Oconto Falls area voters to decide nearly $50 million school building referendum April 5

This is a concept drawing of what the proposed new middle school in Oconto Falls could look like. The site is across from the high school and Oconto Falls Elementary School.
This is a concept drawing of what the proposed new middle school in Oconto Falls could look like. The site is across from the high school and Oconto Falls Elementary School.

OCONTO FALLS – After Dean Hess started work as superintendent of the Oconto Falls School District in 2015, he sought to familiarize himself with the maintenance problems at Washington Middle School.

He asked to see the roof, but the maintenance staff wouldn’t let him. It wasn't safe, he was told, as a workman had recently stepped through the roof. The district hasn’t had the money to replace it since then.

“We haven’t changed the roof, we’ve patched it,” Hess said. “A lot of Washington Middle School is being patched. We’re doing the best we can to keep it going.”

And that, in a nutshell, is why the district’s voters are being asked in the April 5 spring election to decide whether to approve a $49.9 million referendum.

The money would pay for a new middle school, as well as addressing deferred maintenance and remodeling needs at Oconto Falls High School and Abrams Elementary and an addition to Oconto Falls Elementary.

Speaking at an informational meeting on March 8, Hess said some sections of Washington Middle School are 40 to 50 years old, while other parts were built more than a century ago.

It’s not just the roof that’s showing its age. The heating system consists of 65-year-old boilers.

“They’re not efficient, and you can’t find the (replacement) pieces and parts regularly,” he said. “They’re only available on eBay.”

In late November, an underground pipe burst, leaving a wing of the school without heat. School officials had the thermostat turned up and used big barn fans to blow warmer air to that area, but students still had to dress snugly.

It took three weeks to dig up the pipe and replace it.

“The part that concerns me is how many more situations will I be running into where I might have to shut down school because of something that comes up,” Hess said. “Even if this (referendum) passes, we’re going to need to continue this forward for another 24 months, until the fall of 2024, when it (the new school) would open.”

District residents who are interested in seeing the condition of Washington Middle School can do so at a tour scheduled for 6 p.m. March 28.

The new middle school would be built on land across County I from the high school. The district purchased nearly 106 acres for $688,610 in September 2019, though it’s selling 10 acres this year to the city of Oconto Falls for $66,772, bringing the net cost to $621,838.

If the $49.9 million is approved, $31 million would go to the construction of the middle school, including furnishings, and two athletic fields.

The proposed 10,000-square-foot building would likely be two stories, in order to keep the footprint as small as possible and allow as much daylight in as possible, though no final decision has been made.

Because most of the debt from previous capital referendums has been paid off in the past two years, the district is noting that the referendum would not increase the current tax rate of $10.12 per $1,000 by more than 10 cents.

Oconto Falls Superintendent Dean Hess speaks at an informational meeting on March 8 about the upcoming building referendum on the spring election ballot.
Oconto Falls Superintendent Dean Hess speaks at an informational meeting on March 8 about the upcoming building referendum on the spring election ballot.

“Our forecast model is telling us right now, with the conservative numbers that we’ve put in, we actually anticipate the mill rate to go down,” Hess said.

Those conservative numbers factor in a 2% increase in property values, though the district has averaged 5% for the past several years.

The mill rate projected by the district’s financial adviser, R.W. Baird, projects the levy rate would decline 15 cents to $9.97 in 2022-23 and down another 2 cents in 2023-24.

The projection shows it would rise 9 cents to $10.09 the following year, but then decline 23 cents the year after.

That’s as far out as the district can reasonably estimate the tax rate, Hess said, as four years would account for the next two state budgets, which each fund education and state programs for a two-year period.

Hess noted the district has a track record of making conservative estimates. When the school’s first operational referendum came before voters in 2017, the district said taxes wouldn’t rise more than 23 cents per $1,000 valuation. It went up by that much in the first year, and has declined in each year since.

Voters approved a new operational referendum last year, starting at $3.3 million in 2022-23, with the total rising by $275,000 a year for the next four years, ending at $4.4 million.

The only remaining debt the district is paying is $2.7 million in bonds issued in 2012 to pay for energy efficiency projects. The remaining $1.6 million is scheduled to be paid off by 2027.

If the April 5 referendum is approved, the district would plan on paying off the bonds in 25 years.

A study found it would cost $26 million to bring the current middle school up to code, or 85% of a new building.

“Even after those projects were finished, we would still have a building with structures that are more than 100 years old and located on a lot without any green space,” the district said in an opinion piece distributed this month. “The proposed new site would provide our middle school with more space than is available with our current building, opening up greater learning opportunities for students. The site features a pond, field, and wooded area, with the potential to provide a wide variety of environmental and agricultural education programs.”

Another major concern is the traffic congestion at the start and end of school days, at both WMS and OFES. Some parents or grandparents arrive an hour or more before the final bell to pick up their kids.

“We’ve done what we can to try to keep the bus traffic (separate) from the car traffic, but I will tell you even the car traffic is concerning, where children (are) dropped off, and they’re walking through traffic to get from one side to the other,” Hess said.

Should it not be approved, it’s estimated the mill rate would decline by $2.50 per $1,000 valuation next year.

Nonetheless, the need for a new middle school and necessary maintenance of the other three won’t go away, Hess said, adding the board would likely consider modifying the project and submitting a new question to voters this fall.

Surveys of residents, though, have given the board “reason to believe” the project will be approved, he added.

“$49.9 million is a big ask, we recognize that. … We're also recognizing that we’re trying to find that middle ground of getting as much done as you can, versus being thoughtful with the taxpayer,” Hess said.

Details of proposed referendum-funded projects at high school, elementary schools

Out of the $49.9 million referendum, the Oconto Falls School District would spend $18.9 million on the high school and both elementary buildings.

At all three buildings, the project would include securing main entrances; remodeling main offices; replacing fire alarms; replace all the lighting with LED systems; repair floors, ceilings and doors; upgrade heating systems; and replace all or portions of roofs.

Other anticipated projects for each school are:

Oconto Falls High School

Total: $8.4 million

  • Improving student drop-off and adding a sidewalk.

  • Remodel the woods, metals, welding and motorcycle classrooms.

  • Remodel the IMC (library) and add learning space.

Oconto Falls Elementary School

Total: $6.44 million

  • Construct 8,800-square-foot addition with a new cafeteria/commons, a kitchen and receiving area, and learning space.

  • Convert the current kitchen into a special education classroom.

  • Convert the current cafeteria to a music lab and relocate the art classroom,

  • Secure the main entrance; remodel main office; improve traffic flow and add parking.

Abrams Elementary School

Total: $4.06 million

  • Remodel a classroom to serve special education students

  • Add a learning space

  • Create a cafeteria/commons area, and remodel the kitchen and add a receiving area.

  • Remodel student services area

  • Add an emergency generator.

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Contact Kent Tempus at (920) 431-8226 or ktempus@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Oconto Falls area voters to decide $49.9M school building referendum