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Bernth: Record speaks for itself

With the $25 million eight-nine school referendum scheduled Nov. 4, Superintendent Ron Bernth said the school's record speaks for itself.

"I've been here 16 years and we've had 16 years of growth and planning. We've stayed ahead of the curve," Bernth said. "I feel we have a trusting relationship with the community."

He said planning is fundamental to his job as superintendent.

"We wouldn't be where we are today if I wasn't doing my job," Bernth said.

Critics of the upcoming referendum claim that the district did not follow the correct process in proposing the new school building.

"I have plenty of documents to show that we followed the process," Bernth said, as he presented a handful of meeting minutes and planning charts. He said the district has always followed five-year plans and is on the third five-year plan in which he's been involved. The current plan covers the years 2000 to 2005.

"We have a strategic planning group that is composed of half school officials and half community," Bernth said. "The proposal currently being considered is an outcrop of the committee's findings. Strategic planning is where you want to be in five years. From that plan, short- and long-term goals are developed."

School records show that discussion of an eight-nine facility began in December 2000. In a referendum two years ago (October 2001) voters approved the purchase of property for a potential eight-nine building. That referendum question was part of a $12.2 million question that included several other school projects, including the remodeling of Willow River Elementary. The land purchase portion was $1.84 million.

Bernth said district officials generally sort through the potential options and bring the best plan to the school board.

"Planning is paramount to my job," Bernth said. "The process for this upcoming referendum was very similar to past referendums. I think this plan is the best for our district and I think it is as worthy as any that have been approved in the past - the public has been supportive of our past planning.

The bottom line, according to Bernth, is that the district is growing.

"No one says we're not growing," Bernth said. "The job of the administration and board is to bring the best proposal. It is important to stay ahead of the growth curve."

Along those lines, Bernth said class size does matter.

"With this proposal, we're not attempting to reduce class sizes; we just want to maintain what we have now."

He said the quality of teachers is also very important, but said class size is a critical factor.

"Even the best teachers struggle in big classes," Bernth said. "They have to spend more time on management, discipline and other issues. In a smaller class, teachers have more time to build relationships, interact with students and get to know the students. In addition, good classes need good resources and good facilities."

Bernth said Hudson has a good record of student achievement and he wants to keep it that way.

"I disagree with critics who say things won't change if you add five kids to each room. We don't want to step backwards; we want to maintain."

He also does not like critics comparing Hudson's cost of education with cities in other states around the country. In the state of Wisconsin, Hudson ranks very well in the cost of educating each student.

"We need to compare our cost and performance with other communities in the upper Midwest, not the south or California," Bernth said. "The upper Midwest consistently does remarkably well. That's who we want to be compared with. Maybe public education is not successful in some areas, but here it is worthy of community support. The quality of education in our community, whether public or private, is very good. I think that's how our community wants it."

Bernth said a new eight-nine building would ensure that no additions to secondary schools would be needed for about 10 years.

"When we opened the current middle school in 1994 we had about 760 students and the high school had about 1,050," Bernth said. "When we opened those schools we were not filled to capacity. Part of long-range planning is to allow a district to grow into buildings. Now that those buildings are filled, we are following the exact same strategy for the next 10 years. We don't want to have the buildings filled when they are built - that's how you get into the pattern of adding portables and piecemeal room expansions. A couple doesn't purchase a one-bedroom house if they know they are planning to have two children in the next few years."

Bernth said there will be other costs associated with building a new school, among them are finance costs. He said he estimated the costs at 5.25 percent, but said it may be less. The current market is at about 4.75 percent.

"Experts tell me we are at a 40-year low," Bernth said. "If we wait a couple of years, those costs may increase and, of course, construction costs are likely to increase. The total package could increase dramatically. The space problem isn't going to disappear if this referendum is defeated. It'll just cost more later."

About the board being split on the proposal, Bernth said he understands the lack of a unanimous recommendation. Board members Mark Kaisersatt and Nancy Donovan voted against the referendum proposal. Board members Richard Muenich, Annette Cook, Peter Bear and Priscilla Wyeth voted in favor of the proposal. Board member Dan Tjornehoj was absent from the meeting, but has indicated that he supports the proposal.

"In this day and age it is difficult to get unanimous backing on any issue," Bernth said. "As the district grows, opinions vary. The board has waded through a variety of options and issues regarding this situation, and the majority are comfortable with this proposal."

Some referendum opponents have also been critical of Bernth's financial handling of the district. Opponents charge that student growth increased 50 percent while the budget increased 180 percent.

"There are a variety of reasons," Bernth said. "Salary increases, staff increases, new school buildings approved by the voters, a levy increase approved by the voters, state aids decreasing, new programs, state mandates, etc. Remember, in that same time, the district's value increased from $598 million in 1989 to 2.44 billion in 2003. School taxes have not increased for most people."

When asked what comes next if the referendum fails, Bernth said the administration would look at what caused it to fail.

"Is it in the need, the plan or cost?" Bernth said. "We'd study those three areas, although there is no question of the need - the need will not disappear."

In talking about opponents of the referendum, Bernth said it is easy for someone to cast doubt, and we all feel that we are paying too much in taxes. But, our fiscal history shows that we are responsible. Despite our growth in the last 10 years, most people are not paying anymore in their school portion of property taxes.

He noted that Prescott has defeated recent referendums and it has had a negative impact on the community. Bernth said some real estate agents have told him that home values have decreased in Prescott because of the school situation.

"They say it's tough to sell a home in Prescott because families with kids don't want to move to that community. Thirty-five kids left Prescott schools this year to go to other districts in open enrollment," Bernth said. "If people won't buy homes in the community, the value of homes can potentially decrease. It's a vicious cycle - as home values decrease, the people who stay in the community end up paying higher taxes without any improvements (to the schools).

"We have a good history, good track record and have produced a good product. I'm not troubled with a difference of opinions or with constructive criticism, but a respectful, civil demeanor accomplishes more. The school will still be here on Nov. 5 - we have to live together and make this district work."