Madison School Board members hope the public knows by March what referenda questions will be on the November ballot.
During a board retreat Saturday to discuss strategies for both a capital and an operating referendum in April, board members generally agreed they wanted to vote in March — before board member Kate Toews’ term is over and a new board member takes her place.
Toews is not running for re-election to Seat 6 in April, and some board members said it could be a complex topic for a new board member to walk into. Board president Gloria Reyes also said she wants the outreach and communication process to begin as soon as possible.
“I do strongly believe that if we’re going to start a process and strategy we should all have voted,” Reyes said.
Public input on the projects, presented Monday night during an Operations Work Group meeting, shows overall support for both, though there are some concerns about how the operating funds would be used.
Board members and district staff have been working with a plan for a $315 million capital referendum to renovate the four high schools, build a new school in the Rimrock Road neighborhood and relocate the alternative Capital High School to the Hoyt building. The same ballot could ask voters for up to $36 million in operating funds over four years. That would allow the district to exceed state revenue caps by $8 million in 2020-21 and 2021-22 and $10 million in 2022-23 and 2023-24, though some board members asked to go lower than that at least for the first school year.
That complicates this summer’s budget process, as the board will have to approve two budgets — one for if the operating referendum passes and one in case it fails — but it also presents an opportunity for the board to show voters its priorities and the cost to the district if it fails, board members said.
Board member Ananda Mirilli said they have to balance two approaches to explaining the referendum to the public: it being “the right thing to do” for social justice and equity as well as it being “the most economic and sustainable thing” to do.
The capital referendum would add $69 per $100,000 of property value to property taxes, while the operating would add $66 per $100,000 of property value.
Board member Savion Castro asked staff what year they could potentially “pare down” the operating referendum cost to avoid asking too much from the community, and staff are working on both a $5 million and $8 million dollar ask for 2020-21 to help the board make its decision in March.
“Looking at this ask, especially for folks on fixed income, it’s big,” Castro said.
District officials held a variety of in-person meetings and put out a survey on the potential referenda last fall and the School Board commissioned a professional poll to provide additional context.
The survey received 4,318 responses, including 132 from students, while at least 955 people participated in the various in-person sessions, according to a report from the district’s Research and Program Evaluation Office. Of those who responded to the survey, 89% were white and 55% were current parents of students in the district, according to the report.
The board’s poll, conducted by Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, reached 400 people last October.
All of the methods found general support for both the capital and operating referendum, but offered information that could help direct district leaders on outreach strategies in the coming months.
“There really is broad support from both the school communities as well as the voting community,” Toews said.
The district-led survey, for example, found support for the funding level of all four elements of the potential referenda. Specifically, 84% supported the high school reinvestment, 81% the Rimrock school, 79% the operating funding and 70% for the Capital High relocation. The report also indicated support was higher among students, parents and teachers who regularly interact with the district, while those who do not interact as often or did not explain their relationship to the district were less likely to support the initiatives at the proposed cost.
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Qualitative findings from the meetings and comments on the survey indicated three areas of focus for the operating referendum: concern about the cost, need for transparency on what the money would fund and funding priorities that directly affect students.
Research and Program Evaluation Office director Oriana Eversole cautioned School Board members that the district outreach “wouldn’t be a full representation of the voting community,” as it reached more people with close connections to the district. That, she said, would be reflected more in the polling, which showed support for the referenda by wide margins.
The operating referendum had 55% in support on the initial ask, but when respondents were provided more information about potential staff cuts without it, that rose to 66%. The capital referendum received 74% support initially, but that went down to 69% when specific tax figures were brought up.
“That speaks to how important our communications plan is going to be,” said board member Cris Carusi. “We need to get really strategic about how we talk to people.”
The difference between the budgets the board votes on this summer will be whatever amount of the November operating referendum would go to the 2020-21 school year.
Monday’s staff presentation offers a range of $5 million to $8 million in the first year that would have to be cut in the “does not pass” budget versus the “pass” version. Those cuts could come in a smaller base wage increase for staff and less money devoted to strategic equity projects like the adoption of new reading materials, according to the presentation.
“In a non-passing budget, I do not see a scenario where we can get base wage to the maximum limit,” MMSD chief financial officer Kelly Ruppel said.
Both budgets could include a $3 million cut in school and district staffing assuming a $5 million referendum ask, the presentation showed, which Ruppel said was based on enrollment drop and class size policy.
“One million dollars of that I’ve got targeted to central office reductions,” Ruppel said.
Neither version of the budgets includes an increase for employee benefits costs. Carusi requested some flexibility on that if the referendum passes, but acknowledged any increase cannot happen without it.
“If it does not pass, I think it’s just painful,” she said.
Board member Ali Muldrow echoed that sentiment.
"What we demonstrate through the options is that there’s a clear need for the operating referendum," Muldrow said. "I don’t think we could have two ideal budgets or we would not go to referendum.”
Staff plans to present both preliminary budgets to the board in April and begin a community feedback phase at that time. The board must approve preliminary budgets before July 1 and will approve the final budget in November after the referendum vote.
Ruppel said she was working with both a $5 million and $8 million impact from the referendum next year to give board members “room to do your work over the next couple months” before they make a decision on the referendum amount in March. Whatever amount they choose will be reflected in what is presented in April.
Toews said she'd push for the lowest possible operating referendum, even lower than $5 million if possible — though some board members said $5 million was as low as they would be comfortable with.
Ruppel made sure board members were okay with the potential cuts before she and her staff begin building the detailed budgets.
"We get to real heavy work at this point moving forward," she said.
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