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Future school site in Veridian subdivision

The Madison School District on Monday voted to submit an offer to purchase an 8-acre parcel in a Veridian Homes development on the Far West Side for a possible future school site, marked in blue, for about $2 million. 

At their last regular meeting of 2017, Madison School Board members on Monday narrowly approved submitting an offer to buy land in a Veridian Homes development on the Far West Side for a possible elementary school.

The board voted 4-3 to submit an offer of $2,050,000 for the 8-acre site in Veridian’s future Acacia Ridge subdivision, located north of Valley View Road and east of South Point Road. Board members voting for the proposal were president James Howard, vice president Anna Moffit, Kate Toews and Dean Loumos, while members T.J. Mertz, Mary Burke and Nicki Vander Meulen voted no.

The purchase, if it goes through, would not close before Dec. 31, 2018, and is contingent on final board approval.

Staff noted the district doesn’t currently own land for new schools on the Far West Side, despite projected residential growth in the area of 1,100 students in the Memorial High School attendance area by 2037.

If projections hold up, existing elementary schools in the area would be unable to handle the growth, creating the need for a new school there in perhaps the next seven to 10 years, according to the early outlines of a long-range facilities plan floated by staff to board members last week.

On Monday, staff stressed that a vote to submit an offer to purchase the land didn’t mean the board had to buy it.

“Under an offer to purchase, the board is not bound to close on the deal,” district budget director Mike Barry told board members on Monday. “You have an opportunity to walk away at multiple points in the process.”

Board members opposed to the proposal said the district needed to do more research on other sites before recommending the board submit a purchase offer on one. They also noted a need for more public input and said the proposed site was too close to an existing district school, Olson Elementary.

“At this time, committing to a particular site (for future building) would be foolish,” Mertz said. “We’re supposedly getting (the land for) below-market prices but I think it’s a far better deal for the developer.”

Vander Meulen said the board hadn’t heard enough from members of the public, and argued the proposed school site was “too close to schools that we already have.”

“One thing I would never do is look at just one site (and then make a purchase offer),” Burke said. “It feels very strange to me, especially if this is $2 million out of the general fund, that we have not looked at other options.”

According to board documents, the site was selected by staff because it “best meets the criteria for an optimal school site, including road access from three sides. ... Architects at PRA, a leader in K-12 projects, found the parcel very satisfactory as a future school site.”

Board members who supported making the offer to purchase stressed that the board could still walk away from the deal or the district could use the site for a variety of uses other than a new school, if enrollment projections don’t turn out as expected and a school isn’t needed.

“What we would have is an asset,” board member Dean Loumos said. “If we decide to build a school there or decide to go somewhere else, we have a valuable asset that we could sell. I’m going to at some point insist that we stop renting buildings to do alternative programs.”

In other business, the board adopted a formal class size policy for the school district that largely codified existing practice. The policy calls for maximum class sizes of 20 or 23 for students in grades kindergarten through third, 28 in grades fourth through fifth, 30 in grades sixth through eighth and 30 in grades ninth through 12th. In grades K-3, the lower limit would apply in low- income schools.

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Karen Rivedal is the education beat reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.