CHICAGO -- Mayor John O. Norquist of Milwaukee late Tuesday proposed an alternate $184 million building plan for the city's public schools, saying that the school system's $474 million plan would be "too great"a burden on taxpayers.
Norquist's plan would be financed with proceeds from $97 million of general obligation debt and $87 million in existing property taxes. Thirty-five million dollars would be used for the construction of two elementary schools and a middle school and $149 million would be spent over 10 years on maintenance.
The Milwaukee Public Schools would have to "cut low-priority spending from its operating budget" and seek more state funding to avert an increase in property taxes, Norquist said in a 14-page letter to the school board.
Earlier this month, Superintendent Howard Fuller unveiled a 10-year, $474 million school building plant that would be financed partially with the proceeds from the issuance of $366 million of GO bonds.
Fuller's plan calls for the construction of 14 new schools, including one high school and expanding 14 existing elementary schools.
Denise Callaway, director of the school system's public information office, said yesterday that Fuller and School Board President Jeannette Mitchell have declined to comment on Norquist's at this time.
Board members are expected to vote Nov. 4 on Fuller's building plan and whether to place the $366 million bond issue on the ballot in February, according to Callaway.
Norquist said that a referendum on the borrowing component of Fuller's plan would create a "lose-lose" situation for Milwaukee. He explained that if the referendum passes, property taxes would increase dramatically without any assurance that the quality of education in the city's schools would improve. If the referendum is defeated, space problems will still exist and the city will be "a year or more behind" in finding an alternative plan, Norquist said.
"I oppose the [school system's] overall plan. It is not reasonable. Its financing is not equitable. It is far too great a burden on Milwaukee's taxpayers," Norquist said.
He noted that Fuller's plan would unfairly affect low-income families in the city.
"Many Milwaukee residents do not have the ability to pay more taxes," Norquist said. "It would be tragic to spend so much money on new schools that residents could no longer afford to live in the city."
He said in his letter that the school district's property tax rate of $18.14 per $1,000 of assessed valuation this years already was larger than the combined city-county rate.
Norquist asserted that the proposal puts the school board and the voters of Milwaukee in the "awkward" position of either concurring with a massive plan for borrowing and spending or opposing any solution to the schools' pressing needs.
Under the mayor's plan, more classroom space would be created by converting an existing high school into a middle school. Norquist said that currently there are more than 4,200 vacant spaces in Milwaukee public high schools.
The mayor's proposal would not need voter approval because the city, unlike the school board, does not need to place GO bond issues on the ballot.
Norquist noted that his plan could be enacted this fall, instead of waiting for voters to approve Fuller's measure in a referendum.
Jeff Fleming, spokesman for Norquist, said that the mayor's plan includes the issuance of $35 million of notes that was approved by the Wisconsin Legislature in June to provide immediate assistance for the school system.
He added that a provision stipulating minority participation requirements in the note issue would remain intact. The provision, added by state Sen. Gary George, D-Milwaukee, recommends that the deal have a minority firm as financial adviser and that minority firms make up at least half its underwriting team.
Fleming said issuance of the remaining $62 million of bonds would require approval from the city council.
If the school board approves Fuller's building plan and the resolution to place the $ 366 million bond issue on the ballot, the resolution will then be sent to Milwaukee's Common Council where it will receive a rubber stamp of approval.
Unlike other school districts in the state that draft their own budgets and levy their own taxes, the school board approves its budget but relies on Milwaukee to issue its GO debt. The Common Council votes on school budgets and referendums, but cannot reject them.
Milwaukee has approximately $375 million of GO debt, including $29.5 million for the schools. The city carries an Aa GO rating from Moody's Investors Service and an AA-plus rating from Standard & Poor's Corp.