RACINE — The Racine Unified School District is considering, once again, to ask voters for more money through a referendum question on the November general election ballot.
Unified officials say the district needs more money to fund school safety improvements, as well as facility and technology upgrades. The administration asked the School Board Wednesday evening to consider putting a new referendum question to voters, to provide approximately $10 million in additional funds per year, as well as to extend the existing referendum past its 2029 expiration date. The administration provided two options to the board, for either a recurring referendum or one with a set end date.
At the same time, district officials advised the board to commit to a property tax cap moving forward at the 2017-18 rate of $10.02 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.
Voters last approved a Unified referendum in November 2014, allowing the district to collect $8.5 million per year above its state-imposed spending limit for 15 years. That referendum, which is set to collect a total of $128 million, is set to end in 2029.
Superintendent Eric Gallien said he wants to continue to make facility improvements that will help prepare students to enter the workforce successfully.
“We’ve been good stewards of the money that you’ve given us,” Gallien said. “We’ve done some good things; we’re proud of what we’ve done in this community.”
The district has already spent 85 percent of the 2014 referendum funds, much of it on borrowing for new buildings opened in fall 2016. The district spent $15.1 million on a new Olympia Brown Elementary School building, $14 million on a new Knapp Elementary School building and $18.9 million to transform and expand Gifford into a K-8 school.
Some referendum money also went toward the approximately $30 million in maintenance and projects the district was set to complete over the current summer break.
Other referendum projects already completed include new science labs at Horlick High School that opened in January, the relocation of the REAL School to the former Sturtevant Sportsplex and many maintenance projects at schools across the district.
Several School Board members on Wednesday expressed support for putting a new referendum to the voters.
“I think extending the current referendum would be a great idea; if we let if drop off, we would have to fight to get it back,” said board member Dennis Wiser.
Board member John Heckenlively agreed.
“One of the great things about this community is that there is a strong commitment to public education,” he said.
Heckenlively said voters can see the good things the district has done with the 2014 money, he hopes, will want to support Unified to make more improvements.
Board President Robert Wittke Jr., who is running for state Assembly, voiced some reservations about the idea.
“There will be questions about our performance level, and unfortunately that’s how we’re judged in the community,” Wittke said.
He encouraged the administration and other board members to consider the consequences of a failed referendum and advised them to create a “plan B.”
Without a new referendum, Unified Chief Financial Officer Marc Duff predicts that the tax rate would decrease in 2018-19 to $9.72 per $1,000 of assessed property value from its rate this past year of $10.02. And he expects it to continue to decrease notwithstanding the new referendum. If the referendum passed, the district could commit to keeping the rate steady at $10.02 and using the difference to fund its improvements.
The expected reduction in the tax rate, prior to passing a new referendum, is due to several factors including the end next year of a Unified referendum passed in 1997 that paid $1.3 million a year for an unfunded liability for the state’s retirement system.
Duff said he also expects that property value increases from development in the district will mean a decrease in the base tax rate.
Voter referendums allow districts to collect dollar amounts beyond their state-imposed revenue limits. The limit is based on how many pupils attend school in the district, among other factors.
Duff said the school funding formula was not meant to pay for construction, and that most districts in the state fund building through voter referendums.
Duff said although the district is committed to doing what it can to keep the property tax rate steady, it can’t control a change in state law such as the one that caused a spike in the 2015-16 tax rate to $10.63 from $9.59 the previous school year. Because of the law change, private-school vouchers were funded entirely by the tax levy that year. Unified was reimbursed by the state for a portion of that cost in the following year.
Unified still has a long list of improvements it would like to make, and it hopes to use additional referendum funds to do so. Gallien said the district would intend to use some of the funds to increase school safety, in part by creating secure vestibules at some of its older schools where doing so will be pricey.
The district has applied for, and is expected to receive, a grant from the state Department of Justice for school safety soon, but the amount the district applied for, about $950,000, pales in comparison to the millions needed to fund all the safety upgrades.
Gallien also said the Academies of Racine were not in the district’s plan when the referendum was initially approved in November 2014. But this learning model, wherein students choose a specific pathway of focus and get hands-on experience in that area, have since garnered support from the business community.
“I think they’re the exact model that could be the answer to some of the questions about how are we going to prepare the workforce for the change and the economic development that’s getting ready to happen,” Gallien said.
However, the district needs to make upgrades to technology and equipment as well as to create adequate facilities for its pathways, Gallien said. The district also hopes to continue to make upgrades to modernize its middle and elementary schools.
Ten of the Unified’s schools have a shared room for auditorium, cafeteria and gym. The district would like to change that.
Also on the district’s list for repair or replacement is the Case High School pool, which is down for at least the next year because of leaks that make it unsafe for swimming. However, Gallien declined to name specific projects that would be funded by a future referendum, and said nothing was set in stone.
The board must decide by Aug. 28, per state law, whether or not to put the referendum on the November general election ballot.
The School Board’s next business meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. Monday in Building 1 of the district’s Administrative Service Campus, 3109 Mt. Pleasant St. Although no votes were taken on Wednesday, the board members generally voiced agreement to voting on the issue during that meeting.
Prior to deciding to recommend a new referendum to the School Board, Stacy Tapp, Unified’s chief of communication and community engagement, said the district did a random phone poll of people living in the district to determine voter sentiment.
“We’ve gotten the pulse of the community,” Tapp said. “And the sense is that there is some support for it, and what we’re really seeing is that there’s support for the work that’s already been done and some hope and excitement around things like the Academies of Racine.”
She added that there seemed to be stronger support for a referendum this year than when the last one was passed in 2014.
“We want to be thoughtful about how we move forward as the county is moving forward,” Gallien said. “We want to be in alignment with the overall vision of this region and not reactionary; we want to be proactive. Part of our message is: We want to continue to do what we’ve been doing, and that’s continuing to provide better facilities, better opportunities for our students.”
Burlington Area School District will ask taxpayers this November to approve construction of a new sixth- through eighth-grade middle school, as well as maintenance, repairs and safety upgrades for all of the district’s buildings, for $43.6 million.
In addition, Waterford Graded School District is set to ask voters this fall to approve an almost $25 million referendum for remodeling and upgrades to its Fox River Middle School.