Residents show limited support for operational referendum

By Tracy Ouellette

SLN Staff

After repeated belt tightening, to the tune of $6.3 million over the last 10 years, the East Troy School District began investigating the possibility of an operational referendum for the April ballot to avoid cutting programs and teachers to meet the projected budget shortfalls in the 2019-20 school year and beyond.

The district is projecting an annual budget shortfall for operations and maintenance of $4.5 million over the next three years, according to the survey.

The possible operational referendum would be for $1.5 million a year for three years.

The district would use the money to maintain course offerings and services, maintain class sizes, address critical maintenance projects that have been put off because of lack of funds, maintain the 1:1 technology replacement cycle and retain staff, according to the survey.

Bill Foster, of School Perceptions, said the data indicated referendum for the full operations referendum, which was projected to cost residents about $98 per $100,000 of property value annually, would probably fail.

The survey had a 20 percent participation rate among the School District residents, with 1,188 completing the survey. The margin of error on the survey was 2.9 percent.

The School District contracted a survey with School Perceptions, which was sent out to all district residents in November. The survey cost about $10,000 and the School Board received the results at the Dec. 10 meeting.

The news wasn’t as encouraging as district officials might have hope for, with only 44 percent of residents saying they would “definitely” and “probably” vote yes for the three-year referendum for operations.

Forty percent of residents said they would “definitely” or “probably” vote no, 29 and 11 percent respectively.

“The public really doesn’t understand the cuts we’ve made over the years and they don’t understand the programs we’re going to have to cut,” School Board Vice-President Dawn Buchholtz said.

Buchholz went on to say that because of open enrollment, the district was competing for students with surrounding area schools like Mukwonago, where the high school had just been renovated and improved by a $50 million referendum.

“We can’t compete with the Mukwonagos of the world,” resident Scott Strerath said, adding that unless East Troy became a specialty school like Milwaukee Tech, it couldn’t survive.

“Eventually districts like East Troy will dissolve,” Strerath said. “We’ve been squeezed all we can be squeezed. With these increases you push us right out of the community.”

“What I would say to East Troy is that if you don’t make any investments in your schools, there are consequences,” Foster said. “If no one wants to live in the school district, home values go down.”

Where to cut

The survey also asked residents where the School District should make more cuts to balance the budget.

At the top of the list was to reduce curriculum and textbook updates, followed by delaying the technology replacement cycle. After that came freezing staff salaries, reducing the number of college, AP and elective courses at the high school, and reducing the offerings at the elementary and middle schools.

Buchholtz said cuts in programs like art and music could be on the table too, and that she didn’t think the community would respond well to what they would have to slash from the programming.

What’s supported

The survey did show some support for providing more funding for operations and maintenance, but not at the level the School District was looking for. In general, the survey respondent said they would be willing to support an operational referendum at a level lower than the $98 a year per $100,000 of property value.

The survey also showed the residents supported some funding for improving East Troy Middle School with safety upgrades and enhancing the science areas. The residents also were in favor of providing additional money for annual building maintenance needs throughout the district and keeping class sizes at their current levels.

District Administrator Chris Hibner said his take from the survey results was that the community would support some money for operations and some money for improvements at the middle school, if the overall cost to the taxpayer would be below the $98 mark.

Foster agreed, saying it was now up to the board to decide if the district should go to referendum and at what level.

The School Board will meet at 6 p.m. on Jan. 7 to make that decision.




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