(First published in March 8, 2018 issue of City Pages)
DC Everest’s $59.8 million school referendum in April is the second highest in the state this year. There are several reasons it’s so big. Cramming kids into a hallway for lunch is just one of them.
Lunchtime at Rothschild Elementary
As kids attending elementary school, most of us ate lunch in a cafeteria or gymnasium converted daily for that purpose. At Rothschild Elementary School, many of the students have to eat lunch in the hallway. It’s an alarming sight to an outsider, frankly. But because there’s no dedicated cafeteria at the school and gym time is so tight, students at times are forced to eat lunch in another space.
Adding a multi-use cafetorium to Rothschild Elementary is one of the issues D.C. Everest School District administration is hoping to solve with the $59.8 million referendum that goes before voters in that district on Tuesday, April 3.
The referendum is the 34th largest ever in Wisconsin, and the second highest in the state this year. The funds would allow D.C. Everest to fix building issues across the district—problems that have accumulated over the years largely because of population growth in that area: overcrowding, lack of modern facilities, and general wear and tear in buildings, many of which were constructed in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.
DC Everest has gone to referendum seven other times since 1996. Six passed and one failed. This one is by far the biggest ask. If passed, the facility work will happen over the next three years, and the district’s debt paid off over the next 20.
Several buildings problems have dogged the district for years, but D.C. Everest Superintendent Kristine Gilmore likens the referendum to a home equity loan. Rather than asking a bank for a loan year after year, you take care of the issues in one fell swoop. It’s pretty evident the district needs some freshening up. More over, it needs equity at its facilities.
“We want to make the education the same, if not similar for all of our students,” Gilmore says. “As a district, we’ve prided ourselves on working really hard to maintain and take care of our buildings to keep them clean. There’s a certain point where you cannot clean away the oldness.”
There’s also a point where you can’t make up for overcrowding by simply adding a new school.
Since 2001, DCE enrollment has grown by 20%. It rose from 5,084 students to 5,803 between 2001-2016, and for the current school year sits just north of 6,000. D.C. Everest does own about 40 acres of unused property for a potential future school, but the current buildings aren’t dilapidated beyond the point of no return. “They just need some TLC,” Gilmore says.
No one ever wants to pay more taxes, but DCE administrators point out that district residents pay the second lowest taxes per student of any large school district. This referendum would add roughly $0.24 to the mill rate, so residents with homes with a $100,000 value would pay $24 more in taxes per year.
D.C. Everest has a history of passing referendums on the first go-around on the ballot. A group supporting this referendum, DCE Vote Yes, is trying to educate voters on what will be accomplished if this referendum passes.
That’s one of the most difficult aspects of their work, says the group’s leader, Lindsey Lewitzke. People won’t see tangible results with a simple drive-by because a new school isn’t part of this referendum. However, the inside—and some exterior logistics—of many of D.C. Everest’s schools will be dramatically different.
“When I went to school at Rothschild Elementary in the 90s, it didn’t seem like it was outdated,” Lewitzke says. “Now we’re in 2018 and it seems like it is time… We need to have updates for the district to continue to have high-quality education.”
Crowding, updates and toxic water
DC Everest Superintendent Kristine Gilmore, addressing residents at one of the district’s public info meetings on the $59.8 million referendum. Gilmore hopes upgrades to the high school’s tech program will attract more students.
The lunchtime crowding issue at Rothschild Elementary is a small part of the overall problem. That school originally was built in the 1950s to serve upwards of 375 kids. There are more than 420 in the school now.
Students with cognitive/physical impairments and students with less severe learning disabilities (like dyslexia) have to share the same room, separated only by cubicle-like structures. “That’s not the most ideal way for students to learn,” says Rena Sabey, Rothschild Elementary Principal.
Four classes on the lower level (the basement) are located in what was once a community gun range with windowless metal walls. It feels like a basement, and it smells like a basement. This area would be remodeled to provide some natural light.
Rothschild Elementary is also quite inaccessible to those who are handicapped. When Lewitzke was in first grade there, she broke her ankle and recalls not being able to attend gym classes or eat lunch on the first floor because there was no elevator. Outdoor paved paths now provide access—albeit a stopgap measure—to those areas. Making the school more accessible with an elevator and interior ramps are, “smart updates that could happen,” Lewitzke says.
The driveway into Rothschild Elementary is poorly designed. Parents dropping off and picking up kids share the same driveway as buses, which creates a daily bottleneck. The referendum would fund creating a new entranceway for buses separate from parent pickup and dropoff. The main entrance to the school is outdated safety-wise, and would be remodeled so office staff can see the entrance from their desks rather than do everything through security cameras.
The issues at Rothschild Elementary are perhaps the most extreme examples of the overall problems with facilities within the DCE District, but nearly every school—even newer ones like the middle school and Mountain Bay Elementary—would see some type of upgrade.
Three other elementary schools and the junior high would get a new front entrance. Parking lots and driveways need updates to make them more parent and bus-friendly.
The junior high has 12 classrooms in its basement with no easy access to restrooms. Multiple other schools, including Rothschild Elementary, are short on bathroom facilities. Weston and Riverside Elementary would join Rothschild in getting a cafetorium. New classrooms would be added at many of the schools to deal with overcrowding. Science labs district wide would be renovated to turn them into modern day classrooms.
For the past 20 years, Riverside Elementary’s water has been undrinkable because of faulty pipes—potable water is literally hauled to the school. A new water pipe system would fix that longstanding problem.
Other rehab efforts include simply freshening up spaces that desperately need them—getting rid of ugly wood panels and institutional green paint, for example. Some classrooms in the junior high feel alarmingly outdated, and not in a retro good way. “They’re old, they don’t look great, and they’re not very inviting,” Junior High Principal Jason McFarlane says.
Some problems with DCE’s facilities will be addressed through Act 32, a one-time revenue limit exemption for all Wisconsin school districts in 2017 that has to be used for projects that improve a district’s energy efficiency. DCE took out $25 million in bonds late last year that it intends to pay off over the next 20 years on projects such as a new roof and heating and cooling system for the junior high and LED lighting energy efficient windows across the district. Assistant Superintendent Jack Stoskopf says he expects the Act 32 upgrades to pay for themselves before the 20-year limit.
Techno education, business support
The referendum would expand and renovate the senior high school’s tech education space, which hasn’t changed much since 1968.
The biggest expense of the referendum funding would happen in the renovation and expansion of the technical education area of DCE Senior High. That portion of the high school hasn’t seen much rehab work done since the school was built in 1968 and there’s only so much repainting one can do to make the place more inviting.
It’s dark, damp, and small. Students in a small engine repair class crowd around just two tables to do classwork. In the auto shop, 25 students have to maneuver around multiple cars and car lifts in a space that’s not much larger than the first floor of a medium-sized house. The welding and machining area is split into two separate rooms; an instructor has a hard time monitoring students. To top it off, the electrical system in the welding area can’t handle newer welding machines being offered by local businesses.
The tech ed area needs more space, a fresh look—there are barely any windows—and other upgrades. Gilmore hopes the renovations would attract more girls to the trades programs, as females are vastly underrepresented in those classes.
Senior High Principal Tom Johansen says the renovation plan was spurred by the senior high’s partnership with Northcentral Technical College and from its relationships with local manufacturers. “(The local businesses) are saying we need to do this,” Johansen says. “They need us to upgrade our facilities and get the equipment and curriculum in place we need to support business and industry.”
The tech area renovations at the senior high as D.C. Everest are meant to address the need for skilled workers in a field that’s short on labor right now—in other words, upgrades to bring “shop” classes into the 21st century.
Several local businesses are getting behind the referendum. Companies like Greenheck Fan, J&D Tube Benders, and Wausau Tile have given their support to DCE Vote Yes. Crystal Finishing Systems owner Mark Matthiae says well-planned and thought-out repairing of facilities are sound investments.
“Local manufacturers need to help cultivate high school level students who are realizing the great career paths manufacturing and technical skills can offer locally,” Matthiae says. “There are many great careers that expanded technical education at the high school level can help spur interest in pursuit for continued education, technical college, and apprenticeships.”
State restrictions force referendums across the board
The elephant in the room is the question: Why has D.C. Everest not taken care of these facility issues throughout the years?
The problem faced by school districts across the state is working around state-imposed revenue caps. In an effort to control property taxes, Wisconsin law since 1993 says districts can charge their residents only a certain amount in taxes. Around the same time, the state also repealed the two-thirds funding for capital projects. What’s changed more recently is that those revenue caps have not been adjusted for inflation, other rules that restrict spending, and the fact that most districts are still recovering from the state’s massive cuts to public education in 2011. Financing big-ticket items such as a new school, new roof for a field house, or a large remodel, forces a district to go to referendum—many districts in the past few years have even gone to referendum to address operating costs.
DCE might have addressed some of its facilities problems several years ago, but when the U.S. economy went into its recession in 2008, D.C. Everest hunkered down like everyone else did. “The board could have spent more at that time, and chose not to because it recognized people were struggling,” Gilmore says.
Another question: Why doesn’t the district just build another elementary school or a new junior high? Not so easy. Mountain Bay Elementary is the newest building in the district, and when constructed in 2006, it cost taxpayers nearly $19 million.
The junior high is the oldest building, constructed in 1951. Despite that, Gilmore says, engineers say it’s the most structurally sound of any building in the district. “We believe with some new money into the school it can last at least another 50 years,” Gilmore says. Simply tearing down the junior high and constructing a new one that can hold more than 900 kids would cost the district roughly $70 million, Gilmore says.
Debt load timing also plays a role. Assistant Superintendent Jack Stoskopf says the district has been freed up from some debt financing in recent years. Some debt fell off the books, and DCE was also able to refinance more than $10 million of debt, bringing interest rates down and saving the district about $4-5 million over the course of that debt’s lifetime. Stoskopf says the district needed debt costs to fall off in order to make the referendum happen.
“The stuff that’s so expensive to do just doesn’t fit in the regular budget. The way we teach has changed and the needs of kids have changed,” Stoskopf says. “We needed for the debt schedule to start falling off or otherwise we would’ve had a really high increase in taxes.”
Even with the cost of the referendum, the cost per student charged to local taxpayers—meaning not total cost, but what’s paid via local property tax levy—would rise from $4,203 to $4,479. Stoskopf says that’s still lower than Wisconsin Rapids ($4,524), Mosinee ($4,907), Marshfield ($5,136) and Wausau ($5,228).
Gilmore points out that what D.C. Everest is asking for is far less than what consultants have recommended. The district conducted a recent facilities study that called for $150 million in infrastructure improvements. “You want to be a good manager of what you think people’s ability to pay is going to be,” Gilmore says. “No one wants to pay more taxes but if we can invest now we think it really helps our future.”