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April 2, 2019 Referendum FAQs and Information

Addressing Financial Challenges in the School District of West Salem

Dear Community Members,

In recent years, the West Salem School Board of Education has been working to address a number of fiscal challenges that, if left unaddressed, threaten the outstanding schools that community members expect.

Despite being a high-achieving school district, West Salem qualifies for less revenue per student under the revenue limit than approximately 90% of Wisconsin school districts. Wisconsin schools operate under a state-imposed revenue limit that restricts the amount of money a district can receive. Because of its low revenue situation, our district receives considerably less funding than most other school districts on a per-pupil basis.

While the Board of Education is committed to ensuring the district remains highly efficient and provides taxpayers with a solid return on their investment, the low revenue limit has necessitated holding a referendum to exceed the revenue limit or potentially cutting educational programs and staff. The district is facing serious threats to its ability to continue providing top-notch academic programming and support programs for students.

In an effort to address these challenges, the board engaged the community by conducting a survey. Based on data from the survey, the board has voted to move forward with an operational referendum on April 2, 2019. The amount for this referendum is smaller and the time horizon shorter than the solution presented to voters in November 2018. If passed, the referendum will meet the needs of the district for a three-year period and will result in an estimated tax increase of $65 per $100,000 of assessed property value.

As the board works to address its financial challenges, it is committed to providing as much information to community members as possible, to be transparent in every way and to engage the community in the challenges and opportunities of our district.

Toward that end, we urge you to review the information included on this page. If you have any questions, please contact Troy Gunderson, Superintendent, at 608-786-0700 or gunderson.troy@wsalem.k12.wi.us.

As always, thank you for your engagement.


School District of West Salem Board of Education

Jane Halverson, President
Syl Clements, Vice President
Catherine Griffin, Treasurer
Melinda Kopnisky-Bloomfield, Clerk
Ken Schlimgen, Director
Tom Grosskopf, Director
Robin Fitzgerald, Director

Following a narrow election defeat in November of 2018, the school board voted 7-0 to host an operational referendum on April 2, 2019.  Similar to last November, the school board is seeking permission to exceed the state-imposed revenue limit beginning with the 2019–2020 school year and the 2020 tax year.  Specifically, the board is seeking permission to exceed the revenue limit by $1,600,000 in 2019-2020, by $1,800,000 in 2020-2021 and $1,900,000 in 2021-2022.

We get many questions about the referendum, and we thought we would address some of the most frequently asked ones here. 

Why does the district need to host a referendum to ask for money?

The state funding formula includes a revenue limit originally designed to moderate spending and property tax rates.  The formula has been frozen for the last eight years essentially capping annual district revenues at the same amount over that time.  The only legal way to exceed the limit is to pass a referendum seeking voter approval.  Nearly every school district in our area has already passed such a referendum.

How many years does the referendum include?

The school board considered feedback from the recent district survey and revisited budget forecasting information and determined a three-year term to be a prudent approach.  In addition, the recent election cycle will make state policy even more unpredictable.

Why does the district need the additional revenue?

Simply put, the school board is requesting the addition revenue in order to maintain the wonderful programming the district offers its students and families.  The School District of West Salem is a premier school district in both the Coulee Region and the State of Wisconsin.  From a National Blue Ribbon elementary school and state-of-the-art middle school to a high school filled with opportunities such as college preparatory courses, exit projects, vocational certifications, and co-curricular activities, West Salem is literally second to none.  By requesting these additional funds, the district is not proposing anything new, the money will simply allow the great work to continue.

Why can't the school district just be more efficient?

According to data published by the Department of Public Instruction, the School District of West Salem spends less per student than 395 of the 420 school districts in Wisconsin.  While every organization can be more efficient, the data indicates the district is past the point of solving the budget deficit with efficiency and is now facing the need to reduce services as detailed in the previous question.

Does the district need this money because of the recently updated facilities?

No.  The added costs of our updated facilities includes additional utilities and custodial time in our middle school and utility costs at the new Panther Den Events Center.  An agreement by the Boys and Girls Club to fund 7% of the middle school utility costs and a similar agreement with the local Hockey Association to fund 50% of the Panther Den utility costs limits the additional operational costs to the district for these facilities at approximately $100,000.  For reference, the current school district budget exceeds $20 million and includes an $800,000 deficit.  

What will the district do with the money?

The school board determined the first year of the referendum will seek permission to exceed the revenue limit by $1,600,000 in 2019–2020 by using the following estimates:

-$800,000 to cover the 2018 – 2019 structural budget deficit
-$400,000 to cover the annual increase in salaries and benefits for current staff
-$100,000 to restore funding for the annual purchase of a school bus
- $50,000 to restore funding for maintenance and operations
-$250,000 to begin saving for a future roof replacement project at the high school estimated to cost $1,000,000

The board requested $1,800,000 for 2020–2021 and $1,900,000 for 2021–2022.  The amounts increase gradually during the second and third years to offset continued increases in wages and benefits.  However, the cost to local tax payers will not increase during the second and third years because additional state aid received as a result of the initial year’s expenses will cover the difference.

What would happen if the district did not address its needs?

Unfortunately, the district’s financial challenges mean that, if it does nothing, deeper cuts to programs, services and staff will be necessary in the near future. Specifically, the board determined that cuts would include further reductions in district budgets for equipment, supplies, training, vendor contracts and leadership positions.  

The school board will also increase class sizes across the district and eliminate or reduce elective programs in the middle and high schools to reduce approximately 10 teaching positions districtwide. Finally, the board will institute fees and limit participation numbers in all co-curricular activities.

Are increased wages included in referendum calculations?

Yes. The school district uses a cohort of Black River Falls, Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau, Holmen, Onalaska, Sparta, and Tomah as comparison districts for wages.  The data indicates the School District of West Salem ranks last in nearly every school employment category as compared to this cohort.  In other words, nearly every district employee would receive a pay raise if they transferred to any one of the cohort districts.  The long term district goal is to rank near the middle of this cohort with respect to wages.  Like any industry, the ability of the district to offer a competitive wage is critical to recruiting and retaining skilled employees.

Why didn't the district solve the budget issues before updating the facilities?

During the process of developing a strategy to address these issues, it was determined to tackle the facility issues first due to rising construction costs and historically low interest rates.  In hindsight this was the correct decision.  The many recent upgrades to district facilities were completed at competitive pricing and financed at very low rates.  All totaled, the campus was updated, old debt was refinanced or paid off, new debt was assumed at lower rates, and annual payments are now lower.  Well done! 

How would the referendum affect local property taxes?

Approval of the referendum is projected to raise the mil rate to approximately $9.55 per thousand up from the current rate of $8.89 per thousand.  This will increase property taxes by an estimated $65 for every $100,000 worth of property.  Please note, if voters reject the referendum, the mil rate will likely decrease to an estimated $8.00 per thousand saving tax payers approximately $89 per $100,000 worth of property.  For reference, the average mil rate in the School District of West Salem during the past twenty years is $9.74, the average mil rate for the previously mentioned cohort is $9.44, and the average mil rate for the state of Wisconsin is $9.77.

Additional Questions?

Please join us at one of the following events to speak directly with Mr. Gunderson and our board members about your questions. 

Information Session and Building Tours

March 4, 2019, 7 to 9 p.m.

West Salem Middle School

440 East Ave.

West Salem, WI 54669


Celebrate West Salem

Sunday, March 17, 2019, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

West Salem High School

490 N. Mark St.

West Salem, WI 54669


For more information, please contact superintendent Troy Gunderson at gunderson.troy@wsalem.k12.wi.us or contact a school board member using the information here.