A solid majority of residents in the School District of Fort Atkinson who recently responded to a communitywide survey regarding a planned district operational referendum in April 2020 have expressed their willingness to support such a referendum.

Joe Donovan, of Donovan Group LLC, Milwaukee, whose consulting firm conducted the survey, presented its results to board of education members Thursday night during their regular monthly meeting.

Donovan said he had met with Fort Atkinson school board members in June 2016 when the district retained his consulting firm to conduct a similar survey of community residents.

In the fall of 2016, district electors approved a $2.25 million nonrecurring operational referendum for three years. As the district approaches the end of that period, the board has decided that it will go to referendum next April.

To begin the community engagement process, a survey invitation was sent to all homes in the district. Offered both in English and Spanish, it could be completed via paper or taken online at the district’s website.

The recent survey, Donovan said, opened Oct. 26 and closed Nov. 11.

“The School District of Fort Atkinson surveyed the community regarding its school climate, culture and communication, while also sharing information on the district’s needs and potential solutions to those needs,” Donovan said. “To encourage participation in the survey, the district issued a news release, sent an email to all district parents and guardians, and shared links to the survey several times via social media.”

A total of 554 community members completed the survey.

“Of these, 184 respondents made up a comparison group of district residents who are not current parents of preschool or school-aged students, employees or students,” Donovan noted. “The reason why we include that (comparison) group is that that group more likely reflects people that would go into the voting booth on Election Day.”

Although the comparison group is a subset of everyone who responded to the survey, its results still are reflected in the total data, he pointed out.

Looking at the survey respondents, the all-respondents pool contained 17.69 percent of people ages 65 or over.

“People who are 65 and older, it’s difficult, right, to connect with them; often they don’t have children in the school,” Donovan said. “And the fact that the all-respondent group had 17.7 percent of (people) 65 and older really suggests that this is a good respondent pool. And, by the way, it also suggests that you (district) are doing a good job as it relates to your communication. We don’t see the 65 and older (segment) at that level very much.”

The comparison group, he said, skewed a little higher with 39.13 percent of respondents being age 65 or over.

Other age groups of all survey respondents, he said, were: Under 18, 0.54 percent; 18-25, 1.08 percent; 26-34, 13 percent; 35-44, 29.78 percent; 45-54, 24.91 percent; and 55-64. 13.0 percent.

When asked where they reside, 64.8 percent of all respondents resided in the City of Fort Atkinson with 71.74 percent of the comparison group residing in the city.

“This (distribution across the district) is pretty similar to our results in 2016,” Donovan indicated.

Some other noteworthy results, he said, show that of all respondents, 30.63 percent have children who currently attend a Fort Atkinson public school in grades K-12; 17.40 percent have children who graduated from or previously attended a Fort Atkinson public school, K-12; 13.65 percent attended a Fort Atkinson public school; and 6.25 percent do not have children.

Respondents then were presented a series of district financial needs statements that provided background information to help them answer questions in that section of the survey.

“Then we say to them, OK, now that you’ve had a chance to take a look at this, let us know the degree to which you agree with the following,” Donovan said.

Respondents, he said, were asked if they believe the school district’s most urgent financial needs must be addressed now.

“And here, more than 83 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the district should address these needs now,” Donovan said. “That’s a strong level of support that was similar to the comparison group (about 79 percent), which, again, consists of community members who normally don’t have a strong connection to the district.”

And those percentages are really high, he pointed out.

“This is your community, this is your respondent group saying ‘Do something!’” Donovan said. “‘We understand that you have needs. Please move forward.’”

Asked how likely are they to support an operational referendum beginning in July of 2020, 39.64 percent of all respondents said they definitely would support it, and 36.76 percent said they probably would support it.

“For this question, we saw a high level of support for the referendum with more than 76 percent of all respondents indicating that they would or probably would support it,” Donovan shared. “What’s really interesting here is that 66.85 (percent) of comparison group respondents indicated that they would do the same. This is a high level of support.”

Among all respondents, 11.71 percent said they probably would not support a referendum and 11.89 percent said they definitely would not support it.

Respondents then were asked how likely they are to support an operational referendum if it results in no tax increase, but with likely reductions in programs and services.

“Here we saw low levels of support,” Donovan said, adding, “28.5 percent of all respondents supported this. And approximately 31.5 percent of the comparison group respondents supported this. These are really low levels of support. To go from really high (support) to this question is really low.”

Respondents were asked how likely they are to support an operational referendum if it results in a slight tax increase with no reduction to programs and services.

Saying they definitely would support a referendum in this case were 35.38 percent of all survey-takers and 26.09 percent of the comparison group. And saying they probably would support it, respectively, were 35.74 percent and 36.96 percent.

“At this point, our numbers go up dramatically,” Donovan told the board. “In both cases, your all-respondent group and your comparison group said ‘I don’t want you to cut — I don’t want to see you (district) reduce things.’ And again, the last time I saw that was in your survey in 2016 where it mirrored that.”

When asked how likely they are to support an operational referendum if it results in a moderate tax increase that enhances student programs and services, 29.6 percent of all respondents said they definitely would support it and 26.9 percent said they probably would support it. A total of 19.49 percent was not sure if they would support the spending plan, 9.93 percent probably would not support it and 14.08 percent said they would definitely not support it.

“At this point, a little bit lower levels of support — 56.5 percent — than our earlier question,” Donovan said. “A healthy majority of our all-responding group indicated that they would support a moderate tax increase so the district could enhance programs and services. For our comparison group, we dropped (support) to 45.6 (percent).”

The survey then asked community members to share their feelings on this statement: “I would vote ‘yes’ on a referendum question if I felt that it was the correct solution and if it had no tax increase.”

Among the all-respondents group, 45.31 percent said they definitely would support it and 36.28 percent said they probably would support it, with the comparison group showing respective levels of support at 35.33 percent and 40.76 percent.

“Again, high levels of support for both groups,” Donovan noted. “Interesting thing here is that when you add up those totals for both the comparison group and all-responding group, it’s about the same — they just flip in terms of definitely supporting and probably supporting. Across the board, this is high levels of support.”

Next, survey-takers were questioned about their willingness to support a referendum question if it was the correct solution and had a tax increase of $25 per year on each $100,000 of assessed property value.

Among the all-respondents, 44.04 percent indicated they definitely would support the referendum and 30.14 percent probably would support it; among the comparison group, 34.78 percent of respondents definitely would support the spending plan and 28.80 percent probably would support it. A total of 10.47 percent and 12.5 percent of pollsters, respectively, said they were not sure if they would support it.

“Again, a large majority of respondents, 74.2 percent, said they would be willing to support a referendum with a tax increase of $25 per year for a $100,000 home,” Donovan noted. “For our comparison group, the percentage was 63.6 (percent). That’s a high number for our comparison group.”

For both groups, he said, these are higher levels of support than his consulting firm typically sees for that type of question. Moreover, he said, it also is typical for the comparison group to be more sensitive to tax increases, which was the case here.

Next, survey-takers were asked if they would vote yes on a referendum question if they felt it was the correct solution and contained a tax increase of $50 per year on a $100,000 home.

Among all-respondents, 31.59 percent said they definitely would support it and 26.35 percent probably would support it, compared to 22.83 percent and 22.28 percent, respectively, among the comparison group.

“A clear majority of (the) all-responding groups were still willing to say that they would probably or definitely support a referendum,” Donovan said. “That number is mirrored, although to a lower level, 45.1 (percent), for our comparison group.”

Here, the amount of all respondents who were not sure of their support for a referendum climbed to almost 20 percent, he said, while the comparison group who definitely would not support it approached 23 percent.

“Again, pretty typical that we start seeing, as these (tax-impact) numbers go up, people say that they’re less interested in supporting it (referendum),” Donovan said.

Given a $100-per-year tax increase on a $100,000 home, 19.13 percent of all respondents said they definitely would support a referendum if they felt it was the correct solution and 20.04 percent probably would support it. Among the comparison group, 14.13 percent and 16.85 percent of respondents, respectively, felt the same.

Among all respondents, 25.45 percent said they were not sure if they would support a referendum at that level and 21.66 percent said they definitely would not support it.

“At the $100 level, you’re going to see the cost sensitivity that people have, (support) starts dropping significantly at this point with your all-responding group and your comparison group,” Donovan said. “At this point, (in the comparison group) you’re seeing that ‘I definitely would not support it’ approaches 33 percent.”

Additionally, the survey asked the same question of community members as it did in 2016: “If the board should seek an operational referendum for the district, which would you prefer: A non-recurring or a recurring referendum?”

Among all respondents, 61.59 percent favored a non-recurring referendum where the district must get permission from voters every few years to surpass the revenue limit by a specific amount. A total of 65.22 percent of the comparison group agreed.

Among all respondents, 38.41 percent favored a recurring referendum in which the district can surpass the revenue limit on an ongoing basis, but is limited to a specific dollar amount. A total of 34.78 percent of the comparison group concurred.

“Here you see that people like non-recurring referenda — this is pretty typical,” Donovan said. “I think what’s different about this is that you had for your all-responding group nearly 40 percent saying ‘no, do the recurring.’ In most districts this would be 90 (percent to) 10 (percent) against a recurring.

“So, to me, this suggests a level of trust in your community, especially when you look at your comparison group,” he added. “Most districts in the State of Wisconsin, when we ask this question, would love to have these numbers. Again, because it’s a proxy of trust.”

Lastly, survey-takers were asked if the district were to enhance extracurricular programs and services through an operational referendum, what areas would they like to see the district prioritize.

Academic extracurricular opportunities topped the list among all respondents at 34.15 percent, followed by the Arts (music, art and theater) at 33.48 percent, sports at 19.60 percent and other at 12.77 percent.

“This was just kind of interesting, again, how close your comparison group is to your all-respondent group,” Donovan concluded. “I will tell you that it’s pretty typical — this is often a surprise — that sports often fall well below academic extracurriculars and well below arts. We see that again and again. So, these numbers are pretty typical.”

Given what is learned from the survey, board members will delve deeper into some of the solutions suggested by the community by engaging a cross-section of the community in several one-hour-long focus group sessions during the first two weeks of December.

Based on the data gathered by the community survey and focus groups, the operational referendum question then will be decided in January by the school board to appear on the April 2020 ballot.

Other business

Meanwhile Thursday, the board heard Jason Demerath, director of Business Services, discuss recommendations with board members regarding the possible dissolution of the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District and potential impact on the School District of Fort Atkinson.

An advisory referendum recently showed that 53 percent of voters in the Palmyra-Eagle district want to dissolve. This came after the district’s school board voted to dissolve in July after a failed April operating referendum.

Demerath said written testimony will be submitted next week to the School District Boundary Appeals Board (SDBAB) from Interim District Administrator Rob Abbott, board President Mark Chaney and/or the entire board of education.

In that testimony, he said, the district will affirm its support for the children and families of Palmyra-Eagle and surrounding districts, and ask that Fort Atkinson not be party to apportionment if the dissolution is confirmed.

The business director said the district will inform that the School District of Fort Atkinson has its own referendum in April, 2020 for operations. The testimony also will reference that travel times are considerably shorter to Sullivan Elementary School and any facilities maintained in Palmyra than they are to Fort Atkinson.

The district’s testimony to the SDBAB, he noted, also will point out that the small number of students/families possibly apportioned are not fiscally balanced by apportionment of assets, supplies, liabilities and staff, and cite the increased transportation costs the district would have to absorb.

No representatives from the School District of Fort Atkinson appeared Thursday at a public hearing in Palmyra before the School District Boundary Appeals Board (see related story on A1).

If the state appeals board allows the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District dissolution, it would take effect July 1, 2020.

Meanwhile, board members heard clerk Dick Schultz inform that an election for the school board will be held on Tuesday, April 7, 2020.

“The spring election will be for three seats on the school board—two for three-year terms and one for a one-year term,” Schultz informed. “The incumbents currently holding these seats are Benjamin Knowles, myself (Dick Schultz) and Rachel Snethen.”

Anyone interested in running for these seats should contact the district administrator and board of education administrative assistant, Debbie Kopps, in the Luther Administration Center at 201 Park St. or by telephone at (920) 563-7807.

Those interested will be given election materials including an election schedule, a Wisconsin Association of School Boards guide for candidates and the necessary forms.

“The deadline for filing the declaration of candidacy form and the campaign registration statement is 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 7. “If a primary election is needed, it would be held on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020. The elected board members will take office on Monday, April 27.”

Also Thursday, the board approved:

• Course proposals: Social Studies 6, Social Studies 7, Chemistry I, Earth Science I, Physics I, Biology I, Genetics, Cell Biology, Chemistry II, Accelerated Chemistry II, Advanced Placement Chemistry, Astronomy, Geology, Physics II, Conceptual Physics, AP Physics and Ecology.

• A monetary donation from Badger Bank to Fort Family Connections in the amount of $1,835.40; and donation of winter coats and snow pants from The Forester Group to Luther Elementary School, valued at $2,000.

• The resignation of middle school teacher Kelley Dembski.

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