The question before voters in the Dodgeville School District comes with an economic and emotional price tag.
The Nov. 4 referendum will ask for $48 million to build a high school, convert the old high school to a middle school and turn the middle school into an intermediate school. The costs will mean an additional $562 a year in taxes for the owner of a $150,000 home.
The emotional part? If the referendum is passed, the district’s elementary school in the village of Ridgeway seven miles east of Dodgeville would be closed. The school houses 165 students, but 95 of those are all of the fifth-grade students in the district, the vast majority of whom are bused in from outside of the Ridgeway area. No other grade in the school has more than 14 students. The third-grade class has just eight students.
Despite the low numbers, many in Ridgeway are opposed to the district’s proposal.
“I can see why the district would look at the financial feasibility of keeping it open,” said Tom McGraw, a local dairy farmer who went to the elementary school in the 1970s and has a son who is a fourth-grader at the school. “It’s the heartbeat of the community. I’ve seen many small communities who’ve lost their school and it’s not a good thing.”
Dodgeville is among 38 school districts in the state with referendums on the ballot next month. The largest is in Racine, where a $127 million spending plan would upgrade schools over 15 years.
Seven of the referendums are in the area around Madison. The largest is a $54.6 million proposal for additions and improvements in the Oregon School District. Voters in the Dane County district rejected a $33 million proposal in 2012.
In Waunakee, a $44.8 million referendum is proposed to build a new intermediate school and remodel two elementary schools. A second question asks for $2.1 million over four years to pay for operations, increased technology and maintenance.
In Dodgeville, voters rejected an $8 million plan in 2011 to expand Dodgeville Elementary school but the current referendum addresses needs throughout the district.
The construction of a high school would increase learning space by 30,000 square feet, include a 600-seat auditorium, a three-bay gymnasium and a larger commons area that would reduce the number of lunch periods to two from three. By converting the middle school to an intermediate school, crowding would be reduced at the elementary and middle schools levels.
“I really think, long-term, (the School Board is) trying to do what’s in the best interest of this entire district,” said District Administrator Jeff Jacobson, who was hired in July. “They’ve tried to plan for a building that meets the community needs but is not the Taj Mahal. They’ve tried to keep the cost as reasonable as they can.”
Closing Ridgeway Elementary would save the 1,300-student district $100,000 a year in transportation costs plus $280,000 to $350,000 a year in staffing and mileage costs if grade centers were on one campus, according to a district study.
Ridgeway has a population of 646 and is the gateway to historic Hyde’s Mill built along Mill Creek in 1850. In the mid- to late-1800s, Ridgeway was rumored to have a ghost but today is known more for Ayers Furniture, founded in 1940.
The referendum is making the Iowa County village more tightly knit. The village board has not taken an official stance on the referendum but most members are encouraging voters to reject the plan, said John Steen, village president. In 2012, the village and the town of Ridgeway each chipped in $90,000 to buy a 13-acre property on the village’s east side. The hope is that the school district will build a school on the land. The two communities have said they would donate the land to the district.
“I’m willing to work with the School Board, but the solution they have right now is not well thought out,” Steen said. “I’d love to see the school (remain) open because it’s good for the community.”