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Colfax steering committee recommends $7+ million referendum

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX  —  The Colfax Schools Community Steering Committee has recommended that the Colfax Board of Education approve a $7 million referendum with additional amounts for unfunded pension liabilities and energy efficiency projects already completed.

The steering committee met for the second time at the Colfax High School library June 8.

The first meeting was May 12.

Out of the $7 million, $5.85 million would be used for construction and maintenance projects. The additional money would go toward paying unfunded pension liabilities and for the energy efficiency projects completed two years ago.

“We are just stewards here for a while, and we are trying to move forward for the future,” said Lee Bjurquist, chair of the steering committee and a retired Colfax school district administrator.

Bjurquist noted that many of the projects on the list will maintain the existing school building.

A survey conducted in March of property owners in the district by a company called School Perceptions revealed that there appears to be enough public support to pass a referendum for the items recommended by the steering committee.

The items that were recommended to the school board are replacing the temporary classrooms at Colfax Elementary ($1.4 million); expanding the high school technical education and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs ($600,000); addressing district infrastructure needs, such as replacing portions of the roof ($2.2 million); improving building safety and security ($500,000); purchasing six LP fueled buses ($600,000); and updating the bus maintenance building ($550,000).

Items that property owners indicated they would not be willing to support are air conditioning ($3.3 million); adding a multipurpose room, which would involve removing the stage in the Martin Anderson Gymnasium, and updating the middle school locker rooms ($750,000); building an auditorium at the high school ($4.9 million); and adding locker rooms in the elementary school ($300,000).

Steering committee members considered each of the items individually in their discussion and made separate motions for each item to recommend that the Colfax Board of Education consider putting those items to referendum.

About 30 people attended the committee meeting.

Temporary classrooms

The temporary classrooms were meant to serve the school district for no more than ten years, Bjurquist told committee members, noting that the temporary classrooms have now been in use for 36 years.

Access to the temporary classrooms is through the Colfax Elementary cafeteria. The classrooms are too small for the classes held there, which include Early Childhood Education, elementary art and special education.

The temporary rooms are heated with baseboard units, and during the winter, temperatures have been recorded on a Sunday night at 80 degrees or more.

If the baseboard heat is turned off for the weekend, and it is very cold outside, even if the heat is turned on first thing in the morning, the rooms will not warm up until afternoon.

Four large-sized classrooms would replace the temporary classrooms, said Bill Yingst, district administrator.

Because of the nature of the classes — especially Early Childhood and art — the school district must be careful not to build classrooms that are too small, he said.

The Colfax Schools Community Steering Committee unanimously approved a motion to recommend that the Colfax Board of Education consider including $1.4 million in a referendum question to replace the temporary classrooms.

Tech-ed

Technology education and Science, Technology, Education and Math (STEM) will prepare students for the future, Bjurquist said.

One high school in this area of the state already has a self-sustaining manufacturing unit, Yingst said, adding, “That is the future.”

“It will be a different-looking public school in the next ten to 20 years,” he said.

Improvements to tech-ed and the STEM programs would include updates to classrooms and labs, new equipment, curriculum and staff training, Yingst said.

Steering committee member Sid Hoke said he had talked to several people about the tech ed and STEM portion of the proposals, “and they all wondered, is $600,000 enough?”

A number of people on the steering committee indicated that they, too, wondered if $600,000 were enough.

The $600,000 number is “conservative,” Yingst said.

Tech ed and STEM are at the top of the priority list for the school district, but the item is practically the least amount of money, Hoke noted.

The Colfax school district has 861 students and 350 laptop computers and Google Chromebooks, Yingst noted.

Some of the staff have a good background but still need more training in this area, Bjurquist said.

Hoke wondered if expanding tech ed and STEM would require hiring additional staff.

“Possibly,” Yingst said.

Committee member Ken Schmitt wondered if the school board also should consider a referendum question to exceed the revenue limit to give the school district more operating revenue.

Schmitt said the school board would be addressing a need by adding to the tech ed and STEM programs but that it would be difficult to sustain if there is no additional money in the regular budget.

The committee unanimously approved a motion to recommend that the school board include the tech ed and STEM programs in a referendum question.

Infrastructure needs

Addressing infrastructure needs for $2.2 million would include an additional $1.7 million in energy efficiency projects, parking lot updates, carpeting in the high school, replacing sections of the roof that date back to 1988, and replacing student lockers.

The carpeting in the high school has been there for 16 years, Yingst said.

“The building has been well maintained, but the public also expects it to be well maintained,” Bjurquist said.

The additional $1.7 million for energy efficiency would be an extension of the energy efficiency project from three years ago.

The school district has saved money from the energy efficiency projects already completed, but unfortunately, the amount of savings must be reported to the state, and then the state deducts that amount from the state aid the school district receives, Yingst said.

The committee unanimously approved a motion to recommend that the school board include the infrastructure needs in a referendum question.

Safety

Building safety and security, which would include moving the office from the middle of the high school building to the east side next to the parking lot, adding security cameras and adding  handicapped access to the length of the entry on the east, is expected to cost $500,000.

“We are trying to minimize risk before people get into the heart of the building,” Yingst said.

The intent is to move the high school office to the front of the building so office staff can visually monitor who is coming into the building.

The way the entrance and office are set up now, visitors must ring the buzzer and wait for office staff to unlock the door before entering the high school.

Someone intending to inflict harm could be well into the building before anyone sees that person, Yingst said.

“We know most of the people coming in, but we do not know all of them. (Moving the office) would make it more of a controllable area,” Yingst said.

The classroom that is just to the north of the east doors would become the office, and the area that is office now would become a conference room/meeting room, he said.

The committee unanimously approved a motion to recommend that the school board include building safety and security in a referendum question.

LP buses

The purchase of six buses run on Liquid Propane would cost $600,000.

School buses now cost about $100,000, and the price has doubled over the last decade or so, Yingst said.

The school district purchased three LP buses as part of the energy efficiency project, and “we have had good luck with those,” he said.

The LP buses are quiet, and the district was able to run them for $1.49 per gallon for the school year, Yingst said.

One committee member wondered if the six buses would be purchased all at once or if the purchases would be spread out over several years.

Purchasing the buses all at once or, say, two per year for three years, has not yet been determined, Yingst said.

The school district has 18 buses, and the previous cycle was to replace one bus every year. Decreases in state aid over the past five years have made it more difficult to stay on the bus replacement schedule, he said.

Under the current proposal, the school district could catch up on bus replacement by buying the buses with referendum dollars, but there would be no additional money in the budget to continue replacing buses as necessary.

The buses would be the larger capacity vehicles that would carry 71 passengers, Yingst noted.

The committee unanimously approved a motion to recommend that the school board include six LP buses in the referendum question.

Bus maintenance

Replacing the existing bus maintenance building would cost $550,000.

The bus maintenance building, built in 1963 as closely as anyone can determine, is a maintenance building and not the bus garage (or “bus barn”) where the buses are parked.

The existing building only allows buses to be driven in and backed out. A new building would have doors on both ends so the buses could be driven in and out, Yingst said.

Hoke wondered if the maintenance building could be added onto the bus barn.

Unfortunately, it cannot be added to the bus garage because of an underground fuel tank, Yingst said.

The committee unanimously approved a motion to recommend that the school board include the bus maintenance building in a referendum question.

Unfunded liabilities

Although Wisconsin’s pension system is considered one of the healthiest in the nation, a number of years back, the state Legislature passed a law to requiring school districts to pay off their unfunded pension liabilities.

Although Colfax only has $400,000 left to pay off, if the amount were reduced to zero, the annual payment could be used elsewhere in the operating budget, Yingst said.

The school district also is making payments on $1.7 million that was used three years ago for the energy efficiency projects, he said.

The $1.7 million is on a ten-year payback schedule, and three years have been paid off, Yingst explained.

Including the amount for the already-completed energy efficiency projects in the referendum question would allow those loans to be paid off and also would free up money that could be used elsewhere in the operating budget, he said.

The Colfax Schools Community Steering Committee unanimously approved a motion to recommend that the Colfax Board of Education go forward with a $7 million referendum and include additional money to pay off the unfunded pension liability and the energy efficiency projects already completed.

A referendum question would have to be approved by the school board and submitted to the county by early August in order to be included on the ballot for the November election.

The Colfax Board of Education meets next on June 20.