From school to school it went -- first to Case High School, then Starbuck Middle School, then Walden III, then Janes Elementary. At each stop, district officials escorted their charges around the buildings, pointing out this and that: doors that let cold air in, and won't lock; outdated ventilation systems; roofs that leak; windows that rattle and look ready to fall apart; a concrete stairway with a big crack in the middle; a swimming pool that barely holds water; security systems about which the less said the better.
David Hazen, Racine Unified's chief financial officer, and a former school board member, led the tour, with Frank Jarosz, Unified's project manager for maintenance doing the heavy lifting when it came to explaining just what is broken, and what it would take to fix it. It was all part of the district's effort to educate the public about what it would spend the $16.5 million it hopes taxpayers will approve on April 1, a referendum for five years' worth of (mostly long overdue) maintenance projects for the districts 33 buildings comprising 3,200,000 sq. ft. of space.
How much it costs to maintain the district's schools is amazing -- although it shouldn't be, given that some buildings date from before the Civil War (Winslow, our oldest school, was built in 1856; Gilmore, our "newest," in 1973), and Unified has shorted maintenance funds for years, to avoid having to cut staff (and because half a dozen referenda providing maintenance funds were rejected by the taxpayers). Unified supplied those taking the tour with a checklist with all the projects it hopes to do: a fire alarm system at Wind Point ($130,099), roofing at Jefferson ($60,691), sidewalks at Schulte ($30,972), replace 40-year-old cracked asphalt at Giese's playground ($206,480), new seats and lighting in Case High School's theater, $318,000) ... and so it goes. Those are just a few of the first-year's expenditures; the list goes on -- and on --through five years' worth of new windows and doors, a replaced pool, paint, electrical upgrades, heating and ventilation repairs, millions for new roofs.
Jarosz, who's been on the job at Unified for 18 years, recalled how years ago -- in the early '90s -- he budgeted for the big stuff, of course, but he also had about $750,000 a year to spend on the myriad little repairs -- items costing less than $25,000, like Walden's cracked-down-the-middle front steps for example. No more; now everything must be budgeted years ahead. If the referendum passes, then Janes -- the district's year-'round school, open in the summer -- will have its air conditioning system rebuilt at a cost of $820,758, in 2012. If not, well ...
Hazen pointed out that the referendum will add just $34 a year to the tax bill of a $100,000 house. In year one. In years two through four, the additional cost would drop to $10 a year; in year five to $9. "Over the life of the referendum, the cost is four cents a day," Hazen said.
So was anybody convinced? The school bus carried 21 people on Saturday morning's tour -- but only seven were "civilians" -- neither working for the district, nor on the volunteer referendum advisory committee, nor media. As the bus pulled back into Case's parking lot after two hours of poking through boiler rooms, classrooms and chilly entryways, and peering at peeling paint, cracked concrete and twisted roof shingles, I asked the civilians on the bus how many were convinced of the need, and how many were not.
Six people raised their hands in support of the referendum. Only one man said no: Frank Morrison of the Racine Taxpayers Association insists the district has enough money for maintenance (actually, the amount uncommitted is just $232,813) and, a worse offense in Morrison's canon, is trying to hire another superintendent like the one who left last August. But on that bus, after touring the district's schools, he was the lone negative voice.
"Not bad," said Hazen, ever the accountant, doing the math in his head; "85 percent support."
-- --Unified has put much information about the referendum on its website.
For example: here is a spreadsheet with all the maintenance projects the district hopes to fund from the five-year referendum, sorted by year and school.
Here is a list of previous referendum projects, by school, showing what the district spent $21 million repairing in recent years.
Here is a school tax calculator, showing exactly how much the referendum will cost you (after you plug in your home's assessed valuation).
Here is a fact sheet with lots of information about the district and the referendum. A VIDEO is here.