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  • Writer's pictureEmily Berry

School leaders hear what they want to hear: a "yes."

Updated: Nov 14, 2018

Tonight's school board meeting will include a review of survey responses from the community gauging our tolerance for borrowing and spending tens of millions of dollars to fund improvements and maintenance of our school buildings.

An early summary of results posted on the district website said most of the more than 1,100 people who responded to the facilities survey last month said they favor allowing the district to exceed its revenue limit each year in perpetuity by $275,000, and to borrow up to $65 million to fund projects across the district. A representative from the survey company, School Perceptions, is scheduled to review the results in full at the meeting.

[Edit following the meeting Tuesday night 11/13: at the meeting this evening, my friend Sangeeta, a Shorewood parent who is better at math than I am, pointed out that the 1,100 responses would have been 69% of about 3,000 surveyed households, but there are 6,000 households in the village. Another friend asked if apartment-dwellers received surveys, because 15 people she surveyed who live in apartments had not received one. You can watch the video later for the full exchange, but as of this writing, the district is looking into how many households received the survey, and if not, how to remedy that error.]

If the board places these two questions on the ballot for a referendum in April, repayment would start in 2020 when we otherwise would have finished paying most of our debt down and would gotten a significant decrease in taxes (to the tune of $600 on a $300,000 home). If the referendum is approved, instead of a huge tax break, we will likely see an increase compared to today's property rate, probably around $30 or $40 a year for that same $300,000 home. More significant in my opinion, the district's debt load would be very high compared to any neighboring districts, and according to the current plan, we would be locked in repaying the bond issue over 24 years. That's a very long time for some improvements that won't have a 24-year lifespan. If another significant need for spending were to emerge any time in the next 24 years, we will have already essentially maxed out our long-term spending capacity (while legally the district can borrow much more, every community has a point at which higher taxes are unsustainable). I am not surprised that most people surveyed said they support the district's plan. The results were pretty predictable, given the way that the questions on the survey were phrased, and that a majority of the respondents had kids in the district. It would be hard to disagree or push back on the idea of this taxing, borrowing and spending based only on the information in the survey and the assumption that the projects identified as priorities would benefit teachers and students. Everyone in Shorewood loves our schools, and the vast majority of people I meet either moved here or stayed here in large part because they believe our schools are so good, and many folks I talked to during my 2017 campaign said they happily paid higher taxes than in other suburbs because they think of it as an investment in schools. I think many people believe that the district has no choice but to borrow something in the neighborhood of $65 million to pay for overdue work on our buildings. I don't agree.

A small group of people, including me, who believe the district hasn't honestly or fully investigated alternatives, worked on a flyer that has floated around the village. The contributors wanted to stay anonymous for a variety of reasons, and we don't all have the same reasons for concern over the referendum plan. The flyer summarizes some of the potential downsides of the district's plans, which notably were not part of the community survey.

The school board and top administrators now have the survey results as their justification to move ahead with the referendum. But it's worth noting that the survey and most of the discussion of the potential borrowing has lacked context and comparisons to nearby districts, along with any recognition of the downsides of borrowing so much money over such a long term. I'm not the only one who noticed that the survey (administered by the same company that does our annual student and community satisfaction surveys) seemed engineered to give the district the results it wanted: approval to move ahead with a referendum on the ballot in April. The firm, School Perceptions, has done the same work for many other Wisconsin districts, and in Cedarburg, some have wondered if the goal is an honest assessment of community support or a campaign to create that support. [Edit to add that I realize the source of this story is a nutty conservative think tank, but as we used to say in the newsroom, even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day. Linking to this article does not = endorsement of their ideology].

I think our district leadership has invested a lot of time, money and energy already in a potential referendum, so now they want to build support for it because they've already decided it's the best path forward. I understand that instinct to stop the discussions and just move ahead, and I understand the survey was really intended to simply gauge whether Shorewood voters would pass a referendum. That's fine, but I don't think the survey should be positioned as proof that their plans are fully endorsed by an informed public.

Let me be clear: I support making needed improvements to Shorewood schools, and I think there are millions of dollars in legitimate needs. I also understand it would be difficult (though not impossible) to make a dent in those needs without borrowing the money to fund them. I understand how much time and money is needed to keep up our historic buildings, but I also know that we already spend more than neighboring districts, and that extra spending hasn't helped make our schools look or work better than those in other districts. I just don't believe we need to borrow quite so much to make a dramatic difference in our buildings, nor do I think it's wise to try to capture every current and anticipated need for two decades and try to finance them all today. No one has ever been able to explain to me why we can't start with a more modest bond issue with a shorter repayment schedule, which would help maintain our financial flexibility and let our small district take on one project at a time.

I was impressed that our Village President Allison Rozek stuck out her neck politically with open criticism of the district's proposed plan. Her objection centered on the idea of how foolish it is to try to identify and decades worth of facilities needs and to borrow so much all at once. I couldn't agree more. Even ten years ago, our village and school district's finances, demographics and economic outlook were strikingly different, and needless to say, the state and federal political and economic picture was different. Could we have guessed our current needs or borrowed enough to fund them in 2008? What about in 1998? If that sounds crazy, why do we think we're any better now at predicting our needs and financial situation decades in advance? This failure of imagination is not unusual from this district's leadership: it is the result of a failure to listen, to set aside ego and alliances and then make difficult choices, to prioritize and to imagine what they might not see around the bend. I think the fracas over the high school's production of "To Kill a Mockingbird" offered us a lesson in how the district is run and how it is likely to manage a huge project and accompanying funding: Strong leaders are responsive, decisive and accountable. No one showed those qualities. The entire episode was not confidence-inspiring, to say the least.

There's a very good chance that some of the structural problems that created the TKAM mess will come into play when it's time to take on debt, plan maintenance and improvements to facilities, manage projects and communicate with constituents about the work underway. The future of these buildings, the demographics of our community, the safety of our kids and the financial well-being of our neighbors are all at stake here. Accountability matters.

The ability listen and change course, the ability to be humble and admit to mistakes and then to meaningfully respond to mistakes -- all of that is going to be crucial as we address the district's facility needs over the next two generations. Let's start now with responsive, decisive and accountable leadership.

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