Backers of school upgrades defend $49.5 million plan that critics say will saddle taxpayers with years of unnecessary debt
Should Grafton School District spend $49.5 million to upgrade its facilities, a plan proponents say is crucial to maintaining quality public education in the community?
Or should the district forego the proposed long-term spending plan, which others believe should be rejected in favor of less costly options?
The debate will come to a head Tuesday, April 5, when district voters decide the fate of two referendum questions.
The first question will ask if the district should borrow $47.7 million for renovation and reconstruction work at Grafton High School, John Long Middle School and Kennedy, Woodview and Grafton elementary schools.
A second question will ask if the district should borrow $1.8 million to upgrade outdoor physical education, athletic and recreation areas.
Passage of both questions, district officials said, will result in a tax-rate increase of $1.49 per $1,000 of equalized valuation, with the upgrades paid for through borrowing in a 24-year bond plan.
“This would be a long-range solution, not something where you would have to come back every few years to keep repairing buildings,” Supt. Mel Lightner said.
“It’s a chance to do it right the first time.”
However, opponents of the spending plan — who have been increasingly vocal in recent weeks — contend the projected figures don’t accurately reflect the referendum’s impact.
“We can’t support this without having a huge tax-rate increase. The district isn’t growing, and we shouldn’t be spending money just because we can,” said Tom Grabow, a Town of Grafton supervisor who has organized a vote-no referendum campaign.
“It’s not just a $1.49 tax-rate increase. It’s more than that, but people aren’t getting all the facts.”
Grabow said approval of both referendum questions would cost district taxpayers significantly more than $49.5 million. He said residents should know that additional costs of $31.5 million in loan interest and $12.9 million in lost state aid would bring the total impact of the referendum to $93.9 million over 24 years.
Grabow said enrollment projections for the district show little change — 2,081 in 2015 to 2,123 in 2020.
“If we’re not going to have a lot more students, why do we need more room in schools?” he asked.
Grafton School District residents already pay the highest school taxes of any municipality in Ozaukee County, Grabow noted. “How much more can we afford to pay?” he asked.
Grafton Town Chairman Lester Bartel has also criticized the referendum. He said the district should forego spending money on new facilities when it doesn’t have a formal maintenance plan and is paying off a 2000 referendum that requires five more years of debt service.
“We’re still paying 90 cents per $1,000 to pay off the last referendum,” Bartel said. “That means we will actually be paying $2.39 per $1,000 for referendum debt, not $1.49.
“I think people should know that. My perspective has always been that you should let people know all the facts.”
Lightner said he is not advocating a yes vote but defended the process by which the referendum was researched and presented to the public.
“The $1.49 per $1,000 includes all the interest and projected loss in state aid,” he said. “That’s all been figured into the number.
“It’s a $49.5 million referendum, and with the interest, it comes to $80 million. It’s always been that way.”
According to the district, approval of $47.7 million in upgrades would result in an estimated tax-rate increase of $1.43 per $1,000 of equalized valuation. That would mean an annual increase of $357.50 in school taxes on a $250,000 house.
If the $1.8 million upgrades to outdoor facilities are approved, property owners would pay six cents more per $1,000 of equalized valuation, or $15 more annually, on a $250,000 home.
Referendum supporters, including those who organized a vote-yes campaign, have cited deteriorating conditions on school property, including broken pipes, crumbling walls, flooding conditions, cramped classrooms and storage areas, damaged parking lots and athletic fields and outdated electrical, heating and plumbing systems.
Grabow said he, Bartel and other referendum opponents agree that local schools need repairs but believe district officials should explore more cost-effective options.
“What we need is not a building referendum, but a maintenance referendum,” Grabow said.
Bartel suggested the district create a segregated fund to pay off capital debt and building projects and allocate additional money for annual upkeep. Those steps, he said, would allow the district to complete $20 million to $30 million of upgrades every 20 years without having to hold referendums.
School officials defended the way the referendum questions were prepared and how cost-effective the spending plan would be.
Lightner said the questions were finalized only after the district had extensive public input, most notably from the Citizens Facilities Committee. That 40-member group included school, village and town officials and other residents who received a consulting firm’s assessment of facilities, toured buildings and developed upgrade options.
“This has been a community-driven process from the beginning,” Lightner said.
According to Lightner, the School Board has taken a “fiscally conservative approach” in considering its options.
“But we don’t have the money to keep fixing the enormity of the problems we face,” he added.
In a letter to Ozaukee Press responding to Bartel’s criticisms, School Board Treasurer Paul Lorge said the district is well-positioned to handle the financial impact of a referendum.
“Prudent planning these past four years has put us in a position to finance this project at prevailing, historically low (interest) rates, saving millions of dollars,” Lorge said.
On a recent community survey, 75% of respondents said they supported holding a referendum, and 64% said they are likely to support a $49.5 million referendum.
Even so, Lightner said district staff members and the School Board are prepared to live with whatever voters decide on the referendum.
“They have to make the decision,” he said “No matter that the outcome, we will continue to educate students the best way we can.”