In a close vote, the Menomonie School Board has agreed to support the second phase of the district’s athletic complex. But it took considerations of comments from the public, an extensive discussion and the 4-5 defeat of a motion to go to referendum to reach a decision at Monday night’s meeting.
The cost to add lighting and a sound system to the stadium is estimated at between $250,000 and $350,000. On a 5-4 vote, the board agreed to fund half the cost of phase II, not to exceed $175,000.
For the first phase of the project, the district contributed $500,000, while community fundraising covered the remainder of the $1.1 million construction of the track and a field for both soccer and lower-level football games. Public pledges and donations of around $50,000 for the second part of the three-part project have been contributed so far, according to the Community Foundation of Dunn County which is managing the fundraising account.
Referendum a no-go
Board member Jim Swanson kicked off the discussion with a motion to put the issue before the district’s taxpayers via a referendum asking for $2 million to fund the remaining two phases to complete the project. “Instead of begging for money ... the taxpayers will speak, the job will get done.”
While board member Tricia Thompson said she believes in the value of sports on the entire child and family, she spoke about the unmet needs of other students in the district in the areas of the arts, equipment and other opportunities for development. Pointing out that the district is in the midst of launching strategic planning listening sessions, she added, “I don’t want to pit one thing over another. ... I think entire district needs a voice to make the decision.”
Board member Dave Styer disagreed. “I think to ask for another referendum after we just completed a $36 million referendum to me is ridiculous. We are a board of nine, elected by the electors in this district to conduct school district business. ... I think we have a responsibility to make the decision.”
District Administrator Joe Zydowsky recommended that a referendum resolution be examined by an attorney before being put to a vote by the board. To Thompson’s point about what needs will be identified in the upcoming weeks, he said, “If the board is going to look at something larger scale than just the phase II project, I would suggest that the board wait until we get through the strategic planning process.”
Swanson’s motion failed on a 4-5 vote.
As Menomonie High School men’s soccer coach, a parent of students and a taxpayer, Meagan Frank asked the board, “... isn’t it the responsibility of the school board to protect and manage school district interests? This sports complex is on school district property.”
She pointed out that among the benefits of the sports complex, the district can take in revenue from outside groups who use the complex. “Because the school district is a public entity, no matter how much you would want to defer responsibility for the completion of an unfinished capital improvement project to someone else, this complex is now and will continue to be a blight on the school district of the Menomonie area and most specifically the high school,” Frank concluded. “As long as it stays in an unfinished state, it does reflect on this district, much more than it does on any past or future private donor.”
Leni Marshall, mother of two MHS graduates and a professor at UW-Stout, feels that the money could be better spent elsewhere in the district, including things like hiring more school social workers and providing intercultural awareness and sensitivity training for teachers: “That seems to me like something that would touch on every student — not just some of the time, but all of the time, every day.”
Also among those questioning the proposed expenditure was former school board member Margaret Breisch. She recommended that excess dollars be put instead into a rainy day fund or returned to district’s taxpayers. “At our annual meeting,” she noted, “we were told to expect a cut in revenue of $24 per student — or about $80,000.”
Three MHS students who are this year’s Lady Mustangs soccer captains urged the board to support adding lights to the sports complex, citing safety concerns when the natural light fades toward the end of their games as well as enhance fans’ enjoyment and allow both the JV and varsity teams to play on the same day. A sound system will allow onlookers to hear the announcers.
Deanna Munoz, Lady Mustangs coach, added that the girls’ program is growing fast. “There is a lot of energy and support for soccer in this community,” she said. “We have raised a lot of money and put money into the program. ... Your investment would put our student athletes on a more even playing field with our competitors.”
Chris Freeman, a candidate in the most recent school board election, chastised some of the board members for overlooking what he considers a key consideration. “If you go back and look at your discussion of how you’re going to spend your dollars, it looked like privilege ... being blind to the experiences of others.”
To illustrate, Freeman pointed out comments by one board member about spending “pennies on the dollar” for the project. As for comparisons with the facilities at other schools Menomonie plays, he said, “Our town is poor ... the poverty rate here is about 30 percent. ... Our kids have different needs and our community has different needs.”
Securing the funding
Following the defeat of Swanson’s motion, Styer countered by moving to approve up to $175,000 in funding for the phase II project.
“I think the school district is blessed to have a community that has raised as much as they have to put toward this project,” Styer said, following Penny Burstad’s second. “For the taxpayers to get a sports complex like we have for less than 50 cents on the dollar is remarkable.”
To those who said they were against the plan, he added, “I don’t look at this as taking away from other projects in the district. We have a strategic planning process that has begun and I think that if there are other projects that have value and have a lot of support in the district, bring them forward. ... We will find a way to fund them.”
Zydowsky said the money could come from the general fund balance which is sufficient to handle the cash flow for the district. “My recommendation is that no construction begins until the whole project is either funded or at least pledged,” he added. “I think for the protection of the district that’s smart.”
The district administrator pointed out that over the last several years, the board has worked to ensure that the district’s fund balance would be sufficient so “we won’t have to worry about having a line of credit or short-term borrowing. At the same time, the board has also had conversations about not wanting the fund balance grow too large when there’s other needs in the school district.”
Before the vote, board member Amy Riddle Swanson said she continues to be opposed to further funding because of the guarantees made by the community group that initiated the project.
“I’m not against lights ... or a sound system,” Riddle Swanson concluded. “When they said they were going to raise $3.2 million ... the integrity of the promise that needs to be kept.”