School referendum: Beyond the price tag
BY MIKE WARREN
Part V of V
MARSHFIELD – As our series on the Marshfield School District’s proposed $99.5 million referendum and facilities improvement plan concludes, we take a closer look at the financial aspects of the project and how officials arrived at the current proposal before voters on April 4.
The proposed improvements were identified by the district’s Community-Based Facility Planning Committee, a group of school officials and residents who have been working since May 2022 to create a new, long-range facility plan for the district.
“It is typical for school districts to periodically go through a long-range facility planning process, and that’s what the district has had going on,” said Superintendent Dr. Ryan Christianson, during a recent program Hub City Times produced, in conjunction with Marshfield Broadcasting.
“The School District of Marshfield actually went through a comprehensive, long-range facilities study back during the 2016-17 school year, and there were a variety of facility needs that were identified at that time, and one of the things that came out of that work is what led to the athletic facility campaign that resulted in the construction of our new stadium, the addition of the softball and baseball diamonds on the Madison Elementary School and High School campus and the renovation work of Beell Stadium and the track at the middle school,” Christianson added. “In the 21-22 school year, we came back to that study that had been completed in the 16-17 year, began working with a new group of planners – in this case Bray Architects – and we went back to our staff, did a staff survey, we did some listening sessions, Bray Architects with our maintenance staff did a walk-through in all of our buildings and we did a review of all of the facility needs that we have within the school district, and that set the stage for the Community-Based Facility Planning Committee that we’ve been talking about during the series. That group came together starting in May of 2022,” Christianson said.
He added the school board’s decision to ultimately place the proposed improvements on the April 4 ballot in the form of a referendum question was further solidified by a district-wide survey last November which projected 58.8 percent of just over 1,500 respondents would support the base plan of $99.5 million worth of facility additions and upgrades and capital maintenance.
“When the Community-Based Facility Planning Committee was doing their work, we identified more needs than ultimately ended up being included into what our base plan is,” Christianson noted.
Dr. Rob DeMeuse, Research Director for School Perceptions, an independent education research firm based in Slinger, assisted school officials in conducting the November survey, to gauge support for a proposed plan that would make major additions and facility upgrades, primarily targeting Marshfield High School.
“Within that 99.5 million, about $85 million of that would be work going into the high school,” Christianson pointed out.
The next-largest project on the list is at Grant Elementary School, totaling just over $6.1 million. Marshfield Middle School would see $3.4 million worth of improvements, while the work slated for Nasonville Elementary comes to nearly $2.6 million. Lincoln – the district’s oldest elementary school – would receive $1.7 million worth of upgrades, while Madison Elementary would see $415,000 worth of improvements and Washington’s work would come to $85,000.
Christianson says the district does budget annually for maintenance work, but there simply is no room for the big-ticket items targeted in the referendum.
“We have an operational budget that runs in the range of about $58 million, and more than 80 percent of that is for human resources. It’s for staff. It’s for wages and benefits,” Christianson adds. “But we have budgeted annually a half a million dollars for maintenance work. We are constantly fixing things. We’re doing patchwork on fixing roofs, leaky sinks, sidewalks break up and you have to replace concrete, we’re mowing lawn, we’re cleaning with our custodial staff every single day,” he adds. “So, we do a lot of work annually to keep our facilities up and running well. That really explains why the infrastructure we have in place has kept operating as well as it has. When you have (state-imposed) revenue caps there’s only so much that you can put into that annual maintenance budget.”
The referendum ballot question comes at a time when district residents just experienced a sizable property tax increase. Part of that increase, Christianson says, was due to the district paying off its debt from a 2005 building referendum early.
“That actually was worked into the planning that we were doing on the tail end of the work with the facility-planning committee this last summer and into the early fall, and were making final decisions on what to include and what the dollar amount would be,” he added.
Christianson says the school board took action to pay down that 2005 building referendum debt early, as more state aid was coming in.
“The school district has been getting increases to cover our operational budget. It’s important for taxpayers to understand and know that about 60 percent of our annual operating budget comes from state aid,” Christianson explained. “As a result of getting an increase in state aid the levy on local taxpayers for operations has been coming down, and it took a pretty good dip this year, which is why we decided to do this debt defeasance,” Christianson added. “The board approved to pay off the last couple of years remaining on the debt levy for the 2005 referendum. Now, what we were targeting was to keep that tax rate, or what we call the mill rate, about even, or stable. The previous year the mill rate was at $7.72 for school district taxes. It ended up being at $7.79. When we were working with the planning committee and talked about setting up to do this debt defeasance to pay off the 2005 referendum debt early, we narrowed the base plan of this new proposed referendum down to have an equal levy impact so that we could try to keep the tax rate neutral. We were hoping for $7.60. It ended up being $7.79, but the good news is we are positioned for – if this referendum were to pass – it will be tax-neutral on the debt levy portion of the (overall) levy.”
The district has information related to the referendum on its website at www.marshfieldschools.org/referendum. That includes links to our video series on the referendum, produced in conjunction with Marshfield Broadcasting. That website also has links to other information, such as the official ballot question, concept plans, our previous articles on the topic, and the complete cost detail of what would be spent at each of the district’s seven schools.
Polling places open up at 7 a.m. on April 4 and close at 8 p.m.