Our Views: Blackhawk Technical College faces uncertainty after referendum failure

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Blackhawk Technical College could use more money. In hindsight, however, Tuesday’s referendum was an overreach. Asking voters to approve expanding the college’s property tax base by $4 million was too much for too long.

The Gazette’s editorial board supported a “yes” vote but did so reluctantly. Eckert was right while reflecting on vote totals Tuesday night to suggest residents couldn’t swallow that the referendum had no sunset. Taxpayers were being asked for $4 million more not just for next year but for each year forever.

Sure, because of extra state aid budgeted for technical colleges next year property taxes going to Blackhawk will decline—and they would have dropped even if the referendum had passed. Yet that’s only a one-year guarantee. No one knows how financing of tech schools might change as politics in Madison shift. Eckert suggested Blackhawk would tap the $4 million each year only if needed. Having it available, however, makes it tempting to spend on wants rather than needs.

Last winter, Blackhawk’s foundation—not taxpayers—paid consultant School Perceptions to survey residents and gauge support for a referendum. Forty percent said they would or probably would support it, 15 percent were undecided and 45 percent said they would not or probably would not back it. The college then decided against putting the referendum on the April ballot, hoping to better educate voters about the need. It set the referendum for the fall primary, rather than the November general election, perhaps hoping a low August voter turnout might help it win approval.

That move didn’t help, at least not enough. If the survey encouraged the referendum, the money wasn’t very well spent.

Much was at stake. Blackhawk has cut $4.9 million from its budget since 2010-11 because of state aid cuts. The college had been diligent about how much it asked of local taxpayers, and when the state imposed new taxing limits, Blackhawk was caught with the lowest operational costs per full-time student among the state’s small technical colleges.

A strong technical college is crucial to this region, which needs much more economic development. Blackhawk is about to open an Advanced Manufacturing Training Center, built using dollars donated by local companies. Without the money a “yes” vote would have provided, you wonder whether Blackhawk can fully staff and operate it.

Eckert says an attorney advised Blackhawk that the law indicates colleges must increase their bases through referendums annually and in perpetuity, rather than request a lump sum for, say, three or five years. Eckert told us Wednesday a short-term increase wouldn’t make sense because you couldn’t hire faculty knowing funding will dry up.

Eckert doesn’t foresee a new referendum being proposed anytime soon. If that means shrinking more operations, it won’t help educate skilled workers needed to fill jobs and boost the local economy.

Fortunately, Eckert didn’t hint at more rollbacks.

 “I think the voters spoke pretty strongly, so I think at this point we’re going to just press forward and do the very best we can with the resources at our disposal,” he said.

In a statement the college released, Eckert said Blackhawk would keep exploring ways to strengthen current programs and find innovative ways to serve Rock and Green counties.

Blackhawk does a good job educating its students. Unfortunately, if officials thought they could educate enough voters about Blackhawk’s needs to get Tuesday’s referendum passed, they failed that test.

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