Oconto Falls seeks support for new school

Superintendent presents the case to local town boards, city council, other groups
Warren Bluhm

Oconto Falls School District officials continue to tour the district, speaking to town boards and other groups about their $37.6 million referendum question — which includes $35.5 million for a new middle school.

An information session is also planned for 6:30 p.m. Nov. 3 at the district office, 200 N. Farm Road, Oconto Falls, five days before the question goes before voters.

A $49.9 million question was rejected in April, and the new referendum pares down the “ask” to include only the new school, security upgrades at the entrances to all district school buildings and some long-deferred roof repairs.

Inflation this year has increased the estimated cost of the new building from $31 million to $35.5 million. The structure on district land along County Road I would replace Washington Middle School — which has a section that was built as a high school during World War I, a large area built in 1957 and additions dating to the 1980s and 1990s.

The tour brought Superintendent Dean Hess and some school board members to the Oconto Falls City Council on Oct. 11, when Hess noted the school is still heated — unevenly — by a pair of Kewanee that were installed in 1957.

“They’re actually really good boilers; they’d probably outlast me,” Hess said. “With that stated, we can’t buy parts for them anymore unless we buy them used online, which is actually what we’re doing right now on a regular basis. As you can imagine, they’re not really efficient.”

There are asbestos tiles throughout the school, which would require a costly abatement process should they ever be replaced, he said. The school is located on a 5-acre block in a residential area near downtown, with an asphalt playground and traffic issues at the beginning and end of the school day as children are dropped off and picked up.

To bring Washington Middle School up to modern codes would cost about 70% of the cost of replacement, Hess acknowledged, adding that wouldn’t solve all of the problems with that site.

“If you do the 70%, you’re still sitting with a building that’s on a very small 5-acre parcel in town,” Hess said. “You don’t have green space for your students. You still have the traffic issues that we talked about; you still have some pretty significant old bones of the building.”

A new school would cover about 20-30 acres of the 100-acre parcel the district bought several years ago, anticipating the need.

“We just had an opportunity to buy the entire piece — looking at it from the standpoint that if you have more than you need, you have options,” Hess said. The city of Oconto Falls is currently in the process of buying 10 acres on the southern edge of the property for a new electric substation. “By having that property, it allows you some latitude to work with other members of the community to try to work out how we can continue to move forward.”

The property tax mill rate for school purposes will go down in any case — significantly more if referendum doesn’t pass — but Hess said if the question fails, the district would still need to address the issues that led to the referendum.

Planning for a new middle school started in earnest in 2016. Hess said the school board has been paying off debt early when possible in anticipation that the project would bring new debt to address the needs and keep the mill rate stable.

“A stable mill rate is a good thing for your taxpayers,” he said. “If you have a mill rate that’s jumping up and down, it’s hard for them to plan for their own personal budgets.”

As for the upgraded secure entrances, Hess said years ago the school doors were unlocked and stayed open all day. In recent years they have been changed to permit only electronic access during school hours with cameras at entrance, and visitors are vetted before being allowed in. But once inside, he said, the person has access to whole building

“We need to go to the next step and have it so they’re only allowed into the office and vetted again to decide if they can have access to the school,” Hess said. “Whether the referendum passes or not, that’s something that we as a district are going to have to work on.”

A resident attending the council meeting suggested the district should emphasize how the new school could improve scholastic aptitude. Hess agreed that a more modern environment could help students, but the informational campaign has focused on hard facts.

“I’m not sure that you can necessarily say that because I walk into a room that provides me better lighting, it provides me better aesthetics. I’m not sure that I can look at you and say that’s automatically going to improve scholastic aptitude or outcomes in students,” he said.

“I will say that it provides more opportunities. I used to be a science teacher … I can tell you that in an environment like the 90-plus acres, I’d be able to walk out and do significant environmental education, ag education, agri-science – if there’s a retention pond, which there probably will be if you build a building, there’d probably be opportunities to do water studies, things that are a lot more hands-on which you would think, then, would improve scholastics.”

A conceptual drawing of a new middle school is included in the district’s PowerPoint presentation, but Hess emphasized that the new school would probably not look like that. The drawing, which shows a facility of approximately the same size and square footage as contemplated in Oconto Falls, is used for people who would like to see a blueprint, which is costly to provide at this stage.

“You’re hesitant to invest a million dollars on a blueprint only to potentially have a referendum fail,” Hess said. “You need to make sure you pass a referendum before you begin the planning process.”

If the question does pass, it would be followed by a six- to eight-month month planning and design phase, with a lot of community input to get as much of a consensus as possible, he said.