Deerfield School District residents came out in support of a $500,000 November operating referendum in a community survey conducted in mid-June.
The school district hired School Perceptions, a Slinger, Wisconsin research firm, to gauge community interest in a possible fall 2020 referendum. School Perceptions shared the survey results with the Deerfield School Board on July 14.
The survey, which closed on July 6, asked residents whether they would support a new operating referendum to exceed revenue limits by $400,000 per year for five years. It also asked in a second question if they would support a referendum for $500,00 per year, in part to offset future economic challenges caused by COVID-19.
The district closed out its most recent operating referendum on June 30. It had been in effect since 2016.
Operating referendums allow school districts to exceed revenue limits and levy additional funds from taxpayers to cover costs.
Bill Foster, a researcher at School Perceptions, called the survey results “unique” and “not typical.”
That’s because survey respondents showed more support for the more expensive option, Foster said.
Foster said the recent survey showed that among respondents, 85 percent of residents who are Deerfield parents would definitely or likely support a $500,000 referendum this fall.
Additionally, 63 percent of residents who are not parents said they would definitely or probably support a $500,000 referendum.
That’s slightly higher than percentages for a $400,000 referendum. For that question, 74 percent of respondents who are parents supported a $400,00 referendum, and 60 percent of non-parents were in favor.
Foster said the high rate of support for the $500,000 option was surprising.
“Typically support goes up as the cost goes down,” he said.
But, “if people sincerely believe there’s a need, and in the case of Deerfield apparently they did,” Foster said they might be more “willing to support a slightly larger referendum.”
Jensen said she felt grateful that the community seemed “favorable to either of them.”
She was “pleasantly surprised and very, very pleased, that people would say yes overwhelmingly to either of those options,” Jensen said.
School districts statewide are potentially facing funding cuts in the state budget and increased expenses in future years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jensen said. Some of those expenses include higher transportation, smaller class sizes, curriculum, technology and cleaning costs.
“I am pleased though that they would choose to do that, because there are a lot of additional expenses that we’ve already started incurring to handle this pandemic,” Jensen said.
This survey had an above-average and “encouraging” response rate, Foster said.
Foster said 643 people responded to the survey, which is a 32 percent response rate. That’s an increase of 191 respondents since the district’s last survey in 2016.
School Perceptions usually sees a 20 percent response rate on most school surveys, Foster said.
“I don’t know if pandemics are good for survey-taking, but apparently they are,” Foster joked.
And only half of respondents, Jensen pointed out, have school-aged children.
Jensen said she was “grateful” and “appreciative” to have so much participation.
“(The school board) really wanted the opinion of our community about how we approach this,” Jensen said.
Since 2008, all referendums have allowed the district to exceed the revenue limit by $400,000 per year, for the length of the referendum.
Even if Deerfield residents approved a $500,000-per-year referendum this November, the more expensive of the two, Jensen and business manager Doreen Treuden said they don’t see tax rates increasing over $11 per $100,000 of property value.
The same can’t be said if a referendum is put off to April 2021, Jensen said, which is why they’re exploring this now.
The school board would have to approve a resolution in mid-August for a referendum to appear on the November 2020 ballot.
Deerfield is eyeing a five-year referendum this time around, Jensen said, so it could be renewed four years from now in 2024, a year before it runs out. Jensen said administrators want to avoid a shortfall like this year, and want to tie referendum elections to presidential election years.
Deerfield has the opportunity to put a referendum on the ballot in November 2020 or April 2021, but not in November 2021, Jensen said.
Deerfield has had several referendums in the past. The school district had a five-year operating referendum that began in 2008, and a four-year operating referendum starting in 2013.
The most recent referendum was used for projects like adding a fitness center, stadium upgrades, increased building security, technology updates and curriculum materials, Jensen said.
A Citizen’s Advisory Committee meant to study this possible referendum began meeting in February.
At an April 27 meeting, school board president Jim Haak put the committee on hiatus due to COVID-19. Jensen said at the time that with all the economic uncertainty, this fall may not be the right time to pursue a referendum.
Because the district disbanded the CAC, Foster and Jensen said, the survey was much simpler than previous surveys, including only two questions, some demographic information and feedback on possible cost-cutting measures.
Jensen further said at a July 20 school board meeting that that survey respondents, when asked what school programs and services they would suggest cutting if a referendum were not approved, generally said they would like to keep most everything intact and would support being asked to pay for that.
“Participants in the survey said they feel that a lot of these items are very useful, and would not want to see any of them go,” Jensen said.
She added that it was not surprising that technical education — computers and business classes – ranked at the top of what survey respondents said to keep.