Citizens look to future after failed school referendum
Earlier this year, the West Bend School Board asked the voters to approve a referendum to borrow $47 million to build a new Jackson Elementary and do some major renovations to the West Bend high schools. The referendum failed and now a group of community members are stepping forward to take a hard look at the facilities at Jackson Elementary and the high schools.
It should come as no surprise to readers of this column that I was quite happy that the school referendum in West Bend failed. I believed strongly that it would have been a gross misallocation of tax dollars that would have squeezed out higher priorities. Others in the community thought differently and thought that the facilities had become dilapidated enough to warrant the taxpayers absorbing more debt. The voters in the community had a robust public debate about the issue and decided against the referendum.
While the voters have decided that they do not want to spend $74 million (the loan plus interest) on new and refurbished buildings, there are legitimate facility needs. As long as the school district provides education to kids, those kids will need buildings with classrooms, gyms, lunchrooms, playgrounds, and more. The debate is not about the need for those facilities. The debate is about the size, features, and expense of those facilities. Resources are not infinite and there is an opportunity cost of every dollar spent on a building.
One of the aspects of the referendum debate in West Bend that sowed distrust was the people who the School Board engaged to develop the proposals. Always follow the money. Both the survey firm and the architectural firm that the School Board contracted with make their business getting school referendums approved. In the case of the architectural firm, they were paid to develop plans for new and refurbished building for which they would almost certainly receive the contracts to design and build. The financial motive for the firm to go big on the taxpayers’ dime is irresistible and many people in the community did not trust that the people putting together the plans had the community’s interests at heart.
In the wake of the election, several prominent members of the community put their heads together to help the community and school district make some tough decisions on how to move forward. Delta Defense CEO Tim Schmidt, West Bend Mutual Insurance CEO Kevin Steiner, and West Bend Mayor Kraig Sadownikow decided to assemble a private task force to take a hard look at Jackson Elementary and the high schools with an eye to assessing and prioritizing the needs. Schmidt and Steiner also committed financial resources to hire an independent architectural firm to help assess the existing facilities and provide expertise on the construction of modern educational facilities.
Members of the West Bend School District Private Task Force include people who supported the referendum, people who did not, engineers, construction experts, facilities management experts, current and former local elected leaders, and your favorite rabble-rousing local columnist, me.
The goal of the WBSDPTF is straightforward. It is to assess the facilities at Jackson Elementary and the high school and present the findings to the School Board. The WBSDPTF will not be making any recommendations about how to address those findings. That is up to the elected School Board. The WBSDPTF is not sanctioned or funded by the West Bend School Board. Perhaps most importantly, the WBSDPTF is not just another group looking for a way to build support for another referendum. It is purely an effort by a group of local private citizens who believe that education is important and are willing to donate their time, money, and expertise to help the community make some decisions.
The effort may be the start of a new chapter of uniting factional interests in the West Bend School District. The effort may be a useless waste of time and money that doesn’t go anywhere. Time will tell.
Special thanks should be extended to Kevin Steiner and Tim Schmidt. Both of these local business leaders have been generous in supporting countless local organizations, charities, public, and private initiatives. The WBSDPTF is merely the latest on a long list of things that these two CEOs have supported to help improve our community. West Bend is privileged to have such strong business leaders.
(Owen B. Robinson is a West Bend resident. He can be reached at owen@bootsandsabers. com.)