A consolidation plan for the School District of La Crosse could turn two high schools into one.
Would the mascot become the River Rangers? Superintendent Dr. Aaron Engel laughed at the question Tuesday on La Crosse Talk PM and indicated that was probably getting ahead of things.
“There’s been a lot of ideas thrown out there,” Engel said. “I don’t know what that will look like, but we’ll definitely have a process that involves students and our community — if we get to that point, to picking out a new mascot.”
The time to fill out a survey that Engel said was sent to every resident in the district just ended last weekend.
“We really have one big question: ‘Can you support a $194.7 million referendum to build one high school at the Trane headquarters site?’” Engel said of the survey.
It’s a big price tag for sure, but the cost amounts to $8 a year per $100,000 of property value over the next two decades.
“Results are being analyzed as we speak by the survey company that put it out, School Perceptions,” Engel said of the survey. “And then, on June 6, we’ll be presenting the results to the school board.”
One alternative to building a new high school at Trane is to keep fixing the decades-old buildings students are in now. That, however could be a never-ending process that wouldn’t promote a great learning environment for students — with construction equipment continually on the grounds while jackhammers and nail guns are firing off as students dissect a frog (Is that still a thing?).
The district is some $86 million in the hole on deferred maintenance over the next 10-15 years with about a $1.2 million a year budget for such things.
“Some of the things are structural things — replacing plumbing, large sections of roofs,” Engel said. “We’re doing those things as we can, but with a limited budget, we want to spend money on what matters most and that’s on teachers and students.
In other words, the maintenance aspect is not keeping up. Also, the state isn’t helping, isn’t adjusting. After all, these are public schools.
“In the 1990s, they put in revenue limits, intending to provide more oversight from Madison, from the state, to control increases in revenue for schools,” Engel explained. “And, since then, we’ve never kept up with inflation. And in the last 10-12 years, it’s been even worse than that.
“Sometimes we’ve gotten no money for the next school year, even though inflation is high. This year is an example of that. No new spendable money from the state, but a pretty significant increase in inflation.”
Something could be done. The state has a $3.8 billion budget surplus. But don’t expect the GOP-controlled Wisconsin state Legislature to do anything. It has been off for over two months now, and isn’t scheduled back in session until 2023 — a nine-month hiatus — while problems for every citizen persist — just look at gas prices or the cost now of Urge chips at La Crosse’s favorite convenience store.
“They really establish their priorities with the state biennium each year and this last state biennium added no new spendable money for schools,” Engel said. “And so we’re really stuck. We know that this year we’re not getting any increase and next year we’re not going to get any more funds.
“You know, it’s very challenging when that is your source of revenue. So it really means we’ve got a cut where we can and be as efficient as possible. So we’re doing that to make ends meet.”
It also means the school district has to count on the community to come through on a referendum. It’s something where La Crosse School District residents will probably see value in helping its students but other districts might not be so lucky — other communities may not be able to help.
The consolidation/referendum plan comes in because of three main factors the district pointed out last month:
- ENROLLMENT: 1,300 less students than in 2000 with a declining enrollment expected over the next 10 years. Each student represents about $11,300 in potential revenue.
- CAPACITY: The district maintains 15 buildings, including two high schools, while other districts of a similar size have around 10-11.
- INFRASTRUCTURE: These buildings are costlier to maintain and so out of date, they no longer meet today’s modern educational needs. Deferred maintenance needs is at $81 million, while the annual budget for that work is $1.2 million. The five oldest buildings have $25 million in infrastructure costs.
Engel said moving to one high school at Trane will allow the middle schools — the oldest buildings — to move into the high schools.
“So, middle school students would … immediately have better classrooms, athletics facilities, encore classrooms,” Engel said. “It would be a much better environment.”
But why the Trane site?
“We did a vast search across the city,” Engel said. “Talked to the city planning department, talked to a variety of private folks, trying to identify where there’s 40 acres free to be able to do something like this. And as we checked off all the places that we thought might be viable, really the last remaining spot was the Trane headquarters building.”