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Faced with depleted cash reserves and annual budgets that consistently run into red ink, West Allis-West Milwaukee school officials this week decided to ask voters for an additional $2.5 million annually for the next five years for a total of $12.5 million.

Despite reservations, the school board on Monday, Jan. 23, voted unanimously in favor of placing the referendum on this April’s ballot. Under state statutes, the district had to decide this week to have the question posed during this spring’s general election.

Superintendent Marty Lexmond said West Allis-West Milwaukee has made a series of changes in recent years to tighten up the budget, many relating to back-office functions that do not directly impact students.

“But we’re still facing significant financial challenges,” Lexmond said. “We’ve gotten to the point where we’re going to have to start making cuts in the schools.”

Based on preliminary figures crunched by Andrew Chromy, director of finance and operations, West Allis-West Milwaukee is facing a $2.5 million deficit for the 2017-18 school year.

That figure, as Lexmond described it, “is to keep everything we’re doing moving forward.”

Survey said

Lexmond, Chromy and other administrators were initially going to propose a $4 million referendum question, over a five-year period, on the ballot. But they reneged on that proposal after findings from a recent survey were released.

The district last month contracted with Springstead, a public sector advisory firm, to gauge property owners’ thresholds for a referendum. Four hundred property owners were surveyed during Springstead’s recent exercise.

The majority of the respondents said they would be willing to pay an additional $60 annually to fund a referendum.

Taking into account the average price of a home in West Allis and West Milwaukee, Chromy asserted the annual $2.5 million had the most potential of passing this spring.

“I think it’s perfectly justified, and something we’d be successful at,” Chromy said of the $2.5 million annual plan.

Financial moves

The additional dollars, if approved by voters, would be placed on top of the state’s standard revenue caps that restrict how much a district can raise taxes each year.

This week’s decision came on the heels of a few additional financial maneuvers that have transpired recently.

Early this month, the board approved a plan to sell the district’s administrative office, 1205 S. 70th St., and several adjoining buildings to Milwaukee-based Cobalt Partners for $6.75 million.

But that infusion of cash is expected to fund other items in dire need, including infrastructure-related issues at the district’s aging schools.

The referendum dollars, if approved, would likely go directly toward a number of specific programs in district schools. But administrators also trumpeted a desire to build the district’s fund balance back up to mitigate pricey borrowing in future years.

Fund balances are used by governing agencies for a variety of purposes, including covering emergency expenses and managing budgets before taxpayer dollars have arrived.

Bad timing

Several board members said they believed the timing was not optimal, particularly with the building sale so recent.

“I appreciate what’s been done,” board member Gail Radonski said of the survey. “But I think the time frame is really short.”

After a robust discussion, the board did rally around one concept that led to an ultimate decision.

“I think we’re empowering the community,” board member Stephanie Emons said. “We’re letting them make the decision. We’re not making the decision.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, resident Noah Leigh said he believed district officials should clearly indicate how the referendum money will be used if the question is passed.

“I’d like to encourage the board to focus on the specifics,” Leigh said. “Making sure you drill down to the basics is important.”

To that end, Lexmond and Chromy are going to begin creating informational literature, outlining why the referendum is being asked and what could be on the chopping block in the 2017-18 school year if the question is not passed.

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