A Chippewa Falls school district referendum of up to $65 million has passed by almost 400 votes.
According to totals from the school district, 3,244 district residents voted yes and 2,850 voted no — roughly 53 percent for and 47 percent against.
A total of 6,094 votes were cast — over twice the number of people who completed a 2017 survey about the referendum.
“Our community is extremely supportive of our schools in so many different ways,” said district superintendent Heidi Eliopoulos in a phone interview. “This is a different level of support.”
Significantly fewer people cast votes on the 2018 referendum than on two 2016 referendums. More than 17,500 people voted on the $61 million referendum question in 2016, and 16,699 people voted on the second, $98 million referendum question.
Both of those 2016 referendums were rejected.
Eliopoulos was unsure if the snow affected the vote, she said in a phone interview; board president Amy Mason called the vote results Tuesday night a “nailbiter.”
“I suspected it would be close,” Mason said.
The referendum will add about $125 to the property tax bill of the owner of a $100,000 home. The money will be paid back over a 20-year period, district finance manager Chad Trowbridge said at a March referendum informational session.
The district will sketch out a long-term timeline, then begin the design process, Eliopoulos said. It has employed ATS&R, a Minnesota-based architectural firm.
“What I appreciate about the architect we’re working with (is) he looks at schools not just as buildings, but as learning environments,” Eliopoulos said.
The Chippewa Falls school district worked with the firm to develop a facilities master plan in 2014. ATS&R has often taken on large capital projects at Wisconsin schools, including ventures at the Weyauwega-Fremont School District, Boyceville Community School District and the School District of New Richmond.
Mason said the $65 million budget and proper timeframes are a high priority: “It’s important for us to demonstrate fiscal responsibility to the community by making sure we stay in budget and get the work done in the time frame,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday.
In upcoming months, the board will engage focus groups to develop plans for the new Stillson Elementary, Mason said, and complete the purchase of land in Lafayette for the new school.
“We do have a plan as far as timelines, and now with the referendum passing, all that will kick into gear,” she said.
The district has no foreseeable plans to ask voters for money to build a new high school in the future, Eliopoulos said Wednesday.
“In the survey, when the community was asked about the high school and what should be done with it ... (they) said, make additions and remodel the current high school in the current location,” Eliopoulos said. “From our point of view, that’s the future of the high school.”
Larger referendums rejected
The decision comes after voters rejected two referendums in November 2016 — one proposal of up to $61 million to replace Stillson Elementary, one for up to $98 million to build a new high school.
The issue of Stillson remained contentious in the 2018 referendum. School board members deliberated for several meetings over the location, eventually settling on a 37-acre plot of land in the town of Lafayette.
The Chippewa Falls school board first eliminated the possibility of building the school on a 19-acre site on County Highway I.
The County Highway I land — which the district currently owns — will be sold.
A final vote narrowed the selection to a parcel — roughly 37 acres — in the town of Lafayette, about a mile west of Stillson’s current location at 17250 County Highway J, according to results of a 2017 referendum survey.
Funds from the referendum cannot be used to purchase land, school finance manager Chad Trowbridge said at a school board meeting. The district would plan to use the sale of the County Highway I property to spur the purchase of the 37-acre plot in Lafayette.
Inside the 2018 referendum
Constructing a three-section Stillson Elementary is expected to cost roughly $21.1 million, the district said at an informational session in March.
Updating and remodeling the middle school will cost roughly $24.8 million. Updating and remodeling Chi-Hi will take up roughly $18.9 million.
Mechanical and electrical repairs will take up the lion’s share of the middle school and high school budget, at $11.8 million and $14.2 million, respectively. Creating Chi-Hi’s STEAM labs is projected to cost $4.6 million; the ten-classroom addition for the middle school also rings in at $4.6 million.
The formal process of drawing up a construction plan takes six to eight months and wouldn’t start until after the referendum, Eliopoulos said.
Separate car and bus drop-off sites are highlighted in the Stillson site plan, as well as an emphasis on “collaboration space” — open areas where students can work on projects.
In the plan, the Stillson building is designed to be “divided.” The left side, which contains the library and several classrooms, can be closed off from the right side of the school.
The right side, which would hold the gym, cafeteria and kitchen, could be kept open for community events in the evenings, Eliopoulos said.
Under referendum plans, the middle school will get a 10-classroom addition, allowing the district to build permanent walls, doors and hallways.
Classrooms will be re-organized with a large collaborative space in the center, similar to Stillson’s design, according to the district’s plans.
The middle school’s addition will be placed near the front of the building, left of the main entrance and flagpole. The bus drop-off site will be bumped out further, separating bus and car drop-off zones.
As for Chi-Hi, six labs supporting STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics — will be added near the entrance guarded by the school’s cardinal mascot.
“Our health science program has really taken off at the high school, but our facility wasn’t built to accommodate that,” Eliopoulos said.
Chi-Hi will also be air-conditioned after the remodel.
Editor’s note: This story was updated throughout the afternoon of Wednesday, April 4, with updated vote totals from the district, total votes cast and comments from district superintendent Heidi Eliopoulos and board president Amy Mason.