The Shame (and Shamelessness) of The West Allis-West Milwaukee School District

The West Allis-West Milwaukee School District is in dire financial straits; of that there can be no doubt. But the district appears to be obscuring the reasons for this as it pushes a $12.5 million referendum using equally dishonest scare tactics and outright intimidation.

On February 25th, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Annysa Johnson wrote an eye-opening account of how the district blew through a staggering $17.5 million in cash reserves and now faces a $2.5 budget deficit.  Among her findings, which, notably, the district did not dispute:

By the time...the district's auditors finished digging, they would find at least $14 million in overspending during the 2013-'14 and 2014-'15 school years alone — on everything from salaries and benefits to teacher training and technology — and questionable practices dating to at least 2007.

Even as the district lost millions in poor investments during the market crash of 2008, it continued to spend millions of dollars.

It continued to tap the fund balance for other big-ticket items: $1.9 million for a new school building for Lane Elementary and $6.5 million for its district offices and adjacent school on S. 70th St.

The district offices complex, which the board is now selling to a developer, was supposed to pay for itself and generate additional revenue. Instead, it only added to the losses. Initially, tenants generated more than $800,000 annually. But over time, most have moved on and the rental space is largely vacant.

In addition to the big-ticket items, the district overspent its budgets on dozens of accounts between 2013-'14 and 2014-'15 alone, often by staggering amounts:  $3.7 million in overruns for salaries and benefits, $146,000 for teacher training, $786,700 for technology; and $671,738 for a soccer complex board members say they thought was entirely grant-funded.

Some expenses have drawn state and federal scrutiny. Last year, auditors at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction were called in to assist the U.S. Department of Education, which had raised concerns about West Allis-West Milwaukee's handling of three federal grants. In the end, the district agreed to return $73,000 of the $1.6 million it received to federal officials.

To this day, the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District says it has no idea how it could have frittered away a $120 million budget and nearly $18 million in cash reserves, pinning the blame on former Superintendent Kurt Wachholz, who resigned abruptly in 2014 and, by the way, earned a $163,500 severance package.  Of course, the School Board swears up and down that Wachholz's obvious financial mismanagement (and possible financial malfeasance, although the Department of Public Instruction did not find any during an investigation into 2015) had nothing to do with his sudden resignation, it seems likely that he resigned as Board members began to realize just what sort of fiscal trouble their district was in.

Yet they still kept on spending, running up millions of dollars in overspending--most of it (surprise, surprise), on salaries and benefits for district employees--even as the district's financial picture grew bleaker and bleaker.

It is notable that, during a time when the district was hemorrhaging money while claiming, as all school districts do, that it was doing so for the kids, West Allis-West Milwaukee officials spent $1.9 million on a new elementary school...and more than three times that--$6.5 million--on new school district offices.

So much for overspending on the kids, huh?

The sad reality is that the Wachholz administration, with either the full support of or without the knowledge of the School Board, placed their own interests above those of their students and spent money accordingly. Rather appallingly, that same Board is trying to place all of the blame for the financial disaster on Wachholz, but six of the nine Board members were in office while the district was blowing through cash.

Two of those members, Patricia Kehrin and Sue Sujecki, were in office for the entire duration of the mismanagement (which allegedly began in 2007, but very possibly stretches back even longer than that). Yet now those very same people are demanding that taxpayers in West Allis and West Milwaukee pay for their gross negligence.     

And they're doing so by threatening taxpayers and obfuscating their role in the school district's fiscal meltdown.

Consider this "fact sheet" on the upcoming referendum that the district has disseminated:

Notice the language that the district uses for the reasons it needs a referendum. It blames the purchase of Lane Intermediate School first (although that was only $1.9 million of at least $20 million in overspending), while glossing over their own utter incompetence as "inconsistent budget oversight."  

Sorry, "inconsistent budget oversight" is one or two instances of erroneous over-payment, not nearly a decade's worth of it. 

The district is quite simply refusing to own up to its own extreme negligence and accurately inform the public as to the real reason it now needs a referendum.  Lane Intermediate School and a few capital improvement projects didn't bankrupt West Allis-West Milwaukee; ten-plus years of reckless overspending did.

Still, the same School Board members who oversaw all or at least part of that recklessness now have the absolute gall to flat-out threaten taxpayers if they don't support the bailout referendum.

Look at this fact sheet on what the district will do if it doesn't get its money: 

That's right: If taxpayers don't pony up the cash to cover for the district's mistakes, it will punish them by taking away their children's music lessons and sports teams.

"That's a nice basketball team your kid's got there," the district is essentially saying. "It'd be a shame if somebody had to get rid of it."

That isn't a budgetary proposal; that's attempted coercion.  

"Oh, you like Sally's clarinet lessons? Well you'd better do what we want or we'll get rid of them. You like Mrs. Jenkins, the school librarian? Well give us our money or she gets it!"

This sort of strong-arm bullying would be bad enough in normal circumstances, but after a decade in which West Allis-West Milwaukee administrators blew through $20 million while its school board was oblivious to, deliberately ignored or, worse yet, was complicit in quite possibly the worst fiscal mismanagement in Wisconsin educational history.

That the district would now demand--not ask for, but demand--$2.5 million per year from taxpayers who played no role in blowing $20 million in ten years would be laughable if it weren't so insulting to the community that this school district is supposed to serve.  


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