ONALASKA — Onalaska residents will be asked Feb. 15 to approve an operating referendum the school district says will maintain quality education and programs and avoid staff cuts and larger classes.

The district is asking to exceed the state-mandated levy limit by $1.1 million in 2011, $1.4 million in 2012 and $1.7 million in 2013.

It is similar to the 2005 referendum that allowed the district to spend $500,000 over the limit annually for five years.

A recent survey indicated residents would tax themselves more to retain programs and staff.

So the Referendum Informa-tion Steering Committee is working to get the word out about the referendum.

Chairman Tom Brewer recently told members of the Onalaska Business Association the citizens group wants people to learn about the referendum before they vote Feb. 15.

“We’re not asking people to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but just to be informed,” he said.

“We hope they will see the challenge, the need and the opportunity,” Superintendent John Burnett said.

Officials five years ago pushed a “window of opportunity” for voters, since paying off a bond offset any tax increase from the referendum.

This year’s referendum has no such window.

The owner of a $100,000 property would pay $45 more for school property taxes in 2011-12, $36 more the second year and $38 more the third year — an additional $245 over three years.

It’s worth the investment, Brewer said.

“The ACT (college admissions test) scores, the graduation rates, the reading scores are all significantly higher than the state averages,” Brewer told the business leaders. “They’re doing a pretty darn good job with our kids.”

Brewer, a financial planner, also noted school tax rates are lower in Onalaska than neighboring Holmen and La Crosse, and cost per pupil is lower than 70 percent of the state’s school districts, citing Wisconsin Taxpayer Alliance figures.

A “no” vote would be a repeat of 2002, when a narrowly defeated referendum led the district to lay off 27 employees and dropping a number of programs, Burnett said.

Some, such as international languages, never came back, he said, “and our gifted and talented program was decimated.”

“We don’t have ‘stuff’ we can cut, we just have programs and teachers.”

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