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West High School, pictured here, is one of several schools that would be renovated under a facilities referendum the School Board hopes to get on the November 2020 ballot. 

The Madison Metropolitan School District will spend the next several months soliciting feedback from focus groups and community input sessions as it prepares to craft language for a facilities referendum aimed for the November 2020 ballot. 

The facilities referendum, which the board discussed at a work group meeting Monday night, could include renovations to the city’s four main high schools, consolidating and moving the alternative program Capital High to a new location, as well as a potential new elementary school on Madison’s south side that would affect students at Allis Elementary and Nuestro Mundo Middle schools. 

Data collection will come from multiple streams, according to Andrew Statz, the district’s director of research accountability & data use. District officials will have several types of focus groups comprised of community members, staff and students, as well as open community input sessions through the end of 2019 before presenting findings to the board in January 2020.

MMSD will also use an online survey to reach as many people as possible for feedback on the possible facilities upgrades and renovations. 

Board members expressed a desire to focus intensely on the upcoming referendum, and tabled for now the approval of a Long Range Facilities Plan that would have served as a “guiding document” for the district to think about its facilities needs beyond just what will be on the next referendum. 

To get on the November 2020 ballot, the board would have to approve the language used in the referendum question by May 25. The board discussed its interest on Monday in authorizing the referendum before the May deadline, possibly in March or April. 

The referendum could include more than asking taxpayers to fund facilities. An operating referendum approved by Madison voters in 2016 allowed the district to raise more than $25 million over the last several years, but funding from that vote runs out at the end of the upcoming school year. 

Not having an operating referendum alongside the facilities question in 2020 could make next year’s budget cycle difficult, as the board might have to decide potential cuts. The board approved a $463 million preliminary budget proposal last month.

“We’ll be faced with a choice this year as to whether we want to offer another operating-to-exceed referendum and we haven’t built that into the dialogue or feedback process thus far,” board vice president Kate Toews said. “We have been very focused on our capital referendum to improve and innovate our facilities.”

The board will likely start having more discussions about a potential operating referendum in the fall now that state funding for the next two years is set. 

The board also approved on Monday a transfer of $185,000 from a reserve fund to increase staff compensation.

The reserve fund cash, plus about $2 million in more-than-expected state aid for MMSD via Gov. Tony Evers’ veto authority, currently leaves employees at a base-wage increase of 2.32%, according to MMSD financial officer Kelly Ruppel.

Evers increased per-pupil spending by $84 million earlier this month when signing the state biennial budget.

The base-wage increase is higher than the 0.5% originally built into the preliminary budget that passed last month. 

The Madison teachers’ union has been in negotiations with the district for a base-wage increase of 2.44%, which is the maximum amount allowed under state law. 

Board declines to take any action against Gloria Reyes in response to ethics complaint

Board members voiced support for its president, Gloria Reyes, in her decision to participate in and vote on the school resource officer contract in June. Reyes was the subject of an ethics complaint filed last month by several former public officials who argued that Reyes violated the board ethics policy by voting on the contract that kept Madison police officers in the city’s high schools. 

Reyes, who hired an attorney to dispute the allegations, argued that she has no financial interest that compromised her ability to vote on the contract. A deputy mayor in former Mayor Paul Soglin's administration, Reyes currently works in the community development division of the city. 

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Reyes’ attorney, as well as MMSD attorney Matt Bell, said the school resource officer contract is a partnership and not a contract, further removing the possibility that Reyes violated the board’s ethics or conflict of interest policies. 

Though the board members in attendance (Reyes was not at Monday's meeting) did not take a formal vote on the ethics complaint, each member said they supported the findings Reyes’ attorney laid out in a memo released to the public last Friday.

Several board members noted that in the future the board could attempt to make board policies and definitions on what a “vendor” or “partner” is more clear and understandable to avoid any future ethics complaints. 

Reyes, in a statement Monday night after the meeting, said the ethics complaint was “frivolous” and “had no basis in fact or law.”

“As a woman of color in public service and as the first Latina to serve as President of the Madison School Board, I am familiar with heightened scrutiny that is sometimes unfair,” Reyes said. “Throughout my professional career, I have gone above and beyond in order to maintain the highest ethical standards.”

In a Facebook post, Reyes wrote that she “will not be silenced or intimidated by the select few ‘progressives’ in the city who continue to attack me for their own political motives.”

Reyes, who was first elected to the School Board in 2018, is a growing presence on Madison’s local political scene. Shortly after her School Board win, Reyes started Adelante, a political group that has supported electing candidates of color to local office in Dane County. 

“The reason I signed onto (the ethics complaint) was a general concern about ethics from the top to the bottom of American government, local to federal level, and that we need to tighten things up a bit,” Andy Olsen, a former Dane County Board member who filed the complaint along with Brenda Konkel and Andy Heidt, said on Monday. “There were a lot of reasons to raise eyebrows. We’re not asking for anyone to be punished or fined or whatever, just that (ethics) be addressed and fixed going forward.”  

 

Education Reporter

Negassi Tesfamichael is the local education reporter at The Cap Times. He joined the paper in 2018. He previously worked as an intern at WISC-TV/Channel3000.com and at POLITICO.