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Saturday, November 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 35.0° F  Fog
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Better luck this time?
Backers are optimistic on school spending
on
Carol Carstensen: 'There's a sense that the board is really focusing on issues now.'
Carol Carstensen: 'There's a sense that the board is really focusing on issues now.'

On Nov. 7, residents in the Madison Metropolitan School District will vote on a referendum that includes building a new school on the far west side. The total package would hike taxes on an average home by about $29.

Although a similar referendum was defeated in May 2005, this year's ballot initiative may be the best solution to the growth and school-boundary issues that have dogged the district for more than five years.

Already, several Madison schools, notably Leopold elementary, are severely overcrowded. And city planners expect west-side growth to add 13,000 new dwelling units, twice as many as in the city of Middleton, over the next two decades.

The Nov. 7 referendum seeks $17.7 million to build a new elementary school for about 650 students on the so-called Linden Park site, west of County Highway M and south of Valley View Road.

Two other financing packages are part of the one-question referendum. The district wants to exceed state-imposed revenue caps by $2.8 million to expand Leopold, which is expected to be 16% over capacity next year. (If the referendum fails, the expansion will be funded through the district's operating budget.)

Finally, taxpayers will be asked to refinance $3.1 million in debt payments, which would free up more than $500,000 annually for future operating budgets.

'I've heard encouraging anecdotal evidence that there's more support from people who've told me they voted no last time but will vote yes this time,' says veteran board member Carol Carstensen. 'And I think there's a sense that the board is really focusing on issues now. That certainly helps.'

And this year, the measure is going to voters with unanimous support from board members. Given past dissent over spending projects, that's a strong sign of the plan's necessity.

In 2005, the school district sought $48 million in tax increases for three separate questions. Voters approved $26.2 million for maintenance, but rejected a plan to build a new school adjacent to Leopold.

On election night, board member Bill Keys told The Capital Times, 'I want everyone who voted no to walk up to a child tomorrow and say, 'I voted against you.'' (Keys' arrogance may have struck a nerve with many voters, who ousted incumbents in the two most recent board elections.)

In fact, the rejection owed in part to questions over whether creating one 'mega-school' was the best solution to sprawling growth.

The school board subsequently formed two task forces to study school assignments and boundary issues. The one representing the West and Memorial high school attendance areas met 12 times, held seven workshops and conducted four public hearings before recommending a new school as the best long-term solution.

'We looked hard at options that wouldn't require a referendum,' stresses Midvale parent Jerry Eykholt, a task force member. 'We looked for ways to balance out enrollment and find extra space. But because the housing patterns are very irregular, busing and realignments would cause a lot more problems than they'd solve.'

Whether voters will be convinced is another question.

Some supporters of the measure are concerned about the low profile of the ad hoc group formed to support the referendum. Community and Schools Together, or CAST, has created a Web site (www.madisoncast.org) but otherwise been largely invisible.

Meanwhile, the district's usual critics have tried to drum up opposition but have failed to raise substantive critiques.

Talk radio host Vicki McKenna and Don Severson of Active Citizens for Education have accused the district of low-balling dollar figures and failing to designate how budget savings would be spent. But if that's all McKenna and Severson have, it bodes well for the referendum.

If voters reject the plan, it will be a stunning blow to the school district and the school board. As of late, the board has engrossed itself in long hours of detailed policy debates ' something prior boards never managed because of infighting and grandstanding. It's in part a bid to strengthen community confidence.

Eykholt sees the district at 'a critical point,' in terms of its support from the community.

'The referendum is not only about the space issue. It's sort of about how this community supports the school district,' he says. 'The district needs to know from a planning perspective whether the community will help the district meet its bottom line.'

There's no question that boundary and growth issues have consumed Madison school officials, at the expense of issues regarding achievement, accountability and curriculum. November's referendum gives citizens the chance to move forward the agenda.

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