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  • Writer's pictureEmily Berry

It just got real...

Tonight the school board officially placed two questions on the ballot for April 2, 2019: one asking voters for permission to borrow $65 million for work on all four of our schools, and a second question asking to exceed its state-mandated revenue limit each year by $275,000 to pay for maintenance.

I've written before about the implications of the decision, so I'll just reiterate briefly: this decision will have ripple effects for a generation, both in terms of the shape our buildings will be in and the flexibility of our finances for the next couple of decades.

Now, real talk: without time travel and the benefit of hindsight, there is no easy, cheap way to take care of the badly needed repairs and renovations our schools need. But $65 million is a lot for our small district to borrow. It will put us far above our peers in per-student debt. That would mean a big chunk of our district tax levy (more than the current 20%) would be purely to pay down debt, not to fund teacher pay, not to pay for programming, not to pay for arts or language or special education, not to keep the lights on -- just to pay off borrowed money.

Compared to this year's taxes, a modest increase for 2020 may not register as a big deal for some homeowners. They may not realize (or care) that the district is passing up an opportunity to grant some significant tax relief, and binding ourselves to a less flexible future. But for some, even a modest bump in property taxes will make Shorewood unaffordable. I have neighbors and friends who support schools but don't have the capacity to pay higher taxes, and we should not malign those people as anti-school or anti-education. I also know and respect people who care about our kids and our schools but are worried about the consequences of taking on so much debt -- their concerns should not be dismissed as anti-school.

Based on the information I saw, I think we could have brought forward a more conservative proposal to borrow a smaller amount, make some of the needed improvements and repairs, and to forgo others. The board reached a $55 million "base" proposal and was not willing to parse out any further which items would be least painful to postpone. If they had, we could have asked for $20 million or $30 million now and decided what we could live without until the first round of facilities work was done.

A smaller ask would have also allowed for some tax relief beginning in 2020. It would have avoided placing a tremendous amount of debt on the shoulders of the people who will live here and will still be paying down the debt in 15 or 20 years - probably our kids, in some cases. A smaller ask would have allowed us flexibility whenever the inevitable unexpected crisis out of our control is facing the district and demands a costly solution.

But the board saw all the same information I saw and more, and has decided instead to ask for $65 million now. I think we had better choices, but at this point, it's late in the game. Delaying urgently needed work on our buildings would be the wrong choice.

I want our schools to be more accessible to students of all shapes, sizes and abilities. I want our kids' playgrounds to be fully functional, and our teachers to be able to open their classroom windows and lock their doors. I want that sooner rather than later.

I do believe it is possible to address the most urgent needs for less than $65 million, but it would require political will that isn't on the board today. So, if the referendum passes and I am elected, I will advocate for any way I can to mitigate the taxpayer burden that comes with this very high level of debt for our community.

It's also important that if the referendum passes, we actually see the work we expect to happen. I will push for the entire board to conduct active oversight of facilities work and spending, given the burden we are asking constituents to take on. This is not a time for the board to cede responsibility to administrators. They are the elected representatives, and are ultimately responsible for fiscal stewardship. I would advocate for the district to use an independent representative (not someone who works for the construction company or architects) to advocate and monitor all the facilities work for us, a step that I think would likely save us more than it would cost.

If the referendum fails, the board will need to act quickly to find a Plan B. That will involve plans to address the most badly needed facilities repairs within our annual budget, which won't allow for significant renovations, but would probably allow for fast-tracking some modest projects that are most overdue. Then at some point maybe the district would try asking for a smaller amount of borrowing based on what is needed for safety and accessibility.

You have some big decisions to make in April. Whatever the result, I know that you, my neighbors, love our schools and care about our kids just as much as I do. I hope we can all work together to give our kids the best schools we can while protecting our community's financial future.

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