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Eau Claire voters pass school district referendum

Eau Claire voters pass school district referendum

Voters stepping into Eau Claire booths Tuesday not only caused a stalemate in the Wisconsin State Supreme Court, but also voted to pass a referendum that would improve and expand four Eau Claire District schools.

The first $52 million referendum question to renovate Putnam Heights, Sherman and Robbins elementary schools and DeLong Middle School passed, while the second question about the district purchasing a separate building did not.

Eau Claire School District Superintendent Ron Heilmann said that the due diligence for a referendum was there.

“As (executive director of administration) Tim Liebham likes to say, we have more air conditioning capabilities at Memorial High School’s auditorium than we do in all of DeLong,” Heilmann said. “So it’s not like we just woke up one morning and said, ‘let’s do a referendum.’”

Heilmann added that in addition to maintenance and facility problems, there are data that show that the number of elementary students has increased by about 400 students in grades pre-kindergarten through fifth grade in the last seven years. Heilmann said that number could increase by another 520 students in the next nine years.

Senior physical education major Jimmy Burg is planning on student teaching in the Eau Claire area. He explained that the growing number of students is a complicated situation, especially considering the rising number of teacher layoffs.

“The overcrowding problem is only going to get worse if they keep laying off teachers, as well,” Burg said. “If they aren’t able to expand and make things more manageable for teachers, it’s going to be rough.”

Heilmann said the referendum will help catch the district up on some backlogged maintenance requests that the system has had trouble keeping up with. He compared the situation to having deferred interest mortgages.

“You buy a house and five years from now, you owe more on the house than when you bought it,” Heilmann said. “That’s kind of where we’re at. We wanted to do something to also kind of catch us up on that.”

Burg, who will graduate after five and a half years in December, said that one-on-one interaction between students and teachers is crucial to a learning experience, especially at elementary ages.

“You get more of that one-on-one interaction. When you have class sizes up to like 40 to 50 kids, how much one-on-one time can you actually get?,” Burg said. “It just makes it that much harder.”

But Heilmann explained that the schools have strict rules about overcrowding, so in order to maintain about 22 students per class, they had to get creative about finding classroom space.

“We’ve converted office space. We actually show a room we carved out of the gymnasium, which doesn’t work real well when the basketballs come flying over the partitions,” Heilmann said, “but those are things we’ve had to do. I mean, we’ve carved space out of wherever we’ve had to, so those are really some of the underlying issues.”
Heilmann said the referendum is looking at adding two classrooms to Putnam Heights and upsizing other spaces in all four schools. Work on the projects could begin as early as
this summer.

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