River Ridge seeks to exceed revenue cap, make mandated repairs

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By Correne Martin

In an effort to address building safety and compliance issues mandated by the state, the River Ridge School District is seeking a state trust fund loan not to exceed $2 million. The money would finance energy efficiency projects and be repaid over five years.

“When you go outside the revenue cap, although we would receive some aid, the majority of it comes from the tax bills,” explained Interim Superintendent Tom Andres regarding repayment of the potential loan.

On May 13, the school board voted to begin application paperwork for the state trust fund loan and, on May 26, the board approved a resolution authorizing the loan, also levying a tax in connection with it. Next, the resolution must be published within 10 days of the May 26 meeting. Then, there will be a 30-day period during which those who wish to petition the action can do so.

“I’m pretty certain there will be a petition,” board member Kenny Nies said, noting that a portion of the district’s residents remain frustrated that the $9.9 million April referendum they supported failed (52 percent disagreed with the referendum and 48 percent supported it).

According to Andres, if a petition against exceeding the revenue cap is signed by 20 percent of the district’s residents who voted in the last governor’s election (a number in the low 300s is needed), the board must drop the resolution and not claim the state trust fund loan. If there is no petition or the 20 percent mark isn’t achieved, the board can move forward with energy efficiency projects under the terms of the loan.

“If the petition happens, I’m going to leave a recommendation on a plan B that allows for another means of borrowing money,” said Andres, whose interim duties will conclude next week, when Jeff Athey takes the position full-time. “It may involve cutting things within the budget, which will be tough.”

The Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services has mandated River Ridge make a number of repairs and upgrades for code violations, which include electrical needs and fire hazards, HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) concerns, ADA compliance and other health and safety issues.

“We must address the life safety issues right away and then we’d like to address the compliance issues on a schedule,” Andres said.

If the safety and compliance issues are not resolved by the start of the 2015-2016 school year, Andres said he has not been told by the state that the district will be shut down. “But they could fine us and we certainly don’t want to waste money,” he stated.

As the district focuses on the revenue cap exemption project, Andres said the district must also develop an ongoing maintenance plan moving forward.

“I’d like the board to address an educational plan that’s good for the kids and the staff as well,” he added. He said such plans should involve community input in smaller, more intimate settings where residents can feel comfortable voicing their opinions, rather than at board meetings.

“Our main goal is very simple,” he said. “We need to get both of our facilities up to par so our kids and staff are OK in them.”

Andres said if and when repairs are done, the air quality of the buildings would be tested and balanced. “I’m confident that, once we do that, the air quality will be sufficient,” he said.

If the state-mandated repairs and code updates are made, and funds remain out of the $2 million loan, the school board would then take a look at recommendations for the excess. According to Cory Raisbeck, who was newly elected to the school board in April, such dollars could go toward previously referenced desires like lighting, safer main entrances, secondary heating and ventilation or even general fixtures.

In addition to the revenue cap vote, at its May 13 meeting, the school board approved a budget amendment to repurpose $273,000 of its available budget balance.

“We decided that $200,000 of the general fund would be applied to code violations and $73,000 would go toward technology in classrooms,” Raisbeck said.

While the unrest continues in the River Ridge School District, Andres confirmed speculation that open enrollment out of the district is on the rise. Although the numbers are preliminary and could change right up until next school year, he said there are currently 18 more requests to open enroll out of the district than last year. At this time, the totals are 34 entering the district and 62 going out.

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