The $59 million and $7 million questions: Oak Creek-Franklin district details Nov. referendum

Q&A with district on project costs, benefits

Sept. 3, 2014

Oak Creek — A referendum will appear on the Nov. 4 general election ballot that, if approved, would provide much-needed relief to overcrowding at the elementary and high school levels, but could also triple Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District's debt.

Naturally, such a prospect raises questions among school district residents.

First, some background on the issue.

School board members voted in favor of the referendum question appearing on the ballot on Aug. 11. The referendum will propose the building of a new elementary school, a ninth-grade center, which includes a new district office and a gym sized for two basketball courts, as well as a new community auditorium.

The elementary school would enroll as many as 500 early childhood and 5-year-old kindergarten students. The proposed ninth-grade center would enroll up to 750 students. The auditorium would seat 800.

Here is the rest you need to know, according to school board meetings, interviews and district documents provided by Superintendent Sara Burmeister. They are also available on the district website.

Proposed building

How will the referendum be phrased? The school district has not formally released the referendum wording, but it will be formatted into two questions. The first question will include the new elementary and ninth-center. The second question will propose the new auditorium. The Future Building Committee recommended this format since the school auditorium is more of a "want" and should be secondary to the two "needs."

Where would the new buildings go? The ninth-grade center and auditorium would be built in place of the city's current City Hall and library on South Howell Avenue and East Puetz Road to create a "campus" effect with Oak Creek High School. The new elementary school would be built at South 20th Streeet and West Drexel Avenue.

What about the current district office? Superintendent Sara Burmeister said if the ninth-grade center is approved, the old district office, 7630 S. 10th St., would be sold. The new district office is being designed so that it could be converted into another learning space if the student body grows at the ninth-grade center. The district office would then relocate.

How many options were considered? The Future Building Committee identified and explored 12 options to address the long-term needs of the district. Members subsequently narrowed the options down to the proposed developments.

Financial impact

How much would these developments cost? The combined cost for a new elementary school and ninth grade center would not exceed $59,095,000. That estimate is about $1 million less than the original cost projection, which was presented to the public at a school board meeting in June. The auditorium is quoted to cost no more than $7,355,000.

How much debt does the city currently have? The district's principal debt is $39,075,000 as of June 2014. The district had accrued a total of $92,985,632 in debt because of high school remodeling in 2000 and the building of Deerfield Elementary in 2004 and then East Middle School in 2006. The district has paid $53,910,632 of principal since 2001. The debt levy is 6 percent of the district's budget.

How has the district paid off that debt? According to a document prepared by Burmeister, the district has paid "more than required in principal payments for the past several years." The final payment for current referendum debt ($39,075,000) is scheduled for April 1, 2024, according to the document.

How much debt would the referendum create? If residents vote in favor of all three proposed developments, the new referendum would create up to $66,450,000 in new debt, totaling as much as $105,525,000 for the district.

When will new debt be paid off? Robert W. Baird, the company that provides financial services for the school district, projected new debt to be paid off in 20 years. That is an overestimation, said Burmeister. "It's always been less than what they've estimated because they'd rather be conservative."

Taxpayer burden

What do taxpayers pay now on referendum debt? In 2014, the tax rate for all debt (including non-referendum debt) is $1.40 per $1,000 of a home's value. That equates to $280 per year on a $200,000 home.

What would that number increase to? The tax rate would increase 77 cents if the elementary and secondary schools are approved and 9 cents if the auditorium is approved.

Student populations

What is Oak Creek's enrollment? The number of students enrolled at OCFSD has jumped from 4,823 to 6,444 since 2000. Current enrollment shows that five out of six elementary grade levels are above capacity and that Oak Creek High School is above capacity. The high school enrolls 2,038 students but is designed for 2,000.

How many students are Open Enrollment? The district has 5.6 percent of its student population attending via Open Enrollment. It also has 3.8 percent of resident students attending another public school under Open Enrollment. There is a net difference of 1.8 percent additional students through Open Enrollment, a program controlled by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

"Some districts rely heavily on OE students to keep programs in their districts. With a net difference of 1.8 percent, we've been able to manage it better than other districts," said Burmeister in an April email. "We have, by far, the smallest percentage of non-resident students in our district. Most districts have an average of 15 percent non-resident students."

There were 471 applications for 32 Open Enrollment seats for 2013-14. There are 25 Open Enrollment seats identified for 2014-15, according to a presentation from the Future Building Committee.

What accounts for increasing enrollment? "We have very good schools," said Burmeister. "We are a growing community and we are going to continue to grow." About 32 percent of the households in Oak Creek have children and about 30 percent of households in Franklin have children, which is higher than the national average, according to a June 2014 report from Burmeister.

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