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Superintendent column: The speed of trust

By Jamie Benson, School District Superintendent

The School District of River Falls is holding a facility improvement referendum on April 3. School board members know they represent student and taxpayer interests in all their work. If you would like to individually discuss referendum details, I encourage you to contact me or any of the school board members:

• Alan Tuchtenhagen: alan.tuchtenhagen@rfsd.k12.wi.us

• Amy Halvorson: amy.halvorson@rfsd.k12.wi.us

• Kellen Wells-Mangold: kellen.wells-mangold@rfsd.k12.wi.us

• Mike Miller: mike.miller@rfsd.k12.wi.us

• Mike Stifter: mike.stifter@rfsd.k12.wi.us

• Ramona Gunter: ramona.gunter@rfsd.k12.wi.us

• Stacy Johnson Myers: stacy.johnsonmyers@rfsd.k12.wi.us

Although the challenges with our facility needs continue to grow causing the need for this referendum, the silver lining is that the district is retiring some debt which will minimize the tax impact of a successful referendum. Our board has strategically made financial decisions to leverage the timing of this debt retirement to coincide with addressing facility needs.

There will be two questions on the April 3 ballot.

Question #1: $45.86 million for facility improvements at all of our schools; Question #2: for artificial turf, lights, and parking to be added behind the high school.

If Question #2 is approved by voters it will add flexible field options for numerous youth sports, marching band, spring sports practice (i.e., baseball, softball, golf), adult community use, phy ed, football, soccer, etc. This public investment will continue to keep our student and community opportunities in line with similar turf facilities found at Hudson, Rice Lake, Chippewa Falls, Superior, and other districts of similar size to River Falls. Additionally, property values will continue to be enhanced by our high quality academics and facilities.

Question #1 includes adding elementary classrooms, addressing aging facility infrastructures, creating flexible/collaborative learning spaces, and exiting and demolishing the older sections of the Academy Building.

Often districts mistakenly "kick-the-can-down-the-road" by deferring maintenance which leads to public frustration in wondering why those maintenance needs are not addressed in an annual maintenance budget. To be clear, this is not our situation. In fact, the district invests significant dollars annually in maintenance improvements yet, we simply do not have the financial strength to address all facility needs.

In 2011, voters approved one referendum question allowing for some maintenance, safety, and front entrance improvements in all schools; still, there remain lingering needs from the two referendum questions that did not pass in 2011. These needs have intensified in our aging buildings. Additionally, enrollment growth, needed security improvements, and educational advancements cause facility challenges that require new, different, and more safe spaces for educating students.

Driven by our growing facility needs, as well as the fact that debt retirement will minimize the tax impact, our board would be remiss in not leveraging the timing of this referendum for April 3. Needs drive the "why" and debt retirement helps to support the "how" but, at the end of the day it is up to voters to decide if this investment is logical, sensible, and reasonable; we think the request is modest in balancing and prioritizing need with timing.

With less than one month to go leading up to the April 3 school district facilities referendum we will continue to ramp up our public communications to help citizens make an informed vote. A few weeks ago an informational brochure was mailed to all residents; large information boards are on display in all of our schools; our district website (www.rfsd.k12.wi.us) has a wealth of related referendum information; we have shared an informational video on social media; and three public forums have already been held - with four public forums remaining this month.

The public is welcome and encouraged to attend one of the remaining public forums listed below:

• March 15 (6 p.m. at Montessori Elementary School)

• March 21 (7 a.m. in the District Office)

• March 21 (noon in the District Office)

• March 27 (6 p.m. at Meyer Middle School Library)

Change happens at the speed of trust and with this in mind, our district will continue to be open, honest, and transparent in our referendum communications. If you wish to learn more, please consider attending a public forum, visit our website, or contact me or a board member at any time.

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