, advocating for its passage?

The most egregious area where they advocate is in the information they choose to share and how they present it. For example, their misleading way of presenting the tax load. Or the fact that their materials label everything as a “need.” Is replacing cabinetry really a need that requires a massive tax increase? Or the way they continue to throw out phrases like, “some (high school) classrooms have not been
updated in nearly 50 years. THE SCHOOL IS ONLY 49 YEARS OLD and the vast majority of them have seen multiple updates over the years. Frankly, I’d like to see the proof that ANY of them haven’t seen some updates.

I doubt that school officials have done any illegal advocacy by the letter of the law, but it is certainly clear to anyone listening to them that they are advocating for its passage.

Break free from debt in the West Bend School District

Here is my full column that appeared first in the Washington County Daily News.

Nothing quite strangles a person, family, community, or nation like debt. Whether it is credit card debt, student loan debt, medical debts, the national debt (now a crushing $22 trillion), or school referendum debt, it not only drains resources in the present, but it robs the future of its choices. Debt is the master who brokers no dissension or leniency. Debt must be served before all others. Why then, does the West Bend School District want to saddle the taxpayers with another generational debt when they are so close to being debt-free?

One of the ways that credit card companies, car dealers, student loan companies, and other people who make money off of your debt sell their products is to focus on the payments instead of the actual debt. By taking a $50,000 car and stretching out the loan to 10 years, suddenly a person earning $30,000 per year can “afford” a really nice car. That works great until it is year eight, the car needs expensive repairs, and there are still two more years of payments due.

This is exactly the misleading game that the West Bend School District is using to sell a massive debt to the citizens. In April, the citizens will be asked to approve borrowing $47 million for a new Jackson Elementary school and revamping parts of the high school. It will cost approximately $74 million to repay the $47 million loan.

One of the selling points for the referendum is that it will “only” cost an additional 13 cents in the annual property tax mill rate to buy shiny new buildings. The mill rate is simply a term that gives the tax rate per $1,000 of property value. So if you own a home valued at $200,000, the 13 cent mill rate increase would cost you $26 per year. That seems cheap, right? “Less than a cup of coffee a month,” the advocates will tout. “Can’t you spare a cup a coffee a month for the children?” And so it goes. We have seen the arguments before. But let us look at the math.

If you add up all of the property in the West Bend School District, it has an aggregate value of $4,720,140,099. A 13 cent additional mill rate would generate $613,618.20 in additional tax revenue per year. How long does it take to pay off a $74 million debt at $613,618.20 per year? Even allowing for moderate annual increases in property values, it would take over 100 years to pay off the debt. How is the West Bend School District going to pay for the fancy new schools with only an additional 13 cents in the mill rate? What sort of financial sorcery is this?

The answer, of course, is that it will not cost just an additional 13 cents in the mill rate. It will cost much, much more. In the current tax levy, the taxpayers of the West Bend School District are paying a $1.01 mill rate to pay off the old referendums passed in 2009 ($27.4 million) and 2012 ($22.865 million). For that same $200,000 house, the homeowner is paying $202 per year just to pay for debt issued in the past decade.

The old debt is being steadily paid off and will be completely paid off by 2028 — nine years from now. Some of that debt begins to be paid off this year. In short, if the citizens vote against the referendum, they will see this portion of their property taxes decrease starting next year and will be eliminated in less than a decade. If the referendum passes, the district will simply redirect that money to the new debt.

The notion that we can pay $74 million in debt with a 13 cent mill rate is ludicrous and to claim so is intentionally deceptive. The truth is that it is not only a tax increase, but forgoing a sizable tax decrease. However one manipulates the mill rate, $74 million is still roughly $1,850 for every adult in the West Bend School District. That is a lot more than a cup of coffee.

Getting out of the debt cycle is a choice. It starts at home by paying off old debt while resisting taking on new debt. It starts in the West Bend School District by paying off the old referendums before passing new ones. Instead of stacking debt on top of debt, the citizens of the West Bend School District should break free of the debt trap and vote “no” on the referendum on April 2.

 

Break free from debt in the West Bend School District

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. I take a look at the math behind the rhetoric of the upcoming referendum in the West Bend School District. Specifically, I take issue with this lie being promoted on posters around town:

Here’s a part:

One of the selling points for the referendum is that it will “only” cost an additional 13 cents in the annual property tax mill rate to buy shiny new buildings. The mill rate is simply a term that gives the tax rate per $1,000 of property value. So if you own a home valued at $200,000, the 13 cent mill rate increase would cost you $26 per year. That seems cheap, right? “Less than a cup of coffee a month,” the advocates will tout. “Can’t you spare a cup a coffee a month for the children?” And so it goes. We have seen the arguments before. But let us look at the math.

If you add up all of the property in the West Bend School District, it has an aggregate value of $4,720,140,099. A 13 cent additional mill rate would generate $613,618.20 in additional tax revenue per year. How long does it take to pay off a $74 million debt at $613,618.20 per year? Even allowing for moderate annual increases in property values, it would take over 100 years to pay off the debt. How is the West Bend School District going to pay for the fancy new schools with only an additional 13 cents in the mill rate? What sort of financial sorcery is this?

The answer, of course, is that it will not cost just an additional 13 cents in the mill rate. It will cost much, much more. In the current tax levy, the taxpayers of the West Bend School District are paying a $1.01 mill rate to pay off the old referendums passed in 2009 ($27.4 million) and 2012 ($22.865 million). For that same $200,000 house, the homeowner is paying $202 per year just to pay for debt issued in the past decade.

The old debt is being steadily paid off and will be completely paid off by 2028 — nine years from now. Some of that debt begins to be paid off this year. In short, if the citizens vote against the referendum, they will see this portion of their property taxes decrease starting next year and will be eliminated in less than a decade. If the referendum passes, the district will simply redirect that money to the new debt.

The notion that we can pay $74 million in debt with a 13 cent mill rate is ludicrous and to claim so is intentionally deceptive. The truth is that it is not only a tax increase, but forgoing a sizable tax decrease. However one manipulates the mill rate, $74 million is still roughly $1,850 for every adult in the West Bend School District. That is a lot more than a cup of coffee.

It really is distressing that the advocates for the referendum – who do so under the mantra of providing a better education for our kids – either don’t understand, or don’t care, about accurately explaining how debt works. This is why we end up with so many adults caught in a debt trap. They aren’t being taught any better.

On WISN @ 1705

I’ll be on the Mark Belling show this afternoon on AM1130 at 1705 with guest host Dave Michaels to discuss my story about West Bend teachers pushing their liberal ideology on kids.

Tune in!