Survey: Community supports $70M max referendum

New middle school split down center by survey respondents as board looks at where to go next
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

Recent results from a survey sent out to Shawano School District residents show the maximum amount of referendum money they’d support is around $70 million, which is putting district officials into an interesting situation.

The anticipated cost of building a new middle school adjacent to Olga Brener Intermediate School is $53.7 million, including the demolition of the existing Shawano Community Middle School. If the survey results hold, that means there would not be a lot of wiggle room for maintenance and expansion at the other schools.

However, the estimates for all the other projects — including updating Olga Brener, improving fine arts and athletics facilities at Shawano Community High School to the tune of $30 million, creating a day care at Hillcrest Primary School and keeping the pool at SCHS open with upgrades — are expected to come to a similar amount as the middle school project alone. That could mean that the district might prioritize the upgrades of the other schools and possibly use the remaining portion to keep up the existing middle school building instead of building a new one at this time.

Survey results show the community is split down the center when it comes to a new middle school. About 39% of 1,610 total respondents favor building a new middle school, while 40% are against it, with a little over 20% checking the “not sure” box on the survey. The building for the current middle school was first built in the 1950s, and costs for maintaining it are expected to increase.

Survey results also showed high priority support for maintenance and improvement to Olga Brener, with 39% of respondents voting for work at that school to take place. Projects at Hillcrest got the lowest percentage of high priority responses with 19%, while work on the pool, new stadium facilities and improvements to SCHS — which is 26 years old — fell in the 20% to 25% range.

Regarding the pool, 45% indicated they would rather fix the aging infrastructure, while only 34% supported closing it entirely.

The Shawano School Board did not make a final decision on where to go with the referendum during its Nov. 27 meeting, but more discussion is planned at a special workshop Dec. 18, with plans to approve resolutions for referendum questions expected to take place Jan. 8 to meet the deadline for getting them on the April ballot.

Rob DeMeuse, consultant with Hoffman Planning, recommended a phased approach with the district’s capital needs rather than trying to ask for all the funding at once or pitting one project against the others.

“We’re probably going to need to develop a phased approach over time,” DeMeuse said. “You won’t be able to check everything off the list right now.”

Jody Andres, K-12 consultant with Hoffman, suggested it would be better for voters to see that the district has a long-term plan in place to show officials are thinking about how to adjust things in the future. He also suggested developing one question for the April ballot and having the option of adjusting it for next November if voters turn it down. Schools can only ask two referendum questions in a calendar year.

Board President Mike Musolff recommended that, whatever the board decides, it is going to need to bolster its marketing when it comes to managing existing funding. He noted that the district wound up with a $2.6 million surplus in this year’s budget when predictions almost two years ago estimated a $2.2 million deficit.

“It’s hard to build trust in one year,” Musolff said. “That’s the problem.”

Board member Bobbi Lemerond suggested providing clear details on what the costs would be to keep up the existing middle school, which might sway undecided voters to build a new facility.

“I don’t think voters know the actual cost of the middle school itself,” Lemerond said. “I think if they saw the actual numbers … a new middle school wouldn’t look so bad.”

Board member Frank Kugel noted that while the survey showed more optimistic results, he wasn’t sure a referendum of any kind would pass.

“In the last couple of years, things have been different. Things have changed here,” Kugel said. “The public’s perception is still two years ago. They haven’t come on board with this. They’re still thinking ‘not good’ yet.”