Surveying Spooner Elementary School issues for possible referendum

Luke Schultz of CESA and Spooner Elementary Principal Pete Hopke tell the district's ad hoc Referendum Facilities Committee about potential projects that need to be done at the school and could be funded through a referendum.

SPOONER – The ad hoc committee studying the Spooner School District’s three school buildings to narrow down what repairs and upgrades should be put onto a referendum in April has come up with a $14.8 million recommendation plus a handful of other potential projects for the school board to consider.

If all of the projects were to be completed, including replacing the 60-plus-year-old middle school with a new one at the high school, the cost could total $37.3 million.

The projected tax impacts prepared before the committee finalized its recommendations showed that with a $16 million referendum, taxpayers could pay approximately $2.33 a month per $100,000 fair market value for their property during the 20-year payback period, while at the higher end, a $34 million referendum, the cost would be $7.08 per month per $100,000 valuation.

Committee member and school board member Paul Johnson compared the $7.08 to the price of a fast-food hamburger.

“We all live in work in this community,” said school board and committee member Deb Olson. “Our kids go to school here.” She said “it’s very hard to put a price tag on giving your kids the best education possible,” on them getting “a great education in a wonderful building with great teachers, a great staff.”

Nearly all of the projects grew out of the facilities study done in 2016. In reviewing the deficiencies, and suggesting other potential improvements, the Referendum Facilities Committee emphasized projects that improve the schools’ safety and security (such as creating a secure vestibule at each school to better control the public’s physical access to the buildings) but also approved projects ranging from replacing worn out or defective equipment and building components to remodeling to adding classrooms to updating wiring, roofing, and heating and ventilation.

The committee repeatedly weighed must-haves and nice-to-haves, trying to balance need, cost, whether the items should be in the regular budget or a referendum, and what the public may be likely to actually support through a referendum.

They also were cognizant that the state law now mandates that referendums be held only once every two years, with just two questions on the ballot. With that in mind and to better gauge what the taxpayers would approve, the school board on Monday night approved hiring School Perceptions out of Slinger (Wisconsin) to conduct a survey of the taxpayers this fall.

The committee’s recommendations will go to the school board’s Committee of the Whole on July 1, and the board will work with School Perceptions to develop the survey.

Middle school

Building a new middle school initially was not listed as a referendum proposal, but it was suggested through the committee as it reviewed nearly $8 million in projects there, including demolishing the structurally unsound small gym, making multiple repairs and upgrades, and creating a secure entrance.

Committee member Pat Shifferd said she believed that eventually the voters would agree to a new school. “Question is, when would they agree to face the inevitable and that that 60-year-old building [it] is time to have a different life or none?

“So if that decision, or that realization by the community were two years from now or five years from now, then we ought to put as little as possible to keep this current school safe,” she said. “If it’s not for 20 years, then by God, we gotta fix it up,

If the money is going to be put into the school, said Superintendent David Aslyn, then it needs to run “somewhere there about 10 years on the short end.”

All of the buildings are safe, he emphasized, but the middle school, being a multi-story structure, does present some challenges, such as not being able to evacuate through a window onto the lawn if need be.

“Infrastructure-wise,” Aslyn said, “it needs some upgrades, but it’s still fundamentally a pretty solid building. And then there’s some unknowns. Here, you can’t know if the water and sewer lines are going to go bad next winter with the frost, you just can’t know. So you make best guess.”

The list of potential referendum projects does not include everything that the school needs or would be a benefit to it, he said, but it hits the high points, and it would make the school a usable facility for some time in the future.”

“I’ve been considering a lot what would happen if we were to put a middle school up here somewhere,” middle school principal Michelle Kabdi said. “And I know that Antholz Gym is really important to a lot of people in the community. There’s a lot of nostalgia, a lot of memories. And so I feel like the support from the community might be there to repair that and have it be tournament-ready. We also put 9 million into that building 10 years ago. And so if we were to keep that new part, the entrance, the offices, renovate the gym, perhaps keep that fifth-grade wing, because it’s in the best shape.”

She suggested that perhaps the three floors that are not in as good a shape could be eliminated and the remaining structure becomes a hub for the after-school program and the alternative school is moved from the former vocational building, which is in “rough shape,” to the building.

“I don’t know if any of it’s feasible, or if it’s anything that the community would support,” she said. “It’s just an idea. We could pave some of that and take care of some of the parking issues, have another additional gym space available in the district as well.”

A question that came up often was whether some of the projects at the three schools could be added to the regular budget as maintenance items, such as replacing water heaters at the high school ($125,000) or replacing windows at the middle school ($272,000).

Aslyn responded that the next fiscal year that begins July 1 is expected to be the district’s first balanced budget in eight years. He said that business manager Shannon Grindell told him that typically the amount set aside annually for projects is $100,000, which usually covers two projects – which would leave the majority of the proposed referendum listings outside the scope of the budget.

Kali Fizel suggested the district should consider how to best attract and retain students.

“I think we also need to look at the schools around us, though, who have gone to referendum and passed referendums and are improving their facilities, and they’re going to be drawing families and students in, and if we don’t keep up, we’re going to lose students,” she said. “Our enrollment is dropping right now. We need to do something to stop that. And if we let our facilities go, our families are going to go too. So at some point in time, we need to compete on that level. And we’re not right now.”

Districts are literally competing for students and families, she said.

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