Mequon — The debate over the sale of 112 acres of Mequon-Thiensville school-district-owned farmland highlighted the tensions that exist between preserving the community's rural character and attracting young families into the schools.
The land is located within the city's recently-created central growth zoning district, which allows for 1-acre residential lots between Wauwatosa and Swan roads north of Donges Bay Road. The area, located just south of the Knightsbridge and Brighton Ridge subdivisions, is also expected to be connected to public sewer and public water service.
The land was originally purchased by the district nearly 50 years ago, when district officials thought the community might need a second high school. The first 42 acres were purchased at $48,000 in 1964, and the second 70-acre parcel was purchased for $84,000 in 1965.
Superintendent Demond Means said the district does not have a need for a new high school building, nor any other school buildings, as enrollment has declined eight of the past 10 years. As a result of declining enrollment, the school district has had to tighten its belt to make up for the reduced state aid and taxing authority prescribed in the state funding formula.
The district leases the land to a farmer for $19,635 per year. If the school board pursues the sale of the land, the money would go toward paying off non-referendum debt. If the school district was able to net $1.9 million for the property, as indicated in a market appraisal last year, the elimination of that debt would free up $260,000 in the annual school budget, district officials say.
Sixty percent of the Mequon and Thiensville residents in attendance at the school district's annual meeting on Monday night voted to authorize the School Board to pursue the sale of the land. The vote was 83-55.
Former Mequon Alderman Sam Cutler, Jr. said the land sale would chip away at the city's rural character in the name of raising the revenue cap.
"The real shame in trying to attract new students with this land sale is, by rezoning the so-called central growth area of Mequon, accommodating city officials have sacrificed the city's rural character on the west side in exchange for high density development; more congestion, waste and storm water runoff; and in the long run, higher city taxes," Cutler said.
Former School Board member Peter Stone said the time is right for the district to sell the land and free up funds for the classroom.
"The council has already made its decision, so I don't think we need to revisit that," Stone said. "We need to think about what's in the best interest of the school district."
Reduced tax levy
Mequon and Thiensville voters at the meeting also approved a slightly reduced tax levy in a 124-9 vote. The levy of $37.3 million is a reduction of $255,716 — or 0.68 percent — compared to last year's levy.
The tax rate will increase three cents to $9 per $1,000 of equalized valuation, which means the owner of a $350,000 home will pay $3,150 in school taxes — a $10 increase from last year. The actual tax rate will be set in October when property values are certified by the state government.
The budget assumes a 1 percent decrease in property values, and an estimated $2.2 million in general aid based on a projected decrease of 48 resident students. Enrollment numbers will be finalized in late September. The budget would make 10 new seats available in the open enrollment program.
The budget adds three math specialists at the elementary school level, as well as a high school reading specialist. The budget would eliminate the equivalent of 4.6 full-time employees at Homestead High School. The district shaved expenses in the budget by altering employee health insurance plans and increasing employee contributions.
The budget would also eliminate five full-time positions in the special education department. The district expects 33 special education students to leave the program in the coming year, which would total a 92-student decline in special education students over the last three years.
Cheryle Rebholz was the only school board member to vote against the budget, protesting the $22,643 salary increase for communication director Melissa McCrady, who will become a full-time employee next year. Under the family insurance plan, the district also contributes $32,417 toward McCrady's benefits.
School Board member Gary Laev, who joined Rebholz in voting against the preliminary budget, was absent from the annual meeting.
Rebholz said that money budgeted for communications should be put toward special education teachers or restoring the four classes that were eliminated: home remodeling, home construction and design, creative foods and international gourmet cooking.
The budget also marks the first year of a new strategic compensation fund that rewards effective educators.
"I appreciate the administration being creative and diligent in putting something on the table that isn't being done in other districts," School Board President Mary Cyrier said of the new merit pay system. "I think it's a great step for us to recognize our top performers."
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