As DeForest Area School District representatives continue to set the table for what it hopes will be a successful referendum come April, now is the time to applaud the work of district officials and community members to this point in the process.
We do not intend this piece as a referendum on the referendum, but instead wish to recognize the transparency, communication, community involvement, financial planning, and timing that district stakeholders have displayed thus far.
In September of 2013, the district began a comprehensive review of its aging infrastructure, student population and enrollment trends, and the expected educational needs of both current and future students. Ten months later 8,000 post cards were mailed to residents with information about community input sessions and requests for members to serve on a Community Advisory Committee (CAC).
By last August the CAC had 45 volunteers enlisted to begin four months of research and planning before making a recommendation to the Board of Education to proceed with a $41 million referendum, which the board endorsed with a unanimous vote.
Over the course of the year and a half that went into shaping the future of the district, residents were encouraged to — and did — participate in a myriad of ways. Most notably was the submission of 1,800 responses to a district wide survey that sought feedback on the $41 million pitch to bolster the district’s elementary facilities and improve its science, math and technological offerings for upper grade levels.
Survey organizers were blown away by the outpouring and said that they had hoped to receive around 400 responses. And results were clear: a healthy majority of respondents favored a tax hike to raise the money needed to fulfill the district’s reported needs. But survey results don’t raise taxes — referendums do. And on April 7, voters across the district will have a final say on this matter.
Local school leaders both past and present must also be praised for navigating DeForest into a position of financial strength as it considers a major building overhaul. The district has a hefty reserve fund with a balance well beyond the minimum required and its debt from the district’s last referendum is scheduled for payoff in 2020. Interest rates are also near all-time lows, which public finance specialist Brian Brewer of the firm R.W. Baird, who has worked with the DeForest district for roughly 10 years on such matters, said makes now the opportune time for a building project of this size and scope.
“You're saving significant taxpayer dollars by doing it at a time when interest rates are so low,” Brewer told school board members at a recent meeting.
We know not what the final verdict will be on this $41 million referendum. What we are sure of is that DeForest is a model for other school districts when it comes to such pursuits.