APPLETON, Wis. — At a time when financial concerns were at the forefront of many voters who went to the polls Tuesday, it nonetheless proved to be the right time for a $129.8 million Appleton Area School District (AASD) referendum.
Each question of the two-question referendum received over 67% of the vote among over 42,000 cast.
“It’s excitement,” said Appleton Area School District superintendent Greg Hartjes. “One, it’s exciting because of the support. ‘Yes’ means that our community really supports us, supports what we’re doing.
“And then the other piece to that is we’re excited about the future for our students because of what this will mean. Just being able to complete projects at every one of our schools means it will impact every student in our district.”
The passage of the referendum means a new elementary school that was identified as a need in 2016 will be built. There will also be building additions to the three high schools. Sixth-graders will be moved to middle schools and STEM (science, engineering, technology and math) education will be increased with additional space and staff.
“Fox River Academy, which is a charter school within Jefferson, they’ve had (STEM) for a number of years and they love it,” said Lori Leschisin, principal at Jefferson Elementary. “The hands-on experience and the practicality of what they’re learning to real life has been wonderful. Now all the elementary schools will get it. It’s just phenomenal.”
Two elementary schools will have reconstructed front offices for safety and security reasons and they will lower the average class size for kindergarten through second grade from 25 to 1 to 20 to 1.
Through a survey of 44,000 households and 22 listening sessions, residents were told the expected cost to taxpayers would be $39 for every $100,000 worth of property. But three weeks before the election, new tax numbers from the state — which considered increased state aid, increased property value and paying down debt earlier than expected — lowered the cost to $4 per $100,000.
“I think a lot of people maybe were opposed because of finances,” said Hartjes. “Maybe supported what the projects were and what the operating question was going to fund. I think they realized $4 on $100,000 of property is very affordable. So I’m certain that it helped.”
The feeling these projects needed to be dealt with sooner rather than later also led to a school referendum being on the ballot in the fall for the first time. That allowed the lower cost of the referendum to be relayed to voters just before the election.
Hartjes said moving the referendum to the 2023 spring election would have delayed project completion by a year. Now he said the new additions to the middle schools and sixth graders moving to the middle schools are expected to happen in the fall of 2024. The new elementary school should be ready for the 2025 school year, he said.
Hartjes said voters also took note that the AASD pre-paid debt from the 2005 and 2014 referendums. That meant the debt was paid off 11 years early and saved taxpayers $4.5 million in interest.
“There were people who asked us about it,” he said. “And we certainly felt good about being able to say, ‘We’ve been good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars.’"
“So we really had a lot of factors that were in our favor, both financial and just kind of the timing coming out of the pandemic with the community, I think, really ready to rally around our school district.”
Leschisin, like Hartjes, was thankful for the support.
“It’s huge,” she said. “Our community, they’re our partners. We want to be in partnership with them all the time because it takes all of us to raise our children. And to know we have that backing is just so supportive.
“I looked at some of the referendums that didn’t pass in the state and I’m sure it’s got to be disheartening.”
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