Referendum plan debuts to mixed reactions

NOSD proposal to exceed levy limits questioned by some, called vital to preserving quality of education by others

THE NORTHERN OZAUKEE SCHOOL DISTRICT, which held a successful referendum in 2018 to pay for improvements to its campus in Fredonia, will ask voters in April for permission to exceed its levy limit to help pay operating costs. Photo by Sam Arendt


Ozaukee Press staff

The Northern Ozaukee School District last week rolled out its April referendum seeking to exceed state levy limits by $1.7 million a year for each of the next five years so it can cover operating expenses to a mixed reaction, with some of those in the crowd of about 45 people questioning everything from the amount of money that is needed to the purposes those funds will be used for.

They questioned projects such as an upgrade to the fire alarm system, construction of a maintenance shed, repairs to the track and improvements to increase drainage on the playground.

Some people said these projects should be considered capital improvements and therefore shouldn’t be part of the referendum plan.

“What are they doing to help educate children?” one man asked.

Others questioned why they should be done at all, saying the district should make due with what it has or make repairs rather than replace these items.

One man argued semantics, saying the wording of the referendum question should reflect the full $8.5 million the district would receive over the five years instead of the annual amount.

But one woman distilled the referendum down to one thing, operating schools with programs and classes that teach children and provide them with the skills they need in an efficient manner.

“This is about the kids,” the woman, who said she is an elementary school teacher, said. “It’s about how they can be educated.

“I don’t want to be spending more on my tax bill either, but I’ve seen firsthand how class size affects kids. I’ve seen that mental health is an issue.”

While some people questioned why the school district can’t balance its budget, the woman told the audience that the district “is spending the same amount we did 10 years ago. I think that speaks volumes about how schools are spending our money. Who here can say they’re spending the same as they did 10 years ago?”

The heart of the matter, district officials said, is that the state does not allow them to levy more money for operational expenses.

And, they said, the state hasn’t increased the aid the district receives for years even as expenses have increased.

The only way to increase aid, they said, is by increasing school population but there is virtually no available housing for families.

And, they said, the district has trimmed its expenses, sought alternative funding sources such as grants and made efficiencies to help keep the levy down.

The district has been able to make ends meet, they said, in part by using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding judiciously, but that is coming to an end.

The referendum being put before voters  is different from one held in 2018, officials noted.

The 2018 referendum secured funding for capital projects, they said, and they have been making more than the minimum payment on that loan since then. By doing that, they said, the district has saved a significant amount of money on interest and shaved years off the repayment schedule.

If the referendum is approved, they said, the district won’t make these additional payments. That, they said, will allow the district to keep its tax rate steady at  $8.99 per $1,000 equalized valuation.

“Our hope is to, as much as possible, maintain a consistent tax bill,” Supt. Dave Karrels said.

Officials stressed that they can’t just shift the funds from one account to the other without an approved referendum.

That’s because the state limits the levy for operational expenses but not for debt payments, they said.

One man noted that the district’s budget projections show no increase in state aid throughout the next five years. What, he asked, would happen if funding increases?

“If we have the option to lower it, all the better,” Karrels said.

District officials are sympathetic to the situation residents are in, he added, noting that inflation and rising costs are affecting everyone and taxes for the village and town of Fredonia increased significantly this year.

That, he said, caused officials to lower the amount of money they were seeking in the referendum.

Some people questioned the fact that in the first two years of the increased levy, the district expects to use a portion of the referendum funds — more than half in 2023-24 and more than a quarter the following year — for maintenance projects rather than operational expenses.

Officials said that these projects, which include building a new maintenance shed to replace the current inadequate buildings, updating the fire alarm system to tie in older devices still being used, and rebuilding the track so it can be used, are important.

Northern Ozaukee isn’t the only school district in this predicament, they stressed.

Karrels noted that since 2003, 313 of the state’s 421 school districts have held referendums to cover operating expenses.

Since 2011, he noted, 207 of these referendums have passed.

“What about districts that don’t need it?” one woman asked. “What are they doing right?”

Those districts are experiencing growth that allows them to increase their levy and keep up with rising expenses, officials said.

One man questioned what the district’s backup plan is if the referendum fails.

“We believe there is no interest in making additional reductions and cuts,” Karrels said. “We have gotten to a lean operation. If it doesn’t pass, we will be regrouping to come up with a re-ask.”

The district will host another public meeting on the referendum at 7 p.m. March 13, and Karrels and Director of Business Services Josh McDaniel will meet with interested residents to discuss the referendum in the Innovation Room from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. Wednesdays through March 29.




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