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Two, one or none? Board to decide timeline, number of possible referendums next year

The Eau Claire school district has three urgent needs at its facilities, its superintendent said Monday: Renovating Roosevelt Elementary and South Middle School, and adding more seats for south side elementary school students.

If the board decides to ask taxpayers for permission to raise taxes in future years, would two smaller referendums in 2020 and 2021 — or one large referendum in 2021 — be likely to pass?

The school board Monday at a work session held its first formal discussion about approaching the idea of referendums in the next two years.

“A referendum is a big boat that moves very slowly,” board member Aaron Harder said.

The school board aims to set a timeline for possible referendums in February 2020, board President Eric Torres said.

Eau Claire schools Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck said the board likely has three options to pose a referendum question in the next two years.

Asking for funds

One smaller referendum in November 2020 could fund fixes at Roosevelt and mainly South Middle School but wouldn’t tackle growing south side capacity problems.

Those Roosevelt and South projects will likely cost $25 million to $30 million, Hardebeck said.

In 2016, when landing on a number for an ultimately successful $87.9 million referendum, the school board decided to eliminate a renovation at South and a litany of maintenance projects at Roosevelt.

Those Roosevelt projects include roofing, paving, toilet rooms, fire alarm system and electric upgrades.

“There has been quite a bit of discussion about the needs of Roosevelt and the needs of South,” Hardebeck said.

The referendum question would be on ballots in the Nov. 3, 2020, general election.

“It would be a very focused referendum, would bring you some short-term results, and I think it would maybe fulfill the promises other boards made,” Hardebeck said.

If taxpayers vote to pass an earlier, 2020 referendum, construction would likely begin in summer 2021, a full year earlier than the other two options.

“We have a very good idea of what the designs would be. Some of that work would be ready to go to bid if the referendum passed in the first scenario,” Hardebeck said.

A second option would pose a referendum question in April 2021. The third option would put a referendum on ballots in November 2021.

Both of those options, if passed, would spur construction likely beginning in summer 2022.

If the board decides to move forward quickly with a smaller referendum in 2020, they could choose to return to taxpayers with another referendum in 2021 for south-side additions or a new school, Hardebeck said.

“The downside would be, you’re going to referendum twice in two to three years,” said Laurie Klinkhammer, board clerk. “That’s a hard balance … is one big one harder to sell than two smaller ones?”

If the board decides to ask for two smaller referendums, the district could likely time payments to line up with a 2016 referendum debt drop-off next year, aiming to keep the tax levy as flat as possible, said Abby Johnson, executive director of business.

Board member Tim Nordin said he’s concerned about taxpayers accepting two referendums — and about delaying expansion for elementary schools on the south side.

“That’s two asks in two elections,” Nordin said. “... We’re already looking at potential construction at a new school, or add-ons, to happen in 2022, which maybe means (students) aren’t going to school there until 2024. Which means we’re looking at four more years at over 90% (capacity).”

Board Vice President Lori Bica asked for information on school districts that passed back-to-back referendums, adding “there could be an efficiency” to two, smaller questions.

The board’s Demographic Trends & Facility Planning Committee is expected to make a recommendation on a timeline; the board will likely take up the matter again in February 2020, Torres said.

“Yes, (Wisconsin) referendums are passing, but we could be one that doesn’t, frankly,” Klinkhammer said. “It’s an unpredictable sort of thing … we might need a little more time to make a decision on these timelines.”

Board members have floated the idea of a referendum in recent weeks, after reports from the school district showed five south side elementary schools — Putnam Heights, Meadowview, Flynn, Manz and Robbins — are near or above 90% capacity.

The board on Monday also discussed budget issues expected in 2020, which include some retiree benefits, or other post-employment benefits (OPEBs).

Board member Charles Vue was absent from the work session Monday.


Augusta bus driver nationally recognized for kind act

An Augusta school employee received national media recognition Monday for her kind act earlier this year.

Isabel Lane was surprised Monday morning with a live segment on “Good Morning America” for helping an anxious student on the first day of school. In September, Lane held the hand of 4-year-old Axel Johnson after he got on her bus. A Facebook picture of the moment posted by the August Police Department was shared widely, and Lane received some national coverage.

That media attention amplified Monday around 7:30 a.m. “GMA” anchor Will Reeve was stationed in Augusta and surprised Lane, who was sitting behind the wheel of a parked bus when the segment began.

Reeve introduced himself and walked Lane into the school, where she was shocked to be greeted by cheering students, teachers and community members. A limousine then took Lane to Lotus Spa in Eau Claire for a day of rest and relaxation.

“It’s pretty overwhelming,” Lane said during the segment aired on ABC. “For someone so young to make such a big impact, I feel like it’s pretty cool.”

Ken Sigurdson, the school district’s dean of students and transportation director, appeared on the segment and expressed pride in Lane, noting her contagious enthusiasm.

Lane graduated from Augusta High School and was hired to work for the school district about a year ago. In addition to driving a bus, she serves as a middle school and high school special education aide and helps with custodial duties.

Sigurdson told the Leader-Telegram that Lane deserved the acclaim and is a fantastic representative for the school district and community.

“I couldn’t think of a better person for a reward like this,” Sigurdson said.

Sigurson was previously a science teacher at the high school and instructed Lane for four years. He said she was the same polite, congenial person in class she is now.

The national TV appearance was more than a month in the making. A “GMA” producer reached out Oct. 16 to Augusta Middle School/High School principal Reed Pecha inquiring about putting Lane on “Make your Monday,” a weekly segment recognizing random acts of kindness around the county. Pecha said the initial air date was slated for Oct. 28, but the network moved it back a few weeks because of a scheduling conflict.

ABC covered costs for the limo and spa. Pecha and Sigurdson worked with “GMA” producers to organize most of the logistical aspects. They said keeping the plans under wraps for about a month entailed challenges, but everything worked out to surprise Lane.

Pecha, who barely slept Sunday night, is in his first year as school principal and called Lane personable and friendly.

“She’s just totally immersed in the school and the community,” Pecha said. “It’s no surprise to me that she would do something so simple and make such an impact. She’s just so caring.”

Pecha and Sigurdson called the recognition a memorable, high-energy way to start the week.

“When I look back at the end of my career, I certainly won’t forget it,” Pecha said.


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Uniroyal recovery aid runs dry

Interest on loans used to help Eau Claire recover from the loss of a major employer nearly three decades ago has helped the city pay for a few of its employees, but that money has recently run dry.

Aware of the dwindling interest from the revolving loan fund established in 1991 when the Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. plant announced it would be closing, the city has been shifting salaries of its economic development staff to other funding sources in recent years.

“We saw that this was coming; the amount of interest we were getting off outstanding loans was going down,” finance director Jay Winzenz said.

In the last three to four years, the city has been gradually increasing funding the economic development division gets from city taxes.

“We’re now able to have ongoing levy support for our economic development staff,” City Manager Dale Peters said. “Essentially it’s stabilized.”

During deliberations for the 2020 city budget approved last week, the significance of the Uniroyal money, how long it lasted and its place in Eau Claire’s history had been mentioned multiple times.

Retooling to recovery

The federal Economic Development Administration provided $920,000 to Eau Claire in 1989 and required a local contribution of $10,000 from the city. But at that time, the tire plant was still operating and the government incentives were intended to spur a $7 million equipment upgrade at the factory and worker training.

However, with the January 1991 announcement that the factory would be closing, the federal government allowed the city to change the money’s use to help the community deal with the loss of the major employer. The city would now be allowed to put $384,500 into a revolving loan fund for businesses, allocate $515,500 to displaced workers seeking retraining and keep $30,000 for its own administrative costs, according to an agreement signed between Eau Claire and the federal agency in June 1991.

The loan fund helped a handful of people affected by Uniroyal’s closure start their own businesses, said Mike Schatz, the city’s economic development manager at the time.

“The whole original loan amount was used for that specific purpose,” he said.

After those loans were paid back, the money was used again but no longer had the condition that it only go to former Uniroyal workers — as long as they were for creating new jobs.

And the money kept getting paid back, turning into money available for new business ventures and interest that helped pay for the city’s economic development division. The division consists of the manager position, and part of the salaries for two other city employees that also have other responsibilities in other divisions. Schatz recalls the loan interest didn’t make a large portion of the salaries, but it did help with the budget.

Declining interest

Businesses are still applying for loans available through the city, but the amount that applicants are looking to borrow has declined, said Aaron White, who became the city’s economic development manager after Schatz retired last year.

“They’re not huge loans so we’re not talking about a tremendous amount of interest,” White said.

When the Uniroyal revolving loan program began, the loans were for bigger projects tied with large job creation promises. But White said more recent applicants for city loans are interested in creating smaller businesses.

“We’re not seeing those projects anymore,” he said. “These are smaller entrepreneurial things we’re seeing now.”

Some of the conditions on the loan program, which were put in place in 1991 in the contract the city signed with the federal government, also are believed to be less attractive in today’s economy.

“It has been a bit of a challenge to make loans from that program in the last couple of years,” Winzenz said.

The interest rates, job creation and retention requirements tied to those loans have made them less attractive to prospective borrowers, he said.

One of the rules written into the 1991 agreement between the federal agency and the city was that the loans have a minimum of 4% interest. While that would’ve been hard to beat in years when interest rates were high, they’ve been quite low in recent years and businesses could shop for loans with more competitive rates.

Loans originally started with the Uniroyal recovery money have the most strings attached out of the different programs the city has to lend funds to businesses. Those loans have job retention and creation requirements, wage requirements and a minimum interest rate. A different city-funded loan pool doesn’t have the same specific job targets. A microloan fund doesn’t require promises of new jobs. And a business façade loan program charges 0% interest.

City loan programs are considered gap financing — intended to provide businesses with a little extra money when banks aren’t willing to lend them the full amount needed for their plans.

Looking back

Schatz said in a phone interview that he is pleased the federal recovery money has lasted as long as it did, and pointed to it as a testament to how strong the loans were and the businesses they helped.

His successor agreed about the loans that helped Eau Claire bounce back after the loss of a major employer.

“The city made very good use of the funds from the EDA when that happened,” White said.

Uniroyal had employed 1,358 in 1991 when it announced the plant would be closing, according to Leader-Telegram archives. The Eau Claire factory gradually phased out groups of employees with the last ones leaving on June 26, 1992.

Local developers Bill Cigan and Jack Kaiser then bought the complex and turned it into Banbury Place, a mixed-use facility that is home to numerous businesses and apartment homes.