Julian Thomas Elementary School, left, and Janes Elementary School in Racine. Both schools were built in the 1850s. The Racine Unified School District plans to close Janes and construct a new school. (Photos via RUSD)
Julian Thomas Elementary School, left, and Janes Elementary School in Racine. Both schools were built in the 1850s. The Racine Unified School District plans to close Janes and construct a new school. (Photos via RUSD)

Historic referendum passed by only five votes

The Racine Unified School District is not wasting any time moving forward with plans funded by its historic $1 billion referendum, even as a recount begins.

The referendum, which passed by just five votes out of about 34,000 cast, will give the struggling district up to $42.5 million annually through the 2050-51 school year to fund improvements to each of its nearly 30 schools, some of which date back to the 1850s. 

District staff will immediately begin establishing a district-wide “standard of care” to determine exactly what upgrades each school needs, said Shannon Gordon, RUSD’s chief operations officer.

Projects could begin as soon as next year, she said.

The referendum enjoyed broad bipartisan support from Democratic Racine Mayor Cory Mason, city aldermen, and Republican CEOs of local companies. However, the editorial board of the Racine Journal Times urged its readers to vote against the referendum, arguing that improved buildings will not translate into better student achievement (countless studies going back decades have proved that argument wrong).

It’s unclear if the editorial had any effect on public opinion, but Gordon acknowledged the close results demonstrated a great amount of concern with the cost. The funding is set to replace expiring debt and keep the school tax rate flat, but with property values in Racine County increasing, that does not necessarily mean taxes will not go up.

“I think we anticipated that half our community was really committed to supporting, and the other half was struggling with the reality that their property taxes are growing because their assessment is increasing … and it was difficult for them to distinguish their assessment going up versus what the district was charging in taxes,” Gordon said.

The district anticipated a recount and “recognizes that it’s just one more step in the process,” Gordon said.

“We anticipated that it would be close,” she said. “Certainly, we weren’t hoping that it would be this close. We view it (the recount) as a natural part of any election process that is this close, that our community has the right to be assured that their vote counted.”

The district serves all of eastern Racine County’s municipalities, for a total of about 140,000 residents. 

Racine’s referendum was one of almost 60 on ballots throughout the state last week. Of the 53 districts that have so far filed results with the Department of Public Instruction, only five had their referendum fail.