West Allis-West Milwaukee superintendent defends decision to hike taxes after referendum rejection

WEST ALLIS -- Voters in the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District will face a tax hike despite rejecting a referendum at the ballot box this year, and not everyone's happy about it.

In the face of criticism, the district's superintendent defended the use of a $12.8 million loan approved by a state board for energy-efficient projects. Taxpayers will have to repay the loan, even if the loan program is sharply curtailed under a Republican proposal in the state budget.

John Molling

The district sought the state loan after West Allis-West Milwaukee voters rejected a $12.5 million referendum in April that would've paid for operating expenses in a district that has struggled financially in recent years.

"I don't understand what you guys don't realize about the word 'no,'" John Molling, who lives within the school district's boundaries in New Berlin, told school board members at a Monday evening meeting. "That was a resounding message that should’ve been sent to this board. Did you listen? No."

The failed referendum and state loan sought similar amounts of cash, but they are different in other areas. The referendum would've paid for teacher salaries and educational programs. The loan is for energy projects, including LED lighting, boilers, new roofing, and HVAC systems.

West Allis-West Milwaukee School District

The loan will also result in a much smaller tax increase than the referendum. Taxpayers will pay $17 extra for every $100,000 in home value in the first year of the loan, and $8 for the following nine years.

The referendum would've hiked taxes by $58 for every $100,000 in home value.

Superintendent Marty Lexmond

Superintendent Marty Lexmond initially refused to answer questions about the issue Monday, deferring to Finance Director Andy Chromy, who was not present.

After FOX6 News asked Lexmond why he was unwilling to answer questions as the superintendent, he agreed to explain the district's position.

"By borrowing money for energy efficiency, we're able to take care of some of the capital needs that way and not cut further from kids," Lexmond said in an interview. "That's what it's about."

A 2009 state law allows districts to get loans for energy projects through the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands without first asking voters.

West Allis-West Milwaukee School Board

The state board administers a trust fund that sat at more than $900 million in 2013, according to the board's website.

Wisconsin school districts spent $80 million through the loan program in the most recent fiscal year, said Tom McCarthy, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Instruction.

West Allis-West Milwaukee was under a time crunch to get its state loan approved. Under the state budget, Republicans plan to temporarily stop districts from seeking state loans for energy projects starting January 1st, 2018.

West Allis-West Milwaukee school board member Dan Bailey said he supported the proposed restrictions from the GOP-controlled Legislature.

"If we’re looking at spending all that money on energy, I think you need to put that out there to the people (for a vote)," Bailey said in an interview after Monday's meeting.

Assembly Republicans have scheduled a vote on the budget -- including that change to this loan program -- for Wednesday. A vote in the state Senate would follow.

Lexmond said the district would've been "less likely" to have applied for the state loan if voters had approved the operating referendum, but called that "speculation." He said the district acted properly to secure the loan under the 2009 law.

"What we've done is pursue resources to support a school district, to support the West Allis-West Milwaukee Schools, in an appropriate manner," Lexmond said.