The Madison School Board pressed ahead Monday with two referendums seeking $350 million from property owners to overhaul the city’s four main high schools and buoy the budget amidst a COVID-19 pandemic that has created widespread economic uncertainty.
The board unanimously authorized two referendum questions for the Nov. 3 presidential election ballot: A $317 million facilities referendum largely focused on renovating and repairing the four main high schools and an operating referendum that could permanently raise the district’s budget by $33 million.
“We know we’re living in a different world than we were one year ago; we are very mindful of the financial struggles that so many families in our community are going through right now,” interim Superintendent Jane Belmore said during an online board meeting.
Belmore added the “community’s appetite for referenda hasn’t lessened in the wake of the health crisis we’re going through, but rather we’re learning that our public schools and the safety and academic achievement of our kids is more important now than ever.”
If both referendums pass — and the board uses its entire spending authority under state law — the owner of an average-value Madison home, now estimated at $311,500, could expect to pay $480 more in property taxes a year by 2023-24.
For more than a year, the district has crafted plans on how to redesign the high schools, solicited feedback on the highest needs at the decades-old buildings — the newest of which was built in 1965 — and hired developer J.H. Findorff and Son as the construction manager.
Belmore said the $70 million each for East, La Follette, Memorial and West high schools would “rejuvenate” buildings that act as community hubs.
Board member Ali Muldrow said the district would be borrowing money at a time of historically low interest rates and moving construction projects forward that could employ hundreds.
“I’m really proud and excited to be in support of both referendums,” she said.
The operating referendum — phased in over four years — could let the district raise state-imposed revenue limits by $33 million by 2023-24, which district officials say is needed with the financial uncertainty created by the pandemic and to pursue projects such as full-day 4-year-old kindergarten.
The proposed operating referendum comes as another such referendum expired at the end of the 2019-20 school year.
Kelly Ruppel, the district’s chief financial officer, said state education aid over the past decade “has been anything but stable.”
As the district braces for possible coronavirus-related cuts in state money as part of its $471 million preliminary spending package for 2020-21, Ruppel said the operating referendum could provide more financial security.
Board member Cris Carusi said some people with whom she has spoken advocated for the operating referendum to be higher, especially because the district’s preliminary budget for the upcoming school year scrapped cost-of-living adjustments and most raises for staff.
Voters have passed the last four district referendums by at least a 2-to-1 margin, and the asks for more taxpayer money come at a time when there has been strong support for school referendums across the state.
In April, 52 of the 57 school referendum questions on the spring election ballot passed, setting a near-record passage rate even as thousands of Wisconsin residents were being put out of work and businesses shuttered in response to COVID-19.
The majority of the facilities referendum, $280 million, would go to the four main high schools where old heating, cooling and electrical systems would be replaced; classrooms updated to modern standards; welcome centers redesigned; and school-specific projects constructed.
The $317 million spending plan would also deliver a $2 million pot specifically for green investments in the high school buildings, deliver a new elementary school and provide a renovated home for an alternative high school.
The referendum will ask taxpayers for $25 million to $30 million to construct a new elementary school in the Moorland-Rimrock neighborhood south of the Beltline.
Students living in the racially and economically diverse neighborhood currently have to take long bus rides out of the area to get to Allis Elementary School or the dual-language immersion charter Nuestro Mundo elementary.
The district has not yet decided if an elementary school in Moorland-Rimrock would be a new home for the Allis students or for Nuestro Mundo, which is currently housed in a leased building in Monona. The board is expected to take up the topic in August.
The last major component of the facilities referendum would be to renovate the Near West Side Hoyt School building for $6 million. It contains offices for the district’s community recreation department, but would become the new home of Capital High.
Now, students at Capital High, one of Madison’s two alternative high schools, are split between two locations — Lapham Elementary on the Near East Side and a leased storefront on the West Side.
The operating referendum would allow the district to exceed state-imposed revenue caps and raise more in property taxes. The referendum is structured to phase in over four years.
It would let the board increase the budget by $6 million in 2020-21; $8 million in 2021-22; $9 million in 2022-23; and $10 million in 2023-24 for a total permanent increase of $33 million.
While the board would have the authority to raise the budget by $33 million, it’s not required to do so and could levy less than the allowable amount. In 2016, voters approved a $26 million operating referendum, and the board used its authority to permanently raise the revenue limit by $22 million.
Ruppel said the operating referendum could give the district the ability to plan out projects for the next four years, including supporting arts and music classes, attracting and retaining teachers, and bringing in more culturally relevant curriculum.
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