The scene looked familiar as members of the Phillips School Board gathered Monday night to vote whether or not to send a resolution for a $9,860,000 referendum to the April 7 ballot, when citizens who live within the school district will have the opportunity to decide whether or not the district can move forward with a plan for redesigning their facilities to bring all students under one roof.
The familiarity was with good reason — this is the third time in three years that the school board has been faced with this decision.
In January 2018, the board voted to send a resolution for a $12.6 million referendum to the spring ballot, where it failed to pass by a significant margin (668 yes votes, 962 no votes).
In January 2019, the school board was faced with the choice again, but this time with a last-minute idea on the table to combine the district's facilities into a single K-12 campus. With limited time and only a hastily drawn plan, the board voted unanimously to postpone the referendum for another year, allowing them the much needed time to craft a plan that has the potential to serve the district well into the future.
That plan, which has been the work of the past year, calls for expanding the middle/high school campus in order to create a single K-12 campus. In addition to a new elementary wing, the redesign would also expand and improve the technical education department, resolve water issues on that side of the building, and make improvements to rooms throughout the middle/high school campus. It is possible that if any funds are left over from the main project, they would go toward demolition of the 1958 and 1972 wings of the existing elementary school. It is also possible that the district office would be moved to the former elementary building in order to maximize classroom space on the main school campus.
When the board began their discussions on the night of Jan. 20, it was with board member Paula Houdek expressing a sense of unease.
“I just don't think there has been enough time engaging our public in these conversations,” said Houdek, who said she was concerned that the referendum would not be approved by voters who are still uncertain and unwilling to be saddled with more tax burden.
She pointed to comments garnered through a community survey conducted last fall, saying that of the 193 comments received — both for and against the referendum — many pointed out issues. Houdek said that the most significant seemed to be a lack of communication in all parts of the district.
For board member Marty Krog, however, the decision is one that can no longer be postponed.
“This decision impacts every single person in the school district,” said Krog, adding that the process of informing the community about the project will continue up until the vote. “We know we've got an issue. It's going to be up to this community to make a decision on what we're going to do and how we're going to solve it. To not move forward — it's just going to cost us more down the road, and perhaps put us in a more negative situation than we are now.”
School board president Jon Pesko noted that the current option — which has been more than a year in the making — using the existing square footage wisely and creating a structure that will last well into the future. He commented that he believed in the strength of the community, saying that while he understood the tax would be a burden, it was a necessary one.
Following discussions, a roll call vote was taken, and the resolution to go to a referendum was passed seven to one. Houdek cast the sole dissenting vote. Board member Stephen Willett was absent from the meeting.
If approved, the referendum would result in an estimated annual tax increase of $1.30 for every $1,000 worth of property for 20 years.
The community will have the opportunity to learn more about the proposed project at two upcoming open houses, planned for 6 p.m. on Wednesday, March 11 at the middle/high school, and 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 26 at the elementary.