Aging facilities and a dramatically reduced student enrollment have prompted the West Allis-West Milwaukee School Board to put a $149.8 million referendum on the ballot in spring.
If the referendum is approved, the district plans to close Nathan Hale and West Allis Central high schools and create a new consolidated high school.
The referendum "would address some of the district's urgent facility needs and create long-term financial stability," according to a Dec. 22 news release from the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District.
Creating the new high school "would rightsize the district and provide students with flexible learning spaces that can accommodate a modern curriculum" as well as more-efficient and cost-effective high school facilities, the release said.
West Allis-West Milwaukee School Board President Noah Leigh said the board has been looking at long-term facility planning for over a year and put together a committee comprising staff members, community members and administrators to evaluate the district's buildings and what should be done with them.
"Part of that conversation was looking at our high schools because we have the two high schools right now and being able to see how we would best serve our high school population moving forward," said Leigh in a Dec. 22 phone interview.
Leigh also said that future discussions about the district's other schools would be held separately from the proposed referendum.
In a news release, the district noted that the average age of its school buildings is 75 years old.
It also noted that enrollment has declined over the years but has recently stabilized. In 1975, the district served more than 12,000 students who attended three high schools, four intermediate schools and 16 elementary schools. Now, the district serves 7,400 students, who attend two high schools, one project-based learning high school, three intermediate schools and 11 elementary schools.
The cost to taxpayers
The district's 2021-22 tax rate is $7.55 per $1,000 of property value, which is down from its 2020-21 tax rate of $8.75 per $1,000 of property value.
The cost of the referendum to taxpayers would be an additional $1.19 per $1,000 of property value over the next 25 years.
For example, a homeowner with a $200,000 property would pay an additional $238 per year, if the referendum were approved. A homeowner with a $300,000 property would pay $357 annually in additional school taxes.
Opposition to the referendum
Not everyone supports the proposed referendum, however.
For example, resident Joe Mikolajczak of New Berlin said during the Dec. 20 board meeting that since enrollment is down and since such a large percentage of property taxes already goes toward schools, the referendum should be denied.
Mikolajczak criticized the district for "being a terrible steward of the public money."
"Your proposed referendum is for $150 million. That is $21,000 per student. It's excessive," said Mikolajczak.
Minutes from the board's Dec. 13 meeting note that Mikolajczak suggested during public comment at that meeting that the district should sell buildings that aren't needed since enrollment is down, and use funds generated from the building sales instead of going to referendum.
"Also, in his opinion, the best use of an unneeded school building would be to sell it to another school even though that would mean competition for WAWM," the minutes said.
In September, the board sent out a community survey asking whether residents would support a referendum from $180 million to $229 million. The survey asked residents if, along with a new high school, they would support reducing the number of intermediate schools from three to two while also expanding West Milwaukee Intermediate School.
The $180.2 million referendum option was just the high school project and the second $229.3 million referendum option would have been for both the high school and intermediate school projects.
The district said in its news release it reduced the scope of the project and earmarked $10 million to support the project after receiving community feedback and evaluating information from a community committee.
Leigh said the $10 million the district earmarked is coming from ESSER funding to use for COVID-19 mitigation, funds from selling the district administration building and from its Fund 46 account for facilities spending.
"Our hope is that we can show the community that, No. 1, we've been fiscally responsible enough to be able to save some money that we can put toward this project while also utilizing some of the one-time federal dollars that we're getting for COVID mitigation — put that towards things like HVAC that are approved for those dollars to be spent on — and then to combine that together with hopefully the community supporting this plan for the ($149.8 million referendum)," said Leigh.
The proposed projects originated from the district's facility advisory community team's long-range master plan, a process that started in January 2020, according to the district website.
The team recommended "right sizing" the district, consolidating schools to operate more efficiently and renovating schools to modernize them.
The district also plans to would maintain its current class size policy. "This means class sizes will not increase due to having fewer buildings as current staffing models and procedures will remain," the district's website said.
The last time district residents went to the polls to vote on a referendum, they turned down a proposed $12.5 million operational referendum in April 2017. It came after it was discovered the district had blown through $17.5 million in reserves. A financial review in the fall of 2020 showed the district was in a much better position.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: West Allis-West Milwaukee voters to decide on $149.8M referendum