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Ellsworth school referendum information presented to Chamber

Ellsworth School Superintendent Barry Cain discussed the school district’s Feb. 18, 2014, referendum with members of the local chamber of commerce Thursday. (Herald photo by Bill Kirk)

Information about the operational and facility referendum questions going to Ellsworth School District voters on Feb. 18, 2014, was presented to local chamber of commerce members Thursday.

Superintendent Barry Cain was joined by Paul Bauer of the schools’ Ad Hoc Facility Committee in making the presentation.

Cain said the operational referendum question seeks permission to exceed the state-imposed revenue limit by $800,000 per year in each of the 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years. The limit which has been imposed in the past has either been flat or a two to two-and-a-half percent increase per year, he said, explaining costs have outpaced it.

“The district made approximately $4 million in cuts to stay under it,” he said about action before earlier authority to exceed the limit was granted by district voters three years ago.

That operational referendum, in the amount of $1.3 million per year for each of the 2011-12, 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years, is now expiring, the superintendent said. Through local cost controls and efficiencies, as well as impacting developments from the state level, school officials here managed to keep the exceeded amount below the $1.3 million authorized—specifically, to $500,000 in both of the ’11-’12 and ’12-’13 years, and $700,000 in this most recent ’13-’14 year.

Despite the $800,000 annual amount having been determined as what’s now needed beyond the limit, officials still expect to make cuts, the superintendent said. Meantime, the additional tax on a $100,000 property would be $13 if the operational referendum is approved, he said. He also clarified for a chamber member the funds unused in the previous operational referendum aren’t available because they were never levied in the first place.

As for Feb. 18’s facility referendum question, Cain said it stems from the strategic planning process which the district began preparing four years ago and implemented three years ago. Over 100 people were involved, advancing all kinds of ideas, many shaping the local schools’ direction today.

One of the foremost advancements was the need for a plan to address the aging early 1960s-era elementary schools, he said. These contain a lot of their original components, as does the original portion of the high school. The need resulted in the creation of a 28-member ad hoc facility committee.

“The school board gave the committee a lot of latitude,” Bauer said.

Committee members agreed to adopt an approach in their considerations forcing all to participate, yet avoiding any one member being dominant, he said. As they analyzed district conditions, a couple of themes emerged.

One of these was the thought the staff is doing a good job with what it has to work with, he said, so the question became “what’s the problem?” The answer was several buildings are 50-years-old. The elementary schools have been consolidated to the point hot lunch periods compete with physical education classes, not an ideal situation for students participating in both.

Even the newest building—the middle school—suffers a drawback in that access in front gets congested when parents drive up to pick up their students, he said. Then too, there are buildings in the district meant to be temporary when installed in the 1970s and are now falling apart.

Committee members were interested in reaching fiscally responsible solutions, the chamber was told. Security poses yet another challenge. The school board brought on a construction manager and many renditions about how the facilities would look were produced, with elementary school needs being a primary focus. A deliberate effort was made to get the village involved.

Bauer acknowledged the proposal represents “a lot of money,” but reminded the district’s product is the education of children and preferred they compete in today’s world using modern tools, not those from the early 1960s.

If a heating system is no longer operable in a 50-year-old building, the effort to replace it gets massive, he said. It becomes a matter of “what do I do with this building?” The conclusion is several of these schools have been over-utilized, with hallways relied on for instruction areas and temporary fixes.

For more please read the Dec. 18 print version of the Herald. 

Bill Kirk

Bill Kirk was editor of the Pierce County Herald in Ellsworth, from 1988 to February, 2015 and is now on staff as a reporter. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He previously worked in the media distribution department at the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus and is past editor of The Tri-County News in Osseo, Wisconsin.

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