When voters in the Viroqua Area School District go to the polls for the fall general election Nov. 6, they will be asked to vote “yes” or “no” in a referendum to allow VAS to issue general obligation bonds in an amount not to exceed $36.82 million.
The bonds would pay the cost of a district-wide building and improvement program consisting of construction of additions for academic and other purposes at the elementary school, high school and Laurel High School; safety and security upgrades; remodeling and modernizing school buildings; capital maintenance and building infrastructure improvements; site and athletic improvements; and acquisition of related furnishings, fixtures and equipment.
“Vernon County was the fasted growing county in the state of Wisconsin last year, and at VAS we are running out of space for children,” District Administrator Dr. Kehl Arnson said. “The Board worked to develop a long-range plan that includes more space for our students to learn and grow.”
New classrooms include six at the elementary building; four at the high school (it allows for movement for high school and middle school classes); redesign and expansion of tech ed department space for middle school and high school students; expansion of Laurel High School space; additional computer lab near Laurel for high school and middle school; new physical education classroom space, which includes a new elementary school gym with room for classes and indoor recesses during bad weather, new multi-purpose room under the Laurel High School expansion, and expanded and renovated fitness room and locker rooms at the high school; and additional renovations where design teams see opportunities for improvement.
Safety and security measures covered by the referendum to secure entrances to school buildings, including secure entrances specifically designed for safety at the elementary and middle school/high school buildings; PA system overhaul to make sure staff can always hear important information and receive directions and support during any emergency situation; secure entrances for deliveries; and additional parking and improved traffic flow for drop off and release safety.
The school district recently received grant funds of $99,195 for safety improvements that will help with cameras, key-card doors, and more security upgrades, but it isn’t enough to fix the PA issues that Arnson said were encountered during the district’s intruder drill held in June.
“Our parents are very concerned about safety at pick-up and drop-off where buses, students and parent vehicles encounter congestion and confusion as they attempt to maneuver through the heavy traffic,” Arnson said.
Other larger projects include a redesign of the elementary kitchen, cafetorium and gym. The kitchen would flip, and the existing gym would be converted to the elementary school cafeteria; the small auditorium would then be accessible all day for teachers and students, as it would no longer be used for lunch; a new, larger gym would be built on the end of the building that has two courts and enough space for elementary PE classes even for class and inside recesses at the same time (This gym would also serve as an additional competition gym.). The building itself is in need of repairs to cracked window frames and exterior brick – primarily repairing leaky windows at the elementary school and also other locations as needed.
Arnson said classroom space is needed everywhere, because the school district is seeing growth in all its programs. “We have a lot going on for students – families have a lot of choice here and they can pick the opportunities and programs that are best for their children.”
“Everything we want to do are spaces that touch areas kids use all day long; the community also uses the active learning spaces,” Arnson said. “The gym, for example, is an active classroom all day long and on the weekend and nights.”
Mike Brendel, director of business services, said if the referendum passes, the projected mill rate impact would be $3.15 per $1,000 of valuation (over what will be levied in 2018-19). The projected annual tax increase on property with an assessed value of $100,000 would be $315; for a $150,000 property $472; a $200,000 property $630; and for a $300,000 property $945. Brendel said the school district currently has one referendum-approved debt issue outstanding from 2006, which was from the $9.890 million November 2004 referendum. Brendel said that debt is outstanding until the 2024-2025 school year and residents currently pay $1.41 per $1,000 of assessed valuation on that issue.
Brendel said the new bonds will be structured to provide a combined total mill rate of $4.56 per $1,000 of assessed valuation each year for the life of the bonds. The additional mill rate increase of $3.15 per $1,000 results as it is compared to the $1.41 levied in the 2018-2019 budget. Brendel said it is important to note that the actual overall mill rate impact on this referendum will fluctuate as equalized values will change over the next 20 years, as will the share the state of Wisconsin will contribute toward the annual bond payments.
“As always, the district is using conservative estimates for all of the variables at this point,” Brendel said. “Our property valuations have increased in recent years, and we hope to see an increase in the state’s share of our aidable costs, however, those projected increases haven’t been included in our estimates. We are also conservatively projecting interest rates for when we would plan on issuing debt next spring. We hope the district’s strong financial position will result in lower rates than used at this point.”
As part of the 2017-19 Biennial Budget, the Wisconsin Legislature limited school boards to presenting referendums only on regularly scheduled spring or fall election days.
“As we began the planning process, we understood our options therefore would be November 2018 and April 2019,” Brendel said. “The Board of Education really felt it was important to present this to the voters in November as turnout is anticipated to be high, and should provide the best representation of the wishes of the electorate. Additionally, waiting until April will further expose the projects to increasing costs resulting from external factors such as rising interest rates and planned increases in material costs.” Brendel also said interest rates are still at historically low levels, but have been increasing in 2018 and are projected to continue an upward trend.
“By holding the referendum in November, we can complete the design phase, gather bids, and hopefully begin some construction in the spring,” Brendel said. “If we would have decided to wait until April, we would not be bidding until early in the summer, and construction would not start until fall.”
The goal, Brendel said, would be to start some projects as soon as spring and to have students and staff occupy some areas at the start of the 2019-20 school year. “It would not be an option if we waited until April.”
Brendel said the proposed projects that are part of the referendum “aren’t wants, but needs.”
“Without these things we’d be falling behind,” Arnson said.
Arnson said long-range planning to meet future needs of the school district was a goal of the administration and school board last school year. Since the beginning of this year, the district has partnered with Unesco for the planning process. Focus groups also met to discuss the long-range strategic plan.
Arnson said the district has been inviting groups, in addition to meeting with staff, to get feedback. He said they had input and feedback from more than 200 staff and community members.
Arnson said district representatives will come to village and town meetings to answer questions over the next two months so “people can have a good understanding” of the referendum.
Brendel said the school district will also host informational meetings regarding the referendum.