Board takes first step toward referendum

Buoyed by survey results, school officials plan to ask residents for permission to exceed levy limits to cover operating expenses


Ozaukee Press staff

The Northern Ozaukee School Board, armed with a positive response to its recent community survey, directed Supt. Dave Karrels to take the first steps to place a referendum question on the spring ballot that will ask voters for permission to exceed state imposed levy limits by $1.9 million during each of the next five years.

The board is expected to consider placing the question on the April 4 ballot when it meets on Jan. 16.

The deadline to include the question on the ballot is Jan. 24, Jill Huskisson of Dash Consulting told the board. If it doesn’t meet that deadline, the next opportunity for a referendum will be in spring 2024.

“It seems like the general population support this so I don’t see why we wouldn’t move forward with this,” board member Steve Burmesch said.

“If the $1.9 million operational referendum were held today, it would likely be supported,” Daren Sievers of School Perceptions, which conducted the survey, told the board, noting that in a time of rising inflation that’s a surprise.

“Most respondents were not in favor of making budget cuts in any of the areas tested in the survey.”

Burmesch made his comments after the board heard the results of the survey, which was intended to gauge community support for a referendum and other options to deal with impending budget shortfalls.

The problem is caused, in large part, by the fact that one-time federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding is ending and district enrollment is declining, which means less state aid for the district, Karrels said. At the same time, the cost of everything from salaries to utilities continues to increase.

Many school districts throughout the state are considering levy limit referendums for the same reasons, he added.

Karrels said the $1.9 million in additional funding for each of the next five years will allow the district to continue providing the same level of service to students.

The alternatives, he said are to trim classes, eliminate extracurricular activities, increase class sizes or delay technology and curriculum upgrades.

“We’re at a point now where it will affect critical services,” he said. “We’re at a point where we’re very lean.”

Karrels noted that the district is spending the same amount of money for operations as it did 10 years ago, trimming $1.75 million through staff reductions, increased class sizes and other measures. 

Even if the additional spending is approved, he said, the district’s tax rate of $9.41 per $1,000 equalized valuation won’t increase.

“That’s the only way we would consider this,” Karrels said. “We’re very cognizant of the impact on residents.”

The tax rate won’t increase even if the spending limit is increased because the district is currently paying off more than the minimum on its debt service as a way to save interest payments. If taxpayers approve the referendum, a portion of that funding will go toward operational expenses instead.

“It gives us the authority not to increase taxes but to take a portion of our early debt payment and use it for operations,” Karrels said.

The district, he added, will continue to make more than the minimum debt payment — just not as much extra as it pays today.

The district could seek to permanently increase its levy limit through the referendum, Karrels noted, but opted to seek a limited term increase.

“We believe it’s important there’s accountability and we make adjustments based on what future funding comes from the state,” he said.

“This provides an opportunity to assess the financial situation of the district and determine what we need then rather than say there’s no sunset.”

The response to the survey was “right on,”officials said, noting 640 people, or 23.4%, answered the questionnaire.

Sievers noted that the response was better than in 2017 when 534 people responded to a survey about the capital projects referendum held the following year.

When asked if they would support a $1.9 million referendum, Sievers said, 61.5% of respondents said they would definitely or probably vote yes.

Of the staff members who live in the district, 87% answered that same way, he said, while 75% of parents living in the district said yes, and 57% of people who don’t have children attending district schools and weren’t employed by the district agreed.

When asked if the district should cut staff and increase class sizes instead, 96% of staff members, 83% of parents and 65% of other residents said no, Sievers said.

Similar numbers were recorded when people were asked if the district should reduce course offerings, he said, and when they were polled about reducing athletics and extracurricular offerings.

More than 70% of respondents said the district shouldn’t delay technology upgrades or reduce access to technology, Sievers said, with similar numbers recorded when people were asked about delaying curriculum updates.

“It looks to be a strong level of support, which I think is very gratifying,” Karrels said.




Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


User login