Whitewater district residents to vote on $23.5 million referendum Nov. 8

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Jonah Beleckis
Wednesday, November 2, 2016

WHITEWATER—Whitewater residents will vote Tuesday on a referendum seeking $23.5 million for renovations to the school district's five schools.

The estimated annual tax increase from the referendum is $18 for each $100,000 of property value. If the facilities referendum is approved, taxpayers will first see this increase on their December 2017 tax bill, according to a presentation from the school district.

The district has financial flexibility now to take on such a project. It is about to pay off loans from past building projects, which will drop the debt portion of the school property tax bill starting in 2018.

Low interest rates also mean lower long-term borrowing costs, according to the presentation.

This means the community can invest up to $10 million in facility upgrades with no tax increase.

Superintendent Mark Elworthy praised the district's financial responsibility that allowed them to propose a $23.5 million referendum with a minimal increase for taxpayers.

“Not every district has the opportunities we have in front of us,” Elworthy said. “When there's no new money or you're bursting at the seams, those districts are having far different conversations than we are in Whitewater.”

Most of the money, $13.5 million, would be used for improvements to instructional spaces. Another $4.3 million would be used for safety and security improvements, $3.9 million for capital maintenance and renewal, and $1.8 million for American Disabilities Act compliance upgrades.

Upgrades include:

-- $9.1 million for Lincoln Inquiry Charter School to improve security and visitor access by relocating the front entrance; renovate the cafeteria, which serves as the cafeteria and gym, to create a lunchroom with added community space; add a new gym; relocate the library; and build classrooms.

The Citizens Financial Advisory Committee recommended the district build a new school, but preliminary estimates exceeded $20 million, an alternative deemed too costly.

Still, Elworthy said with all the renovations it “will feel like it's a brand new school.”

-- $5.4 million for Whitewater High School to improve security by modifying the entrance, renovate the library, create dedicated swimming pool access, renovate locker rooms, expand the cafeteria, upgrade the auditorium and add fitness and physical education space.

-- $4.8 million for Whitewater Middle School to improve security by relocating the entrance and renovate art, music and band classrooms.

-- $2.6 million for Lakeview Elementary School to modify the front entrance and renovate the library and instructional spaces.

-- $1.6 million for Washington Elementary School to modify the front entrance and renovate the library and 4K and special education classrooms.

Elworthy said by Election Day the district will have done 34 different presentations to parents, business owners and community members.

He emphasized the importance of showing the public why these renovations are necessary.

One of the reasons was to modernize learning environments and give students better learning atmospheres.

It has been 20 years since the district's last facilities referendum.

Lincoln, Lakeview and Washington were built in 1952, 1956 and 1966, respectively.

“Our facilities were built in a time when learning was different,” Elworthy said. “This will allow us to meet students where they're at and the way they learn.”

Elworthy also said the security upgrades for all five schools are significant.

“Instruction is No. 1,” he said, “but having a peace of mind and people feeling good about where their students are attending schools, I think that's incredibly important.”

The district went forward with the referendum after it paid School Perceptions, a Wisconsin firm, to survey the community and gauge support. Results from May showed 58 percent of the 862 respondents said they would definitely or probably support a referendum to provide $23.5 million in school renovations. Thirty percent said they would definitely not or probably not support it.

The district scrapped a second referendum to install air conditioning at all three elementary schools because survey results showed only 47 percent of respondents definitely or probably would support it.

Elworthy said the facilities referendum is a response to what the district has heard are necessary renovations.

During the communication phase of the plan, Elworthy said bouncing between listening sessions and presentations is why he loves his job.

“That's what energizes me. That's the best part of being a district administrator,” he said. “It's great to hear what people believe in.”

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