November referendum DOA for Shawano schools

School board sees no success asking for money now
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

Attempts to ask voters to approve capital and operational referenda in November would only end in failure, the Shawano School Board conceded Aug. 8.

None of the board members were willing to step forward with a motion calling for any efforts to seek voter approval to get $40 million or more in bonds for capital improvements or to get permission to override state-mandated budget caps for the next five years, with all of them saying the district’s relationship with the community was too fractured at this time to succeed.

Board member Mart Grams pointed out that the remarks from respondents in a community survey showed that there was little trust that the current administration to handle any increase in money. He said those comments, coupled with the possibility that conservatives will be out in force for the midterm election, would make it hard for the district to sell a request for more funds.

“Fifty pages of negative comments — it’s kind of frustrating reading those,” Grams said. “I don’t think I found five positive comments in 49 pages.”

About 1,200 surveys were returned out of more than 9,000 invitations sent out, and 54% said they would support an operational referendum that increased the district’s budget by $1.75 million to $2.25 million over a five-year period, while only 43% said they would give their blessing to a capital referendum for $40 million.

According to the survey, 63% of respondents said an operational referendum would be an option to help stabilize the district’s finances, which have been impacted by steady decreases in student enrollment and no longer having more students coming in than going out through student enrollment. Only 45% of the general public supported the idea, while 65% of parents and 82% of staff supported it.

Regarding the capital referendum, the public was lukewarm to proposals of improving facilities like libraries, fine arts facilities and sports infrastructure, with support ranging from 20% to 37%. The one aberration was a question of support on career and technical education updates and expansion, which 65% said they would support.

Board member Alysia Pillsbury expressed hesitation at pursuing any referenda now. She suggested that it might be feasible to seek voters’ permission later, once the district has been able to forge trust again.

“I just can’t see that the community culture right now would support it at this time,” Pillsbury said.

Pillsbury also expressed concern that if the district tried to seek a referendum in November that fails and then tries to ask again in April, the effort would receive stronger disapproval.

Board member Michael Sleeper agreed that looking at something later would be advised, pointing out that the Wisconsin Legislature has to approve its next biennial budget and that the district should know in April how much in state aid it can expect to receive. However, if the district pursues referendum questions in April, the board would have to make a decision in January, and the state has no scheduled election for November 2023.

“Right now, it’s a huge unknown,” Sleeper said.

Board member Chris Gull noted that increases to overall costs like food, homes, gasoline and other essentials that people are experiencing would make any referendum a tough sell.

“Yesterday, I think, is the wrong time to ask for this,” Gull said.

Board member Jeana Winslow recommended having the discussion of future referenda with the public at the district’s annual meeting.

“We can answer more questions about our budget and make people feel more at peace with our budget,” Winslow said. “Reading these comments, I don’t think we can go forward with this.”