Voters will decide Nov. 3 whether a pair of referendum questions is the best way to address a steady decline in enrollment and aging facilities in the Janesville School District.
The school board in August decided to ask voters to approve both a $22.5 million capital referendum and a $37 million operational referendum.
District officials say the referendums’ failures, particularly failure of the operational referendum, could have serious consequences.
“We’ll administer the district one way or the other,” Superintendent Steven Pophal said.
“We just think that the district is eager to make sure that we prepare kids for their future and not our past,” he said. “And we know the world is changing fast and never faster than in the last six months with COVID, and we want to make sure that we continue the long, proud tradition of excellence in the district by positioning the district to keep its promises to the kids and community.”
The capital referendum would add secure entrances and safety procedures in schools, as well as replace old boilers.
If it is approved, property owners would pay $5 more per $100,000 of equalized property value every year until the debt is paid off, which would take about 20 years, according to an earlier estimate from Dan McCrea, the district’s chief financial officer.
“On the capital side, it will really create a standard of identity, if you will, for what getting into one of our buildings looks like and ensure that we really have a safe and secure entryway into our schools to keep students and staff out of harm’s way,” Pophal said.
Most of the district’s school buildings were constructed before the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, and each has a different setup for safety and entry.
Replacing boilers is especially important, Pophal said, because some of the existing boilers are 50 to 60 years old, and most are designed to last for 20 to 30 years. District officials used surveys to figure out which problems the community wanted to fix, and Pophal believes the referendum takes those surveys into account.
“If we don’t have heat, we don’t have school, starting real soon here,” he said. “So really, out of $111 million of needed maintenance work, we’ve listened to our taxpayers, which was really what the survey said and really focused on the safety and security stuff.”
The $37 million operational referendum would address problems related to declining enrollment and the district receiving less state funding as a result. The money would help maintain programs and services and pay salaries and other costs associated with daily operations.
About 75% of public school districts in Wisconsin use operational referendums, Pophal said. Janesville schools can no longer cut less-important expenses to address the shortfall caused by decreasing enrollment and state aid, he said.
“We’re just at this moment in time, finally, where the way the state’s funding formula is set up has caught up with us—it’s caught up with our ability to maintain the current level of programming that we have,” Pophal said.
“And so without some additional revenue that we can only generate through an operational question on the ballot, the district is in this precarious spot where the programs and services that the community is used to, some of that starts to become at peril.”
Initial estimates for the operational referendum said school taxes would increase by $40 per $100,000 of equalized property value every year for four years. However, more recent estimates shared at an Aug. 25 school board meeting show those numbers will be lower thanks to tertiary aid.
Instead, property owners would see increases of $39 per $100,000 of equalized property value in year one, $31 in year two, $29 in year three and $28 in year four. The referendum would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $127 over the life of the referendum, which is $33 less than initial estimates shared in a previous district survey, McCrea said.
Some taxpayers have expressed concern that the district’s estimates were so high, but officials wanted to ensure the final numbers wouldn’t be higher than original estimates, McCrea said.
Because the numbers change each year, it would have been hard to explain that clearly in the survey, he said.
“I think really the intent of the survey was to test tax tolerance. ...It’s kind of saying, ‘OK, what’s our ceiling? Would people support, essentially, the top or that ceiling level?’ And if the answer to that, which is what was indicated, is ‘yes,’ now we know that’s the ceiling. So don’t go above the ceiling,” McCrea said.
The failure of the operational referendum Nov. 3 could change how education looks in Janesville, Pophal said.
About 75.8% of the district’s budget covers payroll and staffing, so layoffs and larger class sizes likely would follow a failed referendum. Expenses have risen about 1.3% each year since 2013-14, and the district has made changes and cuts to other areas, McCrea said.
“The (district’s) back is up against the wall, and reductions with a failed referendum will severely impact the quality of instruction that our district residents are accustomed to having their children and their community receive,” McCrea said.