School referendums greeted favorably by Wisconsin votersVoters in nine of 10 school districts in southern Wisconsin approved nine of the 11 referendum questions presented.
By: By Barry Adams, The Wisconsin State Journal, Superior Telegram
Beloit has the state's highest unemployment rate at 12.5 percent, and property values in the Beloit School District averge $198,000 per student -- one of the lowest ratios in the state.
But on Tuesday, voters in the southern Rock County school district approved one of the costliest referendums in state history.
The $70 million plan to renovate most schools in the district, build a middle school and a pool, is being called historic for the city. It will not only benefit education but, according to supporters, serve as a catalyst for economic development.
"From a marketing aspect, I shuddered every time I saw the figures. It's a heck of a lot of money," said Randy Upton, president of the Greater Beloit Chamber of Commerce, which publicly supported the plan. "By providing the facilities, it's going to make people proud and make people look at Beloit as a place to live and invest."
Beloit wasn't alone Tuesday in its referendum success.
Voters in nine of 10 school districts in southern Wisconsin approved nine of the 11 referendum questions presented.
Orfordville Parkview's request for $5 million to consolidate elementary schools was overwhelmingly rejected, and three incumbent school board members were defeated in the district, southwest of Janesville.
In Fall River, northeast of Madison, voters approved spending $2.45 million for renovations but turned back a second question to spend $1.4 million on an outdoor athletic field.
Statewide, 21 of 29 questions were approved last week, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. Historically, according to DPI records, about half of all referendums are approved. But officials are quick to point out that trends and correlations are difficult to make.
"It really is a local issue," said Joe Quick, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. "The way communities respond to those issues is different from community to community."
In Hudson, a fast growing district in St. Croix County just east of the Twin Cities, voters approved spending $8.2 million to buy a former dog track for the construction of a school while voters in Ripon overwhelmingly rejected spending $900,000 to buy land.
In Watertown, a community of about 24,000 east of Madison, a plan to spend $6.2 million to fix roofs and remodel the middle school was narrowly approved while, in a landslide, Oshkosh voters approved the construction of a $12.9 million elementary school.
Wanda Owens, a long-time school board member in Barneveld, said being practical and communicating with the community is essential to getting voters to endorse raising their taxes. In 2010, her small Iowa County district asked for $1.1 million for roof repairs and major improvements to the science department. The measure passed by more than a 2-to-1 margin.
"You need to inform the people what you need and why you need it," Owens said. "You have to be totally honest with your taxpayers."
In Beloit, endorsements from community leaders and business organizations were instrumental in the referendum's passing. Superintendent Steve McNeal said more than 100 presentations were made in the community.
The construction of the swimming pool was perhaps the most difficult sell, McNeal said, but it was stressed that Beloit was the only school in the conference that could not host a swim meet while Janesville has five swimming pools in its district.
"You have to be able to develop the need so people can understand it and you have to be able to communicate," McNeal said. "There's always going to be people against it. We just really tried to hit every single avenue we could."
(c)2012 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)
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