The Madison School Board signaled support Monday for a $317 million facilities referendum and a $33 million operating referendum, setting up the board to finalize the ballot questions later this month for the November election.
With several options on the table, board members expressed broad support for a slightly larger facilities referendum that would include more money for projects focused on sustainability and energy efficiency. Additionally, the board gravitated toward a smaller operating referendum than had been proposed.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” board member Kate Toews said during an Operations Work Group meeting. “Investing in kids is the future; investing in the climate is the future.”
Monday’s meeting was the last for the board to ask for any significant changes to the referendums before the body votes March 23 to authorize putting the two questions on the same ballot with the presidential election.
Previously, district staff had proposed a $36 million operating referendum that would allow the district to exceed state-imposed revenue limits and collect more in property taxes.
But the board asked the district to explore a smaller referendum, and staff presented four options — $36 million, $33 million, $32 million and $31 million — all of which would phase in over four years.
The $33 million referendum would allow the district to raise the revenue limit by $6 million in 2020-21, $8 million in 2021-22, $9 million in 2022-23 and $10 million in 2023-24.
But board member Ali Muldrow said just because the district would have the ability to levy up to $33 million in new money by 2024, it doesn’t mean the board has to, especially if more state or federal money becomes available in the future.
“We retain the right not to tax,” she said. “Passing the referendum does not demand we utilize the funding.”
The proposed November operating referendum comes as another such ask expires this year. In 2016, voters approved a referendum allowing the district to raise as much as $26 million over four years. The district has used the authority to permanently raise the revenue limit by $22 million.
Kelly Ruppel, the district’s chief financial officer, said the district may need to make millions in cuts to its budget over the next four years if a new operating referendum is not passed.
She said money from a new referendum could let the board pursue projects such as funding a full-scale introduction of new phonics-focused elementary reading materials, expanding programs for students at risk of not graduating and piloting full-day, 4-year-old kindergarten.
If the board were to use all $33 million in taxing authority, the owner of an average-value home in the district — worth approximately $300,000 — would pay an additional $320 in property taxes by 2023-24.
For months, the board has considered a $315 million facilities referendum, largely focused on renovating the four main high schools. But board members on Monday supported an extra $2 million in the plan to focus on sustainability efforts.
With the added money, the four high schools could each have $400,000 for solar projects instead of $150,000 under the original proposal. The $2 million could also go toward electric-vehicle charging stations at the high schools and “mindfulness spaces” for students and staff.
Chad Wiese, the district’s executive director of building services, said the solar projects proposed in the facilities referendum would pay for themselves in energy cost savings within 12 years.
Ruppel said the $2 million would add “pennies” to the tax bill of an average-value house.
A $317 million facilities referendum would mean owners of an average-value home would annually pay approximately $140 more in property taxes over the 22 years it would take to pay off the debt.
If the facilities referendum is put on the ballot — and approved by voters — it would likely be the largest capital referendum in state history.
The main components in the facilities referendum are:
- Renovating, repairing and adding on to the four main high schools, spending an even $70 million at each — East, La Follette, Memorial and West.
- Building a new elementary school in the Moorland-Rimrock neighborhood south of the Beltline for $25 million to $30 million.
- Consolidating the alternative school Capital High from its two current locations into the district-owned Hoyt School building on the Near West Side and renovating it at a cost of $6 million.
- “I kind of came into this thinking this is a lot of money and this is a huge ask of our taxpayers,” said board member Cris Carusi. “If we don’t keep up with the suburban districts in terms of the quality of our high schools and facilities students have available to them, whether it’s bathrooms or science labs, we’re going to lose kids eventually to the suburbs.”
Still left to be decided is whether the proposed elementary school would be a new home for the dual-language elementary charter Nuestro Mundo or a traditional neighborhood elementary school.
Carusi said she wants the board to make a decision before November on how the new elementary school would be used.
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