WUHS reviews resident responses to diagnose why April referendum failed

By Dave Fidlin

Correspondent

On the whole, taxpayers within Waterford Union High School’s geographic area are satisfied with the district’s performance in a number of key metrics. But they are hesitant to back another referendum unless there is a strong demonstration of a need.

This was the overarching takeaway of a consultant’s report to the high school district’s School Board on July 25 amid an ongoing discussion of when another referendum could pop up on a ballot to address a number of facilities-related issues.

WUHS enlisted the services of Peter Leatherman of the Morris Leatherman Co. to survey residents. Results from Leatherman’s survey were shared at the board meeting.

In his presentation, Leatherman indicated a sample of 400 residents within WUHS’ footprint were surveyed by phone from June 20-29. The non-response rate of the sample pool, he said, stood at 5.5%.

The high school received high rankings among the sample pool in a number of specific questions. Case in point: When asked whether they believed WUHS was a good investment within the community, 85% agreed with the statement.

But the survey findings also hinted at why WUHS’ most recent facilities-related survey, in the amount of $19.75 million, was narrowly defeated with 2,308 “no” votes and 2,097 “yes” votes.

When asked if they believed the high school’s buildings and facilities met the needs of educating today’s children, 24% of the respondents gave a “strongly yes” to the statement; an additional 56% responded “yes.”

In the months leading up to the April referendum question, WUHS officials had embarked on a series of communication efforts — including building tours, mailings and visits with local community groups — to try shedding light on some of the district’s facilities issues.

Michael David, owner of Nexus Solutions, another consulting firm that has been assisting WUHS with next step planning, said the district needs to double down on past practices when another referendum is decided.

“There’s that Missouri statement of ‘show me,’” David said of the method he believes WUHS needs to take to convey its message to the community.

A number of WUHS’ pressing needs that were a centerpiece of the April referendum were linked to infrastructure that oftentimes is out of sight and out of mind to the average student and visitor — and, in some instances, staff member.

Antiquated galvanized piping, for instance, has been a chronic problem at the school and has caused flooding in isolated areas in the past as bursts have occurred. Better utilizing existing classroom space for new and emerging programs also was a key component of the proposed spending package.

To move forward with another referendum that will pass, Leatherman said he believed WUHS officials will have to continue communicating why it needs these funds — particularly in an environment since the onset of COVID-19 that has resulted in changed perceptions, from some constituents, of school buildings.

“The pandemic raised questions, but it also changed perceptions,” Leatherman said.

Pointing to reports of school districts receiving COVID-19 relief funds and incurring monetary utility savings from the 2020 lockdowns, Leatherman said, “There is a perception schools are in good shape.”

Because overall satisfaction with the high school is high, Leatherman said all signs point to support for some type of facilities-related referendum in the road ahead. Pinpointing the exact dollar figure, however, is the open question that still needs to be explored.

“There is tolerance out there,” Leatherman said. “It’s not necessarily a tax issue.”