First in a series of Act 10 success stories

BROWN DEER, Wis. – For most school districts, asking voters to approve new taxes for brick and mortar projects has not been an option in recent years.

With the recession in full blast and property owners struggling to keep their heads above water, there was little point in asking them to fork over more money.

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Most would have responded with a resounding “No!”

But that wasn’t the case in Wisconsin’s Brown Deer school district, where voters raised eyebrows across the state by approving two millage proposals in 2011 that will allow the district to make approximately $22 million worth of overdue improvements to its campus.

How did such a miracle occur in Brown Deer?

It’s due to Gov. Scott Walker’s radically different approach to school funding, which was implemented in 2011.

One part of Walker’s program cut state funding to public schools in an effort to close a huge state budget deficit. It also lowered local property tax caps, so school boards couldn’t replace the lost state revenue by shifting the burden to property owners.

On the surface none of that seemed very promising for schools. But Brown Deer school officials recognized a potential silver lining.

The budget changes resulted in a 4 percent tax reduction for property owners in the Brown Deer district. School officials asked voters to allow the district to keep the 4 percent tax cut to pursue a long overdue campus renovation and improvement project, and the voters agreed.

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That illustrates how generous property owners can be, even during tough times, when government gives them an occasional break.

But the story is also tied to Act 10, which allowed school districts to replace lost state aid by lowering labor costs. The Brown Deer district was able to recoup its losses and maintain its staff and programs through various Act 10 provisions, like the freedom to change the design of employee health insurance plans without union consent, or the freedom to implement a less expensive post-retirement benefit package.

That allowed district officials to turn their attention toward renovation needs, targeting the 4 percent tax cut property owners received.

“Without the budget (changes), we never would have dropped taxes 4 percent,” Emily Koczela, finance director for the Brown Deer district, told EAGnews.  “Without Act 10, we never would have been able to survive the cuts in the budget. With it, we could survive, keep our staff and programs, and have lower taxes – so that we could then have the opportunity to ask for the 4 percent back in taxes.

“We’re really the poster child for Act 10. It allowed us to levy that 4 percent for renovations.”

Voters approve two proposals

Many school officials across Wisconsin viewed the lowered property tax cap as just another blow to their already thin budgets.

But Brown Deer officials had faith in their community. They were willing to bet that property owners were grateful for the tax cut, and might be willing to give it back to the district for physical improvements.

State law has always allowed school districts to override local property tax caps, provided they have the consent of voters.

It turns out that school officials were correct. After a rigorous campaign to educate the public about the condition of district property, voters passed two proposals that will allow the district to purchase bonds to complete $22 million worth of improvements.

The first proposal, which raised $18 million, passed by a tally of 1,339-766. The second, which raised an extra $4 million, passed 1,102-997. By passing both proposals, voters not only gave up the 4 percent tax cut, but agreed to a net increase of 3 percent.

Brown Deer voters had rejected a similar proposal for campus renovations in 2004, when the economy was significantly better.

“We had desperate needs in our buildings and no other way to fund the work,” said Koczela, who came up with the idea for the tax giveback. “So we went to the community and asked voters if they would leave property taxes where they were and allow us to keep the 4 percent for renovations.

“We thought people might go for it, despite the hard times, because it was so cheap and because the work had to be done and it was only going to get more expensive. They knew they would never get a better deal.”

What are taxpayers getting for their investment, besides the hike in property value that generally comes with local school improvements?

A new addition to the high school, which was completed in April, includes a new 35,000 square foot gymnasium, which is large enough to hold four physical education classes at the same time with an indoor track included.

A cafeteria and art room are also part of the high school addition.

The current middle school is being renovated to become the new K-6 elementary, while the high school is being renovated to create a specialized space for 7th and 8th graders to move into the building.

The new middle school section of the high school building will have eight classrooms, science labs, a library, as well as art, cafeteria and gym space.

An old elementary school of questionable quality, which would have cost at least $6 million to properly renovate, will be removed.

Open space on campus will also be put to better use, according to Koczela.

“We created a campus that functions as a science classroom with botanical garden, moving from our original look of asphalt punctuated with predictable plantings to a new look heavy on green space,” she said. “It is a lovely change.”