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Unified Board set to vote Jan. 27 on $598M referendum for April ballot

Unified Board set to vote Jan. 27 on $598M referendum for April ballot

Brian O'Connell

Brian O'Connell, Director of City Development.

RACINE — A $598 million, 30-year referendum is likely in the future for the Racine Unified School District.

School Board members saw a draft of a proposed referendum question during a Monday evening meeting.

The board is set to vote on a resolution to go to referendum during its Jan. 27 meeting, with plans for the referendum question to be placed on the April 7 spring election ballot. That’s the same day as Wisconsin’s presidential primary.

If the board decides to go to referendum and voters approve the district’s request to exceed its state-imposed revenue limit for the next 30 years, the money collected would fund the majority of a $710 million facilities overhaul.

That overhaul plan was informed by a comprehensive long-range facilities master plan that was in the works for more than a year and rates the facility condition and educational adequacy of all of the district’s schools.

‘Right size’ the district

The plan is set to “right-size” the district or align the capacity of its schools with its shrinking enrollment, and takes into account likely areas of future growth.

The plan includes the closure of several school buildings over the next five or six years, as well as construction of new school buildings and renovation of others.

Referendum funds would also pay for equipment for Academies of Racine career pathway programs, safety improvements, school furnishings, new technology and debt service for the building projects. Construction would take place over the next eight years.

Existing school buildings recommended for closure within the next five or six years are Giese Elementary, 5120 Byrd Ave.; Red Apple Elementary, 914 St. Patrick St.; Schulte Elementary, 8515 Westminster Drive, Sturtevant; Roosevelt Elementary, 915 Romayne Ave.; Janes Elementary, 1425 N. Wisconsin St.; Jefferson Lighthouse Elementary, 1722 W. Sixth St.; North Park Elementary, 4748 Elizabeth St., Caledonia; West Ridge Elementary, 1347 S. Emmertsen Road, Mount Pleasant; and Dr. Jones Elementary, 3300 Chicory Road.

To go along with those plans, the district recommends the construction of a new Schulte K-8 building, a new elementary school to replace Red Apple, new elementary schools to replace Roosevelt and Janes and two new middle schools.

School Board member Jane Barbian praised the facilities master plan and the work that Chief Operating Officer Shannon Gordon and her team has completed to create the plan.

“We’re so used to doing a patchwork system, when something goes wrong in a school and we try to find the money like with the Case pool, for example,” Barbian said. “This is preventative. It’s going to make the best use of our buildings for our students and for their education and it’s a huge investment for the community.”

Part of the referendum plan would include a yet-to-be-determined mechanism for the School Board to hold the Unified administration accountable for maintaining a stable tax rate over the next 30 years.

School Board President Brian O’Connell said on Monday that the board should decide how this will be done prior to the election.

The tax rate

The Unified administration plans to maintain a stable tax rate by “recapturing” existing levies above the revenue limit beyond their current expiration dates. These levies include the Aquatic Center construction levy that is set to be $2-$7 million per year and will drop off in 2021. Another is the energy efficiency levy at $6.5 million per year and is set to expire in 2026. The plan also includes a recapture of the $8.5 million per year that is currently being collected, approved through a 2014 referendum, and is set to expire in 2030.

The draft referendum question that the School Board saw on Monday asks voters to approve collections beyond the revenue limit in graduated amounts, in part to coincide with the dropping off of the other tax levies.

The question asks for $18 million per year from the 2020-2021 school year through the 2024-2025 school year; $22.5 million per year from the 2025-2026 school year through the 2028-2029 school year; $39.75 million per year from the 2029-2030 school year through the 2033-2034 school year and $42.5 million per year from the 2034-2035 school year through the 2049-2050 school year.

Chief Financial Officer Marc Duff told the board that maintaining a stable tax rate would come first, meaning that even through the district would have the authority — if voters approve the referendum — to levy $18 million in the first year, it might levy only $8 million that year.

“Our interest is in working collaboratively with our partners across the community to move Racine, not only the schools forward, but the entire community,” said Unified Spokeswoman Stacy Tapp. “There’s so much change and economic development coming, we know that we all have to work together to move everyone forward. And this is our commitment to doing that.”

Caitlin's five favorite positive stories from Racine County schools this year

It’s important to remember that there are positive stories about our local school systems as well.

My stories about lower-than-optimal Racine Unified test scores, plans to close school buildings and problems with special education law compliance have gotten the most attention from readers this year. That's why, with this list, I want to highlight the good.

A group of volunteers is ensuring elementary students make the walk to school safely and students with disabilities are learning job skills. A student at the top of her class was the first in her family to graduate high school, an elementary school hosted a Thanksgiving meal for its special education families for the 25th year in a row and a student with autism who used to be a “runner” recited the Pledge of Allegiance at his graduation.

I’m proud of the stories I’ve written that hold the district accountable and promise to continue doing so, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that good things are happening.


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Caitlin Sievers covers education in Racine County with a primary focus on Racine Unified School District. Before moving to the Racine area she worked at small papers in Indiana, Illinois and Nebraska.

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