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River Falls school referendum II: This time, multiple choice

At a special meeting last week, River Falls School Board members quickly concluded that with a few "tweaks" they could turn defeat into victory by holding a slightly revised referendum format in November.

Last April, by a narrow margin (51.7%-48.3%), school district voters rejected a $39 million referendum question to modernize, upgrade and add on to the various schools.

The overhauls were meant to extend each school's lifespan by roughly 30 years.

At last week's special meeting on what to do next, board members decided their original referendum plan remained well-reasoned and economical. Having reached this conclusion, they didn't want to start from scratch.

"We didn't ask for anything we didn't believe we need...We don't need to reinvent the wheel," board member Manny Kenney said. "We just need to format this differently and give people some choices."

New school board member Rich Gerczak agreed: "With more questions, people think they have more control."

Kenney took the lead in proposing a November school referendum and for breaking up what was one long question with multiple parts into multiple questions for each part.

The new referendum will likely have two, three or four questions. Voters will have choices on which, if any, projects to pay for.

Board member Mike Miller liked the idea of following up fast on the last referendum because "otherwise we'll lose momentum."

The school board also set up another special meeting to firm up details on a new referendum for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24. Public input is invited.

At that meeting, ATS&R and Ehlers, the school district's architectural and financial advising firms, will bring "several scenarios" for the school board to select.

The timeline is tight to get everything in place for a stand-alone, November school referendum.

School board member Alan Tuchtenhagen said such a referendum, unlike the last one that included other elections, including one for state Supreme Court, should create an environment where school district voters are "more focused."

Based on comments by school board members, here's how the general format for a November referendum could look. Questions would be prioritized, with the first ones the most vital because of their direct impact on students.

1) Do you support paying (for a certain amount of money) to upgrade safety and security, energy efficiency and sustainability, and deferred maintenance and physical accessibility at the various schools?

2) (Certain amount of money) to modernize and expand educational space at the various schools, including new classrooms at Westside Elementary to replace the portables; a new wing for Greenwood Elementary to house the Montessori program; and multipurpose rooms at the elementary schools to free up gym space.

3) Decide the fate of the River Falls Academy. This time, the board may choose not to demolish the oldest part of the building (from 1926), but leave it vacant until a new use is found. Local architect Matt Frisbie has asked the school district to consider remodeling the oldest part for apartments. This question could be worded to ask voters if they want to pay for a mechanical/technological upgrade to the newer parts of the Academy and to build a small addition for the alternative high-school age Renaissance program.

Kenney said the biggest problem voters had with the April referendum was that "...there as too much lumped into one question."

"The basic guidelines are still good to follow, but we can break down the list," he said. "The community can decide how far down the list to support."

While the April referendum's one question was worth almost $39 million, a new referendum would give voters choices for deciding how much of their tax dollars they're willing to afford per project.

However, according to ATS&R and Ehlers, the board learned that in the last year, building and borrowing costs have risen. These factors would increase the new referendum's total cost from the last one.

Aside from the multiple-choice option, board members last week tiptoed around the controversial River Falls Academy issue.

The Academy, located on the same site where public school classes have been taught for 150 years, is viewed as an "albatross." Some board members said the Academy issue derailed the first referendum.

The feedback to the board was that some people voted against the referendum because it included a plan to demolish the oldest sections of the building.

Meanwhile, others voted against the referendum because they opposed spending millions on an antiquated building that would only house the Renaissance program.

Tuchtenhagen said both supporters and detractors of the Academy building were passionate. He said the divisiveness hurt the overall image of the referendum.

As for the Academy's future, especially its older portions, Tuchtenhagen said: "You can't shoehorn 21st century programs into an early 20th century building."

Concern for how the Academy dragged down the first referendum was another reason to format a second referendum that places the Academy issue as question three or four.

The board also discussed "walking away" from the Academy building, even selling it. The latter could be done without a referendum.

The loss of the Academy would mean:

  • That an addition would have to be built at Greenwood or somewhere to house the popular Montessori elementary school program. The Montessori school, now housed at the Academy, is considered a draw that brings young families to enroll in the River Falls School District.
  • For the Renaissance program, about 20,000 square feet of rental space would be needed at some location close to the downtown. Many Renaissance students have internships at local businesses.
  • Giving up a big new gym that is used for after-school activities and by various community and youth groups.

    Tuchtenhagen was concerned that a decision to leave the oldest part of the Academy vacant could, over time, create an "even bigger albatross" for the school district.

Kenney agreed, and said that the board would have to set a deadline for the older portion to either be redeveloped or face demolition.

Board member Barb Kolpin, while backing a revised referendum for November, pointed out two negatives.

1) The continuing economic stagnation and high unemployment that will make many district residents hesitate about voting to increase their school taxes,

2) A perception that the request for some extra classroom space isn't needed because the district's enrollment has only risen slightly in the last 15 years.