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UPDATE: Reaction, analysis follows failed River Falls school referendum

Darlene MacBride, administrative assistant to the superintendent, adds up school board and referendum voting totals as they are reported in after 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 5, from the various city and town clerks.

The Tuesday, April 5, election results are in and the unofficial tally shows the $39-million school district referendum was defeated by a relatively close margin with 2,805 voting NO and 2,624 voting YES. The referendum passed in the city of River Falls 1,588-1,378, but was defeated decisively in all surrounding towns -- Clifton, Kinnickinnic, Martell, Pleasant Valley, River Falls and Troy.

Superintendent Tom Westerhaus expressed disappointment with the results, but said the timing of the spring referendum meant an uphill fight.

"Given all the issues that were swirling around during this election, from the economy to the state politics the past month in Madison, I think we did well considering those circumstances," he said.

Because of the economic uncertainty, Westerhaus said he understood why some voters were unable to vote yes in the school referendum.

The immediate concequences of the referendum's failure is that upcoming maintenance projects will be delayed and scrutinized.

Westerhaus said there was an extensive "recommissioning" (overhaul) set for later this year at the high school for equipment and mechnical systems (heating and ventilation).

Now, without referendum dollars coming in to support a host of maintenance and mechanical upgrades at all the public schools, the high school job will be put on hold.

"We're going to have to save those dollars (from the high school job) and look at roofs, windows and boilers at the other schools to see what needs to be done first," Westerhaus said. "As I said before, it's going to be patch and repair."

A good part of the River Falls School District referendum was slated for mechanical, electrical, plumbing and energy upgrades, with the promise of a 5-10 year payback in improved efficiencies. The upgrades were earmarked for the three elementary schools and Meyer Middle School.

Longtime school board member Manny Kenney agreed with Westerhaus's assessment of the referendum: "We knew going in it would be a challenge with the tough economy.

"I believe we could have overcome that issue, but then what's been going on in Madison has left a lot of people feeling unsettled and concerned about their own finances.

"(The board) tried to separate the two -- our referendum and the political situation in Madison -- but I don't have much doubt that what was going on with the state was preying on people's minds."

Without referendum backing, Kenney said one of his concerns is the elementary schools eventually "running out of space."

While the district's overall enrollment has barely edged up in recent years, the trends are higher for the elementary schools, particularly in kindergarten and first grade.

Kenney said the district's older buildings, like the River Falls Academy and Greenwood, are still in limbo because of their aging infrastructure.

"When I was first elected to the school board in 2000, I got on the Facilities Committee that looked at what to do about Greenwood Elementary," he said. "Here we are in 2011, and we still haven't done anything significant for Greenwood."

Kenney called the referendum drive a "successful campaign" despite its eventual defeat.

Kenney said fixing and modernizing older schools for a "big price tag" is a harder sell than the 1998 River Falls referendum, when the main issue was to build a brand-new high school with an auditorium and swimming pool.

"This time, we were talking about things like replacing old locker rooms, worn-out plumbing and leaky windows," he said. "I know this term has been used before, but it just wasn't as sexy."


There were other key results from the Tuesday, April 5, election, including for school board.

Board president Stacy Johnson Myers was re-elected with the highest vote total of 3,324.

Also claiming a spot on the school board is newcomer Richard Gerczak with 2,461 votes. Finishing third was Kevin Peterson with 2,091 votes.

In the town of Kinnickinnic, Chairman Roger Van Beek survived a tough challenge from Gordon Awsumb, narrowly winning 323-309.

Also in Kinnickinnic, two newcomers were battling for a supervisory seat: Dave Nelson edged Mae Wolfe, 289-275.

Running unopposed for another supervisory seat, Axel Bogdan got 473 votes.

In the one contested race in the town of Troy, Sue Warren defeated Chuck Struemke for supervisor #2 by a 535-385 margin.

In River Falls for City Council, the incumbents were swept back in for another term: At-large, Randy Kusilek over Josh Hudek, 1616 to 984. District 1, Tom Caflish over Todd Coleman, 573-473. District 2, Jim Nordgren over Eunice Beauchman, 156-105. District 3, unopposed, had David Reese collecting 563 votes.

Pick up your print copy of the River Falls Journal this week for detailed election-day totals.