The O-W School Referendum

Travis Rogers, Jr.

The O-W School Referendum

5 mins

In the November 3, 2020 election, the Owen-Withee School District has placed a referendum on the ballot for a slight increase in the mill rate for district property owners.

The Referendum wording will appear as the following: “Shall the School District of Owen-Withee, Clark and Taylor Counties, Wisconsin be authorized to issue pursuant to Chapter 67 of the Wisconsin Statutes, general obligation bonds in an amount not to exceed $1.5 million for the public purpose of paying the cost of a school building and improvement project consisting of: construction of additions and renovations at the Middle/High School for academics, including technical education space, a new cafeteria/commons/multi-purpose space and kitchen; and acquisition of furnishings, fixtures and equipment?” With a checked-box response of Yes or No.

That referendum will provide partial funding for the building of a dome that is suitable to withstand an F-5 tornado and will be largely funded by an already-approved FEMA grant but that grant covers just over half of the total costs of the building project.

The following is a conversation between the Sentinel & Rural News (SRN) and District Administrator Bob Houts (BH).

SRN: So, why are we spending money on this dome?

BH: I was looking at the 1964 yearbook back when the school was basically 7-12 grades, that was what our current kitchen was built for—serving lunch for Jr. High and High School. Since then, we have added 4K through 6th Grades. We have added breakfast and have been serving meals off campus. Our food service program has grown to the point where we can no longer adequately provide the services necessary. In other words, we need more space. That is why we are looking at a kitchen-cafeteria and with that a multi-purpose space. We knew that we needed that space desperately.

So, we find out about this FEMA grant that can provide so much of the needed funding. It was never “Let’s get this dome and see what we can put in it.” It was, “We have a need that has stretched back six years ago. Now we can get this building project funded through the Grant that will reduce our total payment to only one-third.

Plus, Forward Bank has committed $50,000 if we match with $50,000 from business and other donors.”

O-W District Administrator Bob Houts discusses the referendum. (Photo by Travis Rogers, Jr.)

SRN: That’s an important point—the need was there before the FEMA Grant dome was even considered.

BH: Right. We never said, “Hey! FEMA will give us money to build a dome. Let’s go do it!” We had this need identified for a long time and it has only gotten worse. We served 75,000 meals from the time we closed in mid-March until the end of June. We closed on March 18 and started serving food on March 20, I believe. And now we have started up again.

SRN: Then you are once again providing food to online students?

BH: We are not delivering. It is pick-up and that is for any child who lives in the district! It is not only for school-age children who attend O-W schools, it is for all school-age children. In fact, we had Mennonite parents who were coming and picking up meals for their children. ANY child who lives within our boundaries qualifies for this food program. Mennonites who don’t even have children coming to school here are welcome to come pick up meals for their kids. 

So, what we are trying to do now is provide the needed kitchen space that meets the needs of those programs. And I’m think that those programs are going to continue for quite a while. 

Now, will this crisis go on for another two years? Hopefully, not. But you never know what the next thing might be. And we will always have this Summer Feeding Program every Summer. 

We said, here’s what we need to build and how can we get funding to help provide for it and that is where we came up with applying for the FEMA Grant to pay for $2 million of it.

SRN: And you had already seen the success that Spencer had in landing the grant.

BH: Yes. In fact, Spencer just broke ground yesterday (September 1). And we got the same guy—Jordan Buss—who had written that grant to write one for us. In fact, Jordan is 3-for-3 in getting those FEMA Grants—Abbotsford, Spencer and us. He knows what he’s doing.

I just want everyone to know that we are trying to meet a need that is not only for our students but for all school-age students in our district. 

SRN: And then there’s the tornado shelter.

BH: In my time here, we have had six tornado warnings. Remember when we were in school and you had to sit in the halls and put a book over your head? I wanted to stop that immediately. No kids in the halls, so we go to closets, bathrooms. Now we can have a dome that can withstand an F-5 tornado. In addition to that, community members can come here for that, if they need to.

I think of that tornado that struck here in June and there were people who were without power for 11-12 hours. If they could have come here, they would have had power, internet access and all that so people could have been sheltered and not sitting in the dark.

SRN: The shelter, then, is really a bonus and not the primary function and need.

BH: Exactly. We were given $2 million to help meet our need, if we would also provide the shelter. If we didn’t have the need for the cafeteria and kitchen, we would have never thought twice about building this dome.

End of Part 1. Next time, the finances. 

This article was orginally reported by
Travis Rogers, Jr.

Travis is the Publisher with Nicole and is the Editor-in-Chief and Sales Manager.