WEST ALLIS — A school referendum that sought $2.5 million annually for each of the next five years failed and two of three incumbents were turned out in the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District in Tuesday's balloting.
Some say the votes show frustration and others say a lack of trust over the district having overspent its budget since 2007 and depleting its cash reserves.
School officials were going to use the referendum dollars to get the district back on a firmer financial footing. Without the additional $2.5 million a favorable referendum vote would have given, the district will have to make the $2.5 million in cuts that were outlined, officials said.
Some voters thought the cuts that school officials talked about were scare tactics, but that wasn't the case, said School Board President Jeff Sikich Tuesday night.
"It wasn't scare. We were trying to be honest and transparent. If it doesn't fly, things are not going to be the same," he said. "It's a sad day for the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District."
"I hate to see the cuts the kids are going to have to go through. But the voters decided that's what they want to do," he said.
Asked if voters might not have trusted the school board with the additional referendum funding, Sikich acknowledged, "Based on past experience, I wouldn't rule that out."
"You can't get trust. You have to build it," Sikich said, frankly.
The new district administration said checks are now in place so any such overspending would be caught early. They also instituted several belt-tightening measures and are trying to raise money by selling district property, including the district offices at 1205 S. 70th St.
If the referendum had been approved, the owner of a $100,000 home would have paid $58 more in school property taxes per year for the next five years. The owner of a $200,000 home would have paid $116 more per year.
The cuts include dropping high school tennis, gymnastics, swimming, diving and golf and all intermediate school sports, dropping elementary music lessons, and increasing maximum target class size at the intermediate and high schools.
The unofficial vote totals are:
5,495 or 56 percent voting no
4,308 or 44 percent voting yes
In the five-way race for three seats on the school board, the two challengers making their first try for public office came out on top. They are Noah Leigh and Brian Keller. They were followed by incumbent Dan Bailey who is finishing his second term on the board.
Unseated were Gail Radonski, who is finishing her second three-year term, and Diane Narlock who is in her first term.
Leigh who had the highest unofficial total of 4,455, said while campaigning, he encountered quite a bit of anger among voters about the overspending. That probably helped him to some extent, he said.
"I am sure that those who wanted to see some incumbent board members removed due to the part they played in the overspending may have voted for me purely for that reason," Leigh said. "But I think that most people who cast a vote for me knew who I was and what I stood for."
What put him over the top was hard work, a good message and being passionate about helping the district, he said.
"I think what helped me win is my efforts to get my name out in the community and how I did at the public forums that were held," he said. "I really think that people when they talked to me or heard me answer the questions regarding the district could see that I was knowledgeable and passionate about the issues and would work hard to help fix them."
Fellow first-timer Keller was elated on election night.
"I can't wait to get to work. I want to thank everyone who has supported me. I know there is a lot of work ahead, but I am looking forward to doing it," he said. "I will work hard to represent all of our students, teachers, taxpayers and the community as a whole."
He too thought the past had a lot to do with the election outcome.
"I think the public in general was looking for a change," he said. " The district has made some bad decisions over the years and I think there was a desire to have new people and fresh perspective."
"The public had a lot of questions, many of which they felt were not answered," Keller said. "They want to know that the district is using money wisely."
But he also said he felt that his passion to help the schools showed through to voters.
Bailey ould not be reached on election night.
With a 25 percent voter turnout, the unofficial vote totals are:
Unofficial vote totals:
Noah Leigh 4,455
Brian Keller 4,431
Dan Bailey (inc,) 3,627
Diane Narlock (inc.) 3,573
Gail Radonski (inc.) 3,513