Downsized referendum presented to River Ridge voters

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By Correne Martin

The taxpayers of the River Ridge School District will decide, in an April 7 referendum, where the district is headed and how it’s going to get there. On the spring ballot, voters will be asked to approve a $9.9 million facility referendum that would create one PreK-12 campus at the Patch Grove site. Doing so would include remodeling and renovation projects, ADA modifications, HVAC replacement, a gym addition, a safe and secure entrance as well as other improvements and upgrades.

Since the unsuccessful, $13 million Nov. 4 referendum, the school board has downsized its budget by $3.1 million. It is no longer asking for the track and football field to be relocated to Patch Grove; they will remain in Bloomington. It is no longer including the parking lot and ag shop additions either. The secure entrance/office addition has been reduced by 1,000 square feet also.

If the electorate approves this new referendum, the school board will be authorized to borrow $9.9 million at an estimated 4.5 percent interest. The tax impact, including principle and interest, will remain on River Ridge residents’ tax bills for 20 years, starting with the December 2015 tax bill, according to the district’s financial adviser, Carol Wirth, president of the Wisconsin Public Finance Professionals. With this referendum, taxpayers could expect an increase of $140 per $100,000 of property value.

The facility referendum would address the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services’ orders to repair code violations at both the Patch Grove and Bloomington facilities—including electrical needs and fire hazards, air quality concerns, ADA compliance, some mold and asbestos, and other health and safety issues, Wirth said. All systems would be brought up to 2015 standards.

Currently, 83 fifth and sixth graders are educated at the Bloomington site. If the referendum passes, those students and staff would move to Patch Grove, allowing for more educational efficiencies, collaborations and curriculum benefits. However, the track, football field and gymnasium would continue to be used for games and practices in Bloomington, leaving about $50,000 in yearly maintenance expenses at that facility.Still, several board members, including Bob Key, estimate $250,000 in cost savings from having all students and staff under one roof. Key, who spoke at the two-and-a-half hour school board meeting Wednesday night, March 25, which was attended by about 150 people, listed specific savings in the areas of utilities, transportation, energy improvements and electrical upgrades, etc.

Board members have stated that the $250,000 in savings each year would go toward paying off this referendum. The district will receive state aid projected at 15 percent, and that will be funneled toward this referendum as well. In addition, beginning with the December 2019 tax bill, there will be a $150,000 decline in operating referendum taxes (which was voter-approved in February of 2014), and those funds will also go toward facility referendum payoff.

“This means taxes would remain steady in Dec. 2019,” Wirth stated.

School Board President Lea Breuer addressed a question  at the meeting regarding what will happen if the referendum doesn’t pass. Breuer said she is hopeful voters will approve it; however, the plan would be to “immediately move forward with how we’re going to rectify the state regulations and decide as a board what to do.”

“We must give a plan B to the state ASAP after April 7,” she said.

If voters reject the $9.9 million April 7 referendum, the board would need to address the state-mandated repairs for code violations at both buildings—to the tune of $1.75 million. A proposal from Mc-Kinstry consulting engineering firm, which would upgrade the existing campuses if need be, shows that a $1.75 million project would only bring the two facilities up to 1960s code level and not improve health and safety or ADA needs at the schools.

This plan B would need to be completed by Sept. 1, 2015, in order to satisfy the state, according to School Board Clerk Kenny Nies.

“But, if (the referendum passes and) we have a plan in place to go way over and above what’s needed, the state might work with us on an extension, as long as we have a fine schedule on the work we plan to do,” Nies stated.

The tax impact of $1.75 million at an estimated 3.75 percent interest over five years would equal a tax increase of $154 on a $100,000 property value. Via this option, the operating referendum that’s supposed to drop by $150,000 in 2019 would also need to be replaced by taxpayer dollars, Wirth said, since two sites would remain in full function, thus leaving no operational savings to be realized. That impact would be $71 on a $100,000 property value, continuing indefinitely, Wirth explained.

If voters approve the referendum, design and engineering would begin right away for the Patch Grove site. Also, the idea was posed at last week’s meeting that an advisory committee might form with the purpose of providing input on final plans and configurations.

Greg Callin, vice president of client relations with Kraemer Brothers construction, River Ridge’s general contractor for the project, laid out the project timeline as follows: The elementary gym would be converted into classrooms during the summer of 2015. Other classrooms and mechanical systems on the facility’s elementary side would also be remodeled this summer. A gym and locker room addition would be constructed from September 2015 through July 2016. The main entrance and office addition would be remodeled in the spring of 2016. Mechanical upgrades, classrooms and existing locker rooms on the high school side would be upgraded from June through August of 2016.

A guaranteed maximum price for the Patch Grove revamp would be provided to the district by early September of 2015, Callin said. A final cost would then be delivered in December of 2015.

Wirth advised the district that the referendum question states that $9.9 million is the most that can be borrowed for this project, so it must come in under that amount. Callin has said he’s confident it will.

Providing his seal of approval on Kraemer Brothers’ reputation was Benjamin Lewis, of Richland Center, who has attended board meetings and spoken on behalf of district resident Darlene Mueller.  He has also witnessed a number of the company’s projects. “Kraemer Brothers delivered its Ithaca Schools project at $270,000 below budget and they were able to fit efficiencies in there as well,” he stated at last week’s meeting.

River Ridge’s new interim superintendent, Tom Andres, similarly advocated for Kraemer Brothers’ work. “I’ve worked with them on two projects,” he said, noting that their abilities have been excellent.

As River Ridge voters contemplate choosing “yes” or “no” at the polls on April 7, taxes will undoubtedly be at the forefront of many minds. However, a list of frequently asked questions compiled by the school board asserts that the quality of education and the health and safety of all students and staff are vital issues to consider as well. Benefits students and teachers will experience by being under one roof include: maximized teacher and administration efficiency due to no traveling, all resources in one location, more curriculum options, and better teacher availability to students needing extra help. Also, the district’s air quality and safety issues will not be addressed unless the $9.9 million is approved. If fixing them is put off, the cost to repair them will continue to increase.

For more information, visit the River Ridge School District website at www.rrsd.k12.wi.us/. Then, click on the large purple square that leads you to the referendum information page.

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