East Troy’s Cora Glass, 7, and Callea Glass, 4, encourage residents to vote Yes Twice for the East Troy Community School District operational and maintenance referendums.

Operational, maintenance referendums on spring ballot

By Tracy Ouellette


The East Troy Community School District is going to referendum again on the April 6 ballot, asking the community to approve two referendum questions. The first is for an escalating operational referendum for a five-year term for $8 million. The levy would be in the amounts of $800,000 the first year, $1.4 million the second, $1.6 million the third, $1.9 million the fourth and $2.3 million the fifth. The referendum would end after year five.

The second is a capitol referendum for $8 million borrowed on a 20-year bond. This option allows the district to take advantage of favorable interest rates for the long-term projects and refinancing of debt.

Readers of this newspaper’s Opinion page know that the referendum questions have both people in the community who enthusiastically support the funding and people who are vehemently against it.

Ten-year-old Addy Halbesma asks community members to support the schools for her future.

When the School Board voted in December to go to referendum again after the operational referendum failed in April of 2020, board members acknowledged that educating the community on why the district was seeking additional funding would be paramount.

With the School District facing such large operational deficits in the coming years, cutting costs is not an option anymore if the district wants to remain viable, according to district officials. The district has cut about $8.2 million from the budget over the last 14 years. On average, to balance the budget, the district has cut about $400,000 a year.

In the last 14 years, according to district officials, the district has implemented $8.2 million in budget-balancing efforts through changes to all benefits, entry level wages that are now below other area schools, utilizing energy efficiency savings; eliminating, reprioritizing and restructuring positions to part-time for benefit avoidance, applying for grants and gifts, and refinancing debt to minimize interest costs. The district has also cut about six full-time teaching positions.

If the referendum fails, the district is projecting the need to cut another $2.3 million over the next five years. Those cuts will include double digit cuts in administration (11%) and teacher positions (13% and about a 6% cut in support staff and specialists and supervisors. Elementary school class sizes could increase from 23 to 25 in a class to 31 to 34, district officials say.

Why is more funding needed?

Seven-year-old Preston McBurney (left) and Aidan McBurney, 9, make their support of the East Troy School District’s referendums known.

The reason behind the need for additional funding is because school districts in the state are not funded equally.

When revenue limits were set back in 1993 each school district was placed in a formula based on it spending history. East Troy’s history of conservative spending placed the district at the bottom 16% of districts in the state. Some districts, even with the same number of students and same demographics, receive millions more per year because they were placed at a higher level in the formula, according to district officials.

The East Troy schools also compete with surrounding area district for students because of the Open Enrollment options available to parents. All of the surrounding area districts, with the exception of Palmyra-Eagle, have passed building and/or operational referendums in recent years, including Mukwonago, Elkhorn and Waterford, which all draw students from East Troy.

Informing the public

In an effort to be transparent and get community members involved and informed, the School District created a referendum page on its website at www.easttroy.k12.wi.us. The site contains information on how the district is not funded equally with other school district’s in the state and a myriad of additional information for voters to make an informed decision, including a calculator to figure out how much more property owners will pay in taxes based on their property value.

The tax impact with the two questions is projected at $95 per $100,000 of home value annually for five years. The 2020 operation referendum was a bit higher at $98 per $100,000 of home value.

The School Board and district also has answered questions at board meetings and held an information Q&A on March 11 where community members could submit questions in writing to be answered. School Board  meetings an the Q&A can be found on the district’s YouTube channel.

School Board President Ted Zess said he was encouraged by the questions people are asking.

“We have a lot of people digging in, people are engaged,” Zess said. “I’m hoping more people just get the facts, ask the questions and find out what’s going on. If they need multiple sources, then by all means, go find them, and ask us. That’s what we’re here for.”

Zess said he and his fellow board members have been getting phone calls and people asking questions when they’re out and about, which is a good thing.

“When they ask, and we talk it through, they are listening. I’m not sure if we’ve changed their minds, but they are listening, which is all we can ask.”

Zess said with COVID-19 cases still at high levels and the restrictions on large gathering, it’s been a challenge to connect with more people.

“That’s the biggest drawback right now,” he said. “People are uncomfortable meeting in large groups right now and we can’t open the schools for it, we just can’t have a big public meeting.”

Zess said while the board members understand the reluctance some people have with paying more in taxes, he pointed out the East Troy School District has kept the students in school, in person since fall, something many other school districts across the state and county haven’t been able to do. He attributed the success to the district administration and staff and the plan the district has in place for safe learning during the pandemic.

“This is the type of thing people don’t always think about when it comes to a referendum like this,” Zess said. “We’ve done something very challenging because the community told us they wanted in-person learning. We made it work and it wasn’t easy but we thought it was best for the community. Now we’re asking for the community to step up and help us back a bit.

“We think we’ve done a very good job over the last 15 years or so. We’ve balanced the budget every year and wrung out as much of our budget as we can and we don’t see a way out without community support. This process is what we’re supposed to do; it’s what it’s designed to do and most districts across the state have already done it.”

Opposing views

As stated before, there are two sides to every issue and not everyone is on board with the referendum.

Jim Stemper, of East Troy, has delved into why the schools are not equally funded and has not liked what he’s found.

“I do quite a bit of research, I always have when a referendum has come up,” Stemper said. “I didn’t realize until I talked to some friends who are teachers and some School Board members … I wasn’t aware we are actually underfunded.”

Stemper said he even tried to get a response from Rep. Tyler August and others in the Wisconsin Legislature to answer his questions, to no avail.

“I don’t care what side of the isle anyone favors, it’s across the board and your requests for answers fall in deaf ears,” Stemper said.

He acknowledged school district’s like East Troy are not getting a fair share of the state funding, but questioned if the districts across the state have fought “hard enough” to get the funding formula changed.

“It’s one thing to send a letter,” he said. “It’s another thing to really fight for something. My biggest concern with this referendum since I investigated and found out we’re underfunded is who’s job is it to fight for this funding? I need to see proof that they’re fighting because the only thing the end user gets is they’re asking for more money.”

School District Business Manager Kathy Zwirgzdas said the response they are given to requests to revamp the funding formula is always the same: You have recourse, you can go to referendum.

Stemper said maybe it was time for more people in the community to start fighting, if only the politicians in Madison would listen.

Stemper added that he was concerned that in five years, if the funding formula wasn’t changed, the School District would be coming back to the taxpayers for another operational referendum.

“When that money runs out, they’ll have to come back for more and that doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.

He also said the School District’s test scores weren’t “great” and he thought if they could bring those up, it would help. But he acknowledged that teachers are the key and perception is a problem.

“People have this image of teachers that they work nine months of the year and we contribute to their retirement and health insurance and they’ve got it easy. How do you get over that image? How do you let people know it’s not true?” Stemper said.

He said he thinks there is more community support for the referendum this time around, if the yard signs and letters to the editor are any indication, and was heartened to see people getting involved.

“We’re so small, we need everyone on deck and we need a unique approach to become competitive with the surrounding schools,” he said.

Stemper admitted that he was “almost advocating” for the referendum, but was still leaning toward voting no.

“I guess I go back to that it appears to me that this has been kicked down the road with a half-hearted attempt to fix unequal funding and it just falls back into the community’s lap. I guess I don’t believe the School Board or administration actually realizes how much of a pain in the rear end they have to be to get them to budge even a millimeter.”

In the end, Stemper said he honestly didn’t know what the answer was other than getting the school’s rankings up and becoming more competitive with other school districts.

“I just can’t believe money is the only answer to this,” he said. “Unless things change with funding and we light a fire under the politicians we’re going to be doing this in another five years. It’s just a Band-Aid.

“I’m leaning toward No, but … what if I’m wrong?” Stemper asked. “What if I’m speaking out of ignorance?”


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