By Brian Roebke
The Wrightstown Community School District Board heard a clear message from taxpayers at its May meeting held last week at the Wrightstown Elementary School cafeteria.
The speakers unhappy with the board’s decision to make extra debt payments on the 2019 school referendum outnumbered those in favor 10-1.
The board did generally not respond to the speakers and did not make any decisions related to the next school budget. Instead, they pointed to future board meetings when the budget would be discussed, particularly the annual meeting that’s scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 27, at 6 p.m.
That is a time when taxpayers have more of a say in the meeting rather than being cut off after three minutes.
The first speaker on Wednesday evening was Keith Wendlandt, who said he was disappointed in the board’s actions regarding taxing and communication.
Three weeks after he submitted an email and two reminders, he received a response from the district administrator saying she did not think it would be effective for her to respond to his question by email and she preferred to meet in person.
“These questions were directed to each and every board member and I received no response from anyone except for Angela (Hansen Winker),” he said.
He felt the school district deserved better. “Residents, voters, and taxpayers in this district deserve to be heard and have their questions and concerns addressed by you, the board members who are elected to serve and represent us,” he said.
Wendlandt said he and others who were asking questions could be advocates if they would have their questions answered. “All we’re trying to do is understand why you have made the decisions you have and how it benefits the communities and the district,” he said.
The second speaker, Doug Peterson, said he was wondering why his taxes increased so much but after reading an article in the Wrightstown Spirit, he figured it out.
“The referendum was proposed that 64 cents on a thousand would be the approximate increase,” he said, noting it was approved and the board was given a gift of a 2 percent, 20-year referendum bond. “Who in their right mind would pay off a 2 percent loan?” he asked. “The only people that are benefiting from this is Baird. They’re getting their money back at 2 percent that they lend out and they’re turning it around at 5-6 percent.”
He also thought it was a moral issue because the school board is taking double what the voters approved, alluding to a passage in the Bible from Luke.
What John Wollner found most troubling about the issue was the inaccessibility and accountability on the part of the school board.
He said he made three attempts to get information from the school board so he could question them on the issue but was told the district has a policy they don’t make this information available to constituents.
Editor’s note: Board members names and email addresses are listed on the district website.
“Finally the school superintendent agreed to email the school board members and she asked them to call me,” he said, noting he received no calls back.
“Not one of you is interested in talking to me about this issue,” he said.
He said he would have asked him if they understood the concept of time value of money and if they did, why would they ever think it made good business sense to pre-pay with taxpayer money a bond issue with a favorable rate that’s not due for another 15 years and pay it with today’s dollars
He also would have questioned them why they kept the mill rate stable when property values were rapidly increasing. “When property values go up, the mill rate should go down,” he said
Through research he found the budget amount for debt service increased by 69 percent. “More taxpayer dollars are now being spent on debt repayment than for the general fund,” he said.
Wollner said the most recent debt payment was $4.63 million even though $2.07 million was the debt payment required in the agreement. “That’s extra tax money out of all our pockets.”
He referred to Business Manager Dan Storch referring to pre-paying the debt as a “win-win” for taxpayers.
However, he assured Storch there was at least one taxpayer who doesn’t consider it a win.
“I know you hate being compared to the village board but the difference is I could walk across the street to the village hall and pick up a newsletter that has the names and phone numbers of every one of the trustees and they’ll take my call,” he said. “This school board should consider that an example you should follow.”
Another resident who spoke last month spoke again after lauding the children from the fourth grade and high school who made presentations at the beginning of the meeting.
“I think when you look at the people in Wrightstown they look at the children as somebody’s treasure and that’s why I think the people in Wrightstown were willing to stand up and say, ‘hey listen, we’re willing to vote for the referendum overwhelmingly,” Tony Decker said. “I think what we’re hearing is that there’s just a bit of a communication issue as far as what was told to the community and what’s ending up being reality.”
Coming from California, he’s lived in the situation of escalating property values and the associated property taxes that got really ugly in the 1960s and 70s that resulted in families being forced out of their homes because they couldn’t afford it.
“The people who were on fixed incomes were the most heavily affected by it,” Decker said.
Dalton Rupiper, who grew up and went to school in Wrightstown, said it’s disappointing the way things are going.
“I am actually ashamed I went to this school,” he said. “If you cared about this community, you would not be making double payments.”
He purchased his house three years ago and works hard for his money. “COVID did enough and we’re all suffering right now,” he said. “So I don’t get why you’re making double payments and making more people suffer more.”
Appearing as a concerned taxpayer, Andy Lundt said there was no debate about the quality of schools, since they are excellent and something to be proud of.
“I do, however, believe the bait and switch of the last referendum needs to be discussed and reasoning explained to taxpayers,” he said.
He supported the referendum as advertised but believes what transpired is something completely different.
“I am confident if people would have understood the school board had no intention of following the previously presented debt payment schedule the referendum, would have had a different result,” he said.
He’s heard the reason for the bait and switch was to retire this debt early and make financial room for future projects that he assumes will require another referendum.
“How do you expect anyone to approve a future referendum regardless of need when we cannot trust what is being sold? This is your opportunity to create trust and undo what previous boards have done,” he said. “Make it right and stick to the debt payment schedule that was voted and approved by taxpayers. You have the ability to give everyone in this district an approximate $1,000 savings on their property tax bill next year and continuing in future years by simply levying what we voted for, anything more is unacceptable.”
He went on to criticize the board’s policy of three minutes per speaker, noting they are paid elected official and it should not matter how long a meeting goes if it gives their constituents the opportunity to express themselves.
He then made a comparison to high school presentations.
“I spoke to several Wrightstown High School students regarding time minimums for presentations they are required to do in the classroom, all stated they are often given minimums of greater than three minutes for speaking assignments,” he said. “I am certain the reason for the time minimum given to students is it is very difficult to make an effective presentation in less than three minutes but here at school board meetings the taxpaying public is obligated to do so in less.”
He wondered how they could make an informed vote without listening to the viewpoints of others.
“If you value the public’s opinion you would remove this absurdly short time limit allowing the people to provide (interrupted by the board president that his time was up) valuable feedback so you could properly represent them,” he said before saying he had more to communicate but he was out of time.
Jason Gerend said the responsibility of the board was to leave the school district in a better place than they found it both financially and educationally.
“The school board has objectives that may not align with the village board and that’s alright, they’re two different businesses,” he said. “The school board takes the enrollment that registers every year and makes these decisions that keep the school district above exceeding standards and draws families to this district.”
He noted the school district does not set home values and doesn’t accelerate the growth, but the municipalities do.
“The only fault this school district is responsible for is having top notch schools that attract families,” he said. “These schools cost money. The district wouldn’t be growing at the pace without these schools, villages, or even municipality growth,” he said. “With the village accelerating this growth, the district needs to react with its foot on the accelerator also.”
Gerend said if it didn’t, it will be behind the 8-ball in 10-15 years.
“It would be hard getting a second referendum passed when the first one isn’t paid off,” he said. “Pre-paying debt in this district has been going on 35-plus years, back to the Larry Lark years when my father was also on the board.”
He added the referendum could be paid off “up to 20 years” and could be paid early.
“The school district must react to this growth and paying debt is the smartest option,” he said. “It’s not popular but it’s needed because of the expected growth.”
Village resident Sue Byers spoke to the board for the second month in a row, reminding the board of their comments made in community meetings prior to the referendum.
“My hope is by hearing what residents were told in those meetings, you understand our frustration with your taxing strategy and your unwillingness to address our concerns,” she said.
The presentation, more than an hour long, explained the school district’s reasoning and plans for the schools. “You wanted to be thoughtful, thorough and transparent,” she said. “Your goal was to educate and inform the residents so that when we went to the polls we could make an informed decision.”
She said that presentation did not mention accelerating the payoff.
Byers said these facilities would bring the schools to where they needed to be and only the elementary school needed to be enlarged.
“The Baird representative for the bond sale called it a 20-year debt. Near the end of the meeting a resident asked the question, ‘what was the estimated payoff date if the referendum is successful,’ and the answer was 20 years, it can’t go beyond 20 years. We participated in the meetings, we thought we understood the plan, but you never followed the plan,” she said.
She continued, “Instead, in just three years $10.4 million of our money has been paid toward debt when only $5 million was required.”
She believes the board of education has broken the trust of the residents. “My guess is it will make it harder for any future requests for money you may have,” she said.
Byers added that on a more positive note, recently the village board has been approached to sit down with school officials and discuss this issue. She said they are willing to do this if the school board agrees three things are required from them:
1) Moving forward, the school budget has to be a Needs Budget that only reflects the cost for the students and the required bond payment for the year.
2) Due to the incredible increase in equalized value over several years, the mill rate should be lowered to pay the student and required debt portion, nothing more.
3) No additional pre-payment of debt will occur.
Ron Zahn said how the board is reacting to the tax situation is of interest of many people in the community.
“I would love to have time to summarize the numerous reasons the taxpayers have brought forth why your current policy of pre-paying that debt is not wise,” he said.
He also thought the reasons the school board agreed to their strategy do not come close to outweighing the concerns that have been raised by the community.
“A recent headline in the Wrightstown Spirit spells it out well, I think. ‘Wrightstown school board doubles down on paying debt early.’ Maybe the editor should have added, “without good reason,” he said.
Zahn talked about the economic term, opportunity cost. “Every time I spend a dollar on item A, I have lost the opportunity to spend that dollar on item B, C, or D.”
“So therefore when the school board attaches an additional $400 or up to $1,000 from what I hear, every year, on each household, those households are being deprived of the opportunity to express their view about how that money should be spent,” he said.
He noted in one house, that could be increasing the college education fund. “Can we say that’s less important than paying down a 2 percent debt?”
In another house, it may be replacing the bald tires on the car rather than driving another six months and maybe being involved in an accident, he noted.
In another home, he noted, it may be less eating out or vacation time, but that’s a decision to be made by a family which they’ve been deprived of.
In all cases, the board of education’s intentional actions to double down is “denying taxpayers what they should have, the ability to make this decision themselves unless they have the chance to vote on it.”
“I live in Wrightstown and I’m mad,” Amber Cox said in starting her comments. “Everyone’s been extremely polite to you despite what you’ve done to their finances. I don’t feel like being polite. I’d like to run for school board because I think Jeff (Nelson) and Angela (Hansen Winker) need a lot of help up there.”
She thanked them for voting against additional debt payments in the 2024 school budget at the previous meeting.
“I’ve got 20 percent credit cards. You’re absolutely right, my opportunity was taken away to pay off my credit cards. My opportunity to take 5 percent and put toward my 401k or whatever it is, it’s not 2 percent, I promise you that,” she said.
Cox said “any idiot” knows they will pay less interest if they pay the loan faster but “we don’t all have the luxury of paying your 2 percent loan twice as fast.”
She hopes they change their minds. “This is extremely disappointing,” she added.
Debbie Vander Heiden, clerk/treasurer from the Town of Kaukauna, admitted starting the issue when she spoke to the board in February, gave the board some examples of properties in the town.
“With me being the treasurer, this is what brought up the red flag,” she said.
She received a letter from the school district saying they had saved the taxpayers $830,000 but when she figured out the taxes that were paid by the Town of Kaukauna they were $100,000 more than they were the year before.
She figured there are nine municipalities that pay taxes to the school district, and if they’re all taxed that amount more than the year before, they’re going to get $830,000.
“So you never really did answer my question about where that money came from,” she said. “Did it come from a grant, did it come from the American Rescue Plan, or did it come from the taxpayers?”
She gave a tax bill from a property assessed at $497,000. They paid $4,407 this year compared to $3,800 last year. “The referendum alone was $2,600 out of the $4,400,” she said.
She said the referendum was supposed to cost 64 cents per $1,000 of value, making their taxes $400 or $500.”
The other red flag was the referendum was supposed to be paid in 2040, but their tax bill this year said it was ending in 2038.
Matt Burkhardt said after listening to everyone and hearing arguments on both sides, he proposed having a community vote on if they would like to do a 10-year payment (instead of the 20-year payment they approved in 2019).
“I believe you’d get a lot of backing and support if you gave the community an opportunity to have more of a word,” he said.
Just one speaker, Julie Sigmund, did not speak on the tax issue but instead the human growth and development issue she first brought up in February 2022.
Despite repeated attempts to get the school board to appoint an ad hoc advisory committee to advise the school board on design and implementation of the human growth and development curriculum, she’s not had any success finding the school district has complied with Wisconsin statutes.
By Brian Roebke