The Lake Mills Area School District board is putting $45 million worth of referendum questions on the November election ballot for a new intermediate school.
The school board unanimously approved two questions – one for construction, the other for ongoing operations and maintenance – Monday, Aug. 8.
The first question will ask Lake Mills community members to allow the district to borrow $44 million to construct a new intermediate school on district-owned land off state Highway 89 and Unzhaven Road.
The second question asks voters to allow the district to exceed the revenue limit by up to $950,000 on a recurring basis by raising taxes. The district will use the annual increase to cover the new costs from staffing and operating the additional building.
“Lake Mills Elementary School is over capacity today, and enrollment is projected to continue to slowly increase,” District Administrator Tonya Olson told the board. “The need to add a fourth building to our district was anticipated 10 years ago when the elementary school was originally built, and this project is the next step in the District’s comprehensive Long-Range Facilities Plan.”
The proposed building would alter the district’s grade configuration starting in the 2025-26 school year with an elementary school, the new intermediate school, a middle school and high school. The current elementary school would serve 4K students through second graders, while the new intermediate school would serve 450 students in third through fifth grade.
Eppstein Uhen Architects has been working with the district for the past year on the plan, which would open the new school nine years after the elementary school opened.
“This project is the next step,” EUA engagement specialist Kit Dailey told the board. “It was projected and anticipated when we did the elementary school back in 2012 that you would need a fourth building of some type as enrollment continued to increase, and that’s exactly where you’re finding yourself, you’re in 2022.”
The combined measures would result in an annual increase for taxpayers of approximately $93 per $100,000 in fair market property value once both measures are active, starting in December 2024, according to estimates by Robert W. Baird and Co.
Community engagement, Dailey said, will be an ongoing process throughout the effort.
Growing students, programs
When the current elementary school opened in 2014, it had been constructed to serve 600 students, a number that served the district’s needs at the time. But with enrollment numbers climbing and the district also realigning its class size goals to maintain a smaller class size, the elementary school is over capacity.
The school can serve 508 students under the district’s goals, and it has 582 students enrolled. Growth is also expected to continue, with a 2021 enrollment study by MDRoffers Consulting projecting that the elementary school enrollment will reach 665 students in 2030-31.
The district rents space from the United Methodist Church to accommodate half of its 4K students, while the other half are at the elementary school, something Dailey called an “unusual” setup.
The new intermediate school would alleviate the space crunch and allow the district to host its entire 4K program, as well as Head Start, a school readiness program for children from ages 3-5, which is hosted at Rock Lake Activity Center.
The district also would be able to host wraparound care for students, as 4K programming is currently a half a day, or accommodate the possibility of 4K converting into a full day program. The building, Dailey explained, would also be able to expand.
“The intent is that as enrollment grows in Lake Mills that this building can be added on to over the years, the site is large enough for that – it works well for that as opposed to the existing elementary school sites,” Dailey said. “There’d be locations for play fields and for a geothermal field similar to the elementary school; it’s a very energy efficient way to heat and condition the building.”
The bottom line
The financing for the effort would be phased in over two years, with construction first, Baird public finance director Brian Brewer explained.
“Then, in 24-25, as the building is nearing completion, that Question 2 would start, which would then allow some funding to pay for some of those operational costs and staffing that would go along with operations in the new facility,” Brewer said.
The first question for the construction of the school would result in an increase of $25 per year for every $100,000 of property value for approximately 20-21 years, starting December 2022. The second question would add $68 per year for every $100,000 of property value, starting in December 2024.
Board member Andrea Graham said the district’s property tax rate is not only below the state average of $8.88 per $1,000 in fair market value during the 2020-21 school year, but was the lowest among Capital Conference schools at $8.42, according to Department of Public Instruction data. The closest mill rate in the conference is Cambridge, with a rate of $9.38.
She noted that in 2015-16, it was $10.54 and has gone down each year.
“So looking at how we’re paying off the debt, and managing – if the referendum does pass, managing that I think we’re still in a good situation, and for the school district,” Graham said. “Our mill rate is very, very low, even with all these new possibilities.”
Community members can expect more information through the district’s community newsletter, special mailings, emails, informational presentations and a dedicated referendum section on the district’s website, Olson told the board.
Those with questions or feedback were also invited to reach out by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by contacting Olson directly throughout the process.
Voters will then ultimately decide on the district’s next step on Election Day this November. If district voters approve the measures, the district would quickly begin its staff engagement to guide its design and engineering of what the new intermediate school would look like.
This, Dailey said, would be a about a yearlong process before the public bidding and construction phase would begin in December 2023.