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Madison School Board moving forward with referendum planning amid COVID-19 pandemic

Madison School Board moving forward with referendum planning amid COVID-19 pandemic

Moving referendums forward

After pausing a decision on two referendums for the fall, Madison School Board members were in support Monday of taking up a vote to authorize the taxpayer asks sometime in June or July. A $317 million facilities referendum would include $280 million for renovations at the high schools, including replacing antiquated mechanical systems like the East High School boilers pictured above.

Weighing how the COVID-19 pandemic will financially affect the Madison School District and its economic pressure on taxpayers, Madison School Board members expressed interest Monday in moving forward with two referendums planned for the fall election.

After scrapping a vote this spring to authorize the referendums for the presidential election ballot, the board will now likely vote in June or July on whether to ask for more money in November — most recently proposed as a $317 million facilities referendum and a $33 million operating referendum.

Board members acknowledged the tough financial reality facing residents, but several members said the need to renovate aging school buildings and shore up the operating budget remains the same.

“These are not things I think we should be putting off,” board member Ali Muldrow said during an online Operations Work Group meeting. “We are talking about the integrity of our district.”

Board President Gloria Reyes, though, said while she supports the referendums, the board needs to be “cautious,” given how many people have lost their jobs or are on unsure financial ground.

The School Board sought in March to finalize the referendum questions, but the vote was scrapped as the public health situation worsened.

The majority of the $317 million facilities referendum — $280 million — would go toward renovating, repairing and adding onto the district’s four main high schools, each getting $70 million.

It would also include money to build a new elementary school on the South Side and consolidate the alternative Capital High, which is currently split between two locations, into the district-owned Hoyt School building on the Near West Side.

The proposed operating referendum would allow the district to exceed state-imposed revenue limits by permanently increasing its budget by up to $33 million, which would phase in over four years.

Chad Wiese, executive director of building services for the district, said the facilities proposal was a “big ask of the community before COVID-19.” But there are factors working in the district’s favor if it moves forward with building projects soon, he said.

If approved by voters, Wiese said, the money could be borrowed with “near zero” interest rates; several Dane County school construction projects will be ending within the year, creating an “incredibly competitive bidding market”; and the building projects could create hundreds of jobs.

Kelly Ruppel, the district’s chief financial officer, said potentially slower growth in the tax base caused by the coronavirus and low interest rates on borrowing would essentially balance each other out in terms of the financial impact a facilities referendum would have on individual homeowners.

Board members offered mixed opinions Monday on whether the district should pay for a new poll of voter attitudes toward the referendums in light of COVID-19.

Earlier this school year, the district hired an external pollster to solicit the thoughts of likely November election voters, finding nearly three-quarters of voters supported the facilities referendum and 55% backed the operating referendum.

Ananda Mirilli said she’s doubtful a new poll this spring would be useful to gauge the thoughts of voters in the fall given the quickly changing nature of the pandemic.

Savion Castro said he would be supportive of another poll, but said he wouldn’t be surprised if results were similar to the one conducted before COVID-19 given the community’s support of public education.

Even if the board OKs the referendums in June or July, Ruppel said the body could amend the ballot questions if things change. It would have to happen, ideally, before Aug. 17, she said.

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