Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Sparta School Board committee recommends hiring firm for $9K community survey

The Sparta School Board's Finance and Facilities Committee last week took one step closer to hiring a Slinger-based company to conduct a $9,000 community survey.

A representative of the firm School Perceptions gave a presentation to the board last month, saying it would assist the district with conducting a survey to educate the public on the school's options and gauge public opinion on how the district should proceed.

Newly seated Sparta School Superintendent Dr. Amy Van Deuren, said she is familiar with School Perceptions from other districts she's worked at that have used its services.

"They are extremely accurate," she said, noting the firm predicted the outcomes of 26 out of 26 referendums in the last election cycle on which it was hired to gauge public opinion.

 "Looking at a $22 million-$23 million referendum, it seems like spending $9,000, although it's a lot, is a wise investment in terms of knowing what the community will bear, where the limits are, how we want to approach and frame the referendum and, most importantly, what is the community most concerned about," said Van Deuren.

To compile the survey, which would be sent to every address in the Sparta School District, School Perceptions would work in conjunction with HSR Associates of La Crosse, an architectural firm that is in the process of determining the school district's building needs, and a facilities committee made up of district residents, staff, parents, school board members and Ft. McCoy representatives.

Last month, the School Perceptions representative said the company is not a pro-referendum firm, insisting its role is to educate residents on the status of the school district’s facilities and the options available to address problems. She said the firm can accurately predict how much of a tax increase residents will tolerate and whether building consolidation or other solutions are preferable to the public.

While it was Van Deuren's recommendation to hire School Perceptions, she did offer a caveat.

"If we're going to spend the money on the survey then I think we need to make a commitment we're going to use that as a guide to move forward with the referendum," she said, adding the district needs that community input to understand what messages are going to resonate with the public.

"What this is for is once we decide what direction we're going, if we're going for the referendum, we need to know what the community is going to support it."

Business Manager Leah Hauser laid out the timeline, which would ideally put a referendum, if the board chooses to hold one, on the April 2018 ballot. She said scheduling a referendum at that time allows some of the district's current debt to expire, leaving little change in the levy if new debt from the referendum is added.

Hauser also noted that the retired debt will decrease the levy, negatively impacting state aid to the district. She also said if an initial referendum fails, the district still has time to tweak it and reintroduce another referendum in the November 2018 election.

Van Deuren agreed that it's in the district's best interest to move quickly, pointing to pending legislation that would limit elections in which referendums are allowed and introducing new disclosure rules.

But she also said it's important to get it right the first time, referring to research that shows it's unlikely a referendum will pass after being defeated in a previous election.

"Our first shot is our best shot," she said. "We want to get it right. The survey will help with that."

The recommendation to hire School Perceptions to conduct the survey will go before the full board July 25.

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