Residents of the Arcadia School District will vote April 2 on whether to borrow $23.4 million to construct a new elementary and middle school adjacent to the current high school. A 2011 referendum vote for the project failed by 195 votes, according to School District Superintendent Louie Ferguson. He said he expects the vote to be "even closer" this time around.
According to Trempealeau County Clerk Paul Syverson, if the referendum is passed, property owners within the school district will pay an average of $1.68 more per $1000 in property value per year (or about $336 more each year for a $200,000 home). The district is still paying back debt for its high school. If the referendum is passed the total tax impact of school district debt will be $3.99 per $1000 of property value per year (or about $798 for a $200,000 home), according to Syverson.
Ferguson said the new school is needed to house the growing student body—elementary enrollment has increased by 75 percent in the last 15 years, according to Ferguson. "We have tremendous manufacturing opportunities here in Arcadia, and it explains our increasing enrollment," he said. "That's a good problem to have."
There are a number of "structural inefficiencies" at the old school, Ferguson said, ranging from drafty windows to an out-dated boiler. The school district will save on energy costs by switching to a new school, as well as by diminshing transportation needs. Currently middle school students are bused to the high school for industrial technology and advanced science classes. With the schools in one location, the district will pay less for busing and gain instruction time that is currently lost in shuttling students around each day. Additionally, Ferguson said that by switching to lower-maintenance materials in the new buildings (such as floors that don't require waxing) the school will save on upkeep. According to Ferguson, the district will save $100,000 per year on energy costs, $25,000 to $40,000 per year on transportation, and $15,000 per year on floor maintenance.
However, the projected savings on energy, maintenance, and transportation by switching to the new school are not dollars that would remain in taxpayers' pockets in years to come. The school board will still use that money. "We will be able to reallocate all that money and spend it on direct instruction rather than spending those thousands of dollars on inefficient boilers," Ferguson said.
Ferguson also argued that because of low interest rates for borrowing and increasing construction prices from year to year, now is a fiscally opportune time for the school district to build. Between the money the school district is projected to save with the new building and the potential cost increases in borrowing interest rates and construction rates in the future, Ferguson said it would be less expensive to build now than to wait. The district will need to expand sooner or later, "the problem is just not going away," he said.
However, Ferguson admitted the cost increases for borrowing and construction he referred to are projections which assume continued economic recovery. They are based on recommendations of financial advisors, he said.
Arcadia Mayor John Kimmel said, "A lot of people are on both sides of the issue. They are concerned that in our time of economic recovery it is an awful lot of money." He expects the referendum will be "a close vote."
"I think $24 million dollars is a lot of money for me, but I do support the referendum. It is an investment in our kids and our future," Kimmel said. "Kids today are not just competing in the local town, they are competing on a national and international level." Kimmel echoed President Obama's words in his recent State of the Union address, saying we need for schools to be "worthy of our children."
"[The tax increase] is going to impact me, as well. That is just something that I am willing to do because the school system was there for me when I was a kid," Kimmel said.
"Nobody wants their taxes to go up," Fegurson said. "It is called paying it forward. People built these schools for us when money was tight, too."
Despite the divided opinions in his small community on the issue, Ferguson said he has not thought twice about pushing for the project. "My job as the superintendent of schools is to look out for student needs," he said. "If there wasn't a need we wouldn't be going forward with this."