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It’s third period at Jefferson Middle School and language arts teacher Jay Brazeau asks his seventh-grade students to turn to Chapter 12 in Rosa Parks’ autobiography. In a nearby classroom, math teacher Kelly O’Malley is asking her students to quiet down.

But unlike in other schools, Brazeau’s students can hear practically every word uttered in O’Malley’s classroom. As they follow along with Brazeau, his students also are trying to tune out the math lesson just a few feet away with nothing but bookcases and portable dividers to mute the sound.

“It’s a struggle,” Jefferson principal Anne Fischer said.

Jefferson was built in the late 1960s when it was trendy for school districts to build schools with an “open concept,” or no walls and doors in classrooms. It was supposed to help foster collaboration between teachers.

But it also translates into a lot of noise, distracted students and a potential security problem if teachers ever need to keep children away from a threatening person in the building. Couple that with a crumbling heating and cooling system and enrollment above capacity, and Jefferson is the worst-rated Madison school building by the Madison School District.

Learning environments like Jefferson’s won’t help the school district make the academic progress it needs, school board president Arlene Silveira said. That’s why, she said, the district and board members are proposing to voters on April 7 a $41 million referendum that would expand or renovate 16 of the district’s buildings.

It’s the 13th referendum proposal posed to Madison voters in the last 20 years and would be the 10th to pass if voters oblige, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

If approved, the referendum would raise property taxes about $62 on the average $237,678 Madison home for 10 years. The district is still paying off $30 million in referendum debt for the construction of Olson and Chavez elementary schools in the late 2000s, according to the district. The final payment, for the Olson project, is due in 2026.

The aggressive school district campaign to get the word out to voters about the proposal and a community group that has been knocking on doors advocating for its passage have largely been met with very little opposition.

“It’s really quiet,” said board vice president James Howard. “I guess we’ll just have to wait until April 7 to find out” whether it has community support.

Board member T.J. Mertz, who has worked closely with the pro-referendum nonprofit Community And Schools Together, said the board has received about a half-dozen emails questioning the increase in property taxes.

“But there is no organized opposition,” Mertz said. “Whether that’s a function of apathy, the political culture of Madison or the lack of a strong Republican Party (in the city), or whether this is a popular measure, it’s impossible to read in the absence of no organized opposition,” adding that there also has not been a conservative school board candidate in about six years.

The proposal comes at a time when the school district faces at least a $12 million gap in its $435 million operating budget for the 2015-16 school year. The maintenance work and $2 million in technology costs also included in the proposal would ease pressure on the district’s budget, Mertz said.

“These are facility investments that we need to make,” he said. “We’re not building Taj Mahals here. These are pretty basic things that we’re asking for, and it needs to be done regardless of what our other budgets look like. Some of this stuff is very long overdue and these needs aren’t going to go away. If we ignore them, it’s only going to get worse.”

The decision to ask taxpayers for additional help to address some of the district’s facility needs followed a 2013 report that showed seven schools over capacity and nine at or beyond that mark within five years.

Crowding

The district and school board members settled on a proposal to expand Hawthorne, Kennedy, Midvale and Sandburg elementary schools, and the shared Van Hise Elementary and Hamilton Middle school building. All five buildings are considered to be near or over capacity.

At Sandburg, teachers are converting storage rooms into spaces for learning. Lunch is prepared in the hallway and served in classrooms. Principal Brett Wilfrid last year spent $30,000 of his school’s budget to install doors between several classrooms to accommodate large classes.

Last week, Wilfrid’s office doubled as a health screening room, and in the past he has surrendered his office to the school’s speech and language clinicians, who needed to give up their office to accommodate a student with special needs.

With practically every inch of the building being used, one side effect is not having a dedicated place for students to go if they need to process an emotional event, he said.

“It’s not easy trying to find a quiet place to talk,” he said.

Sandburg would receive eight additional classrooms under the proposal. Hawthorne would receive four more classrooms and a new gymnasium; Van Hise and Hamilton would get seven additional classrooms by relocating the existing library. Five classrooms would be added to Midvale by building a new cafeteria.

Accessibility

The average age of Madison’s school buildings is 54 years, Silveira said. That means several buildings are not accessible for students or parents with disabilities because they were built before schools had to be made accessible.

The referendum proposal would make Allis, Franklin, Kennedy, Lake View, Lowell, Midvale, Randall and Shorewood elementary schools, and Spring Harbor middle school accessible to students by adding elevators, wheelchair ramps and lifts in some cases.

Part of the need to do so is to allow students with disabilities to attend their neighborhood school, according to the district.

“Every year, we have to transport students with various physical disabilities from one school to another because their neighborhood school is inaccessible to them,” student services director John Harper told board members last fall. “Every year, we have many family members who are unable to see their children perform at their school location because they cannot gain entrance to the school, so this plan helps us take another important step in creating more accessibility.”

Since October, the State Journal has repeatedly requested the number of students forced to attend a different school because their neighborhood school was not accessible, but as of last week the district had not responded.

Renovations

The most expensive project is an $8 million renovation to Jefferson, including more permanent partitions between classrooms and replacing the building’s elevator, electrical system, windows, doors, ceilings and lighting. Huegel and Mendota elementary schools each would get new windows, ceilings and heating and cooling upgrades among other fixes.

A long-awaited face-lift to East High School’s auditorium is also included in the proposal. The project is expected to cost $3.6 million and would update seating, add a soundboard, extend the stage and make dressing rooms accessible.

Long-term planning

Howard said the April proposal addresses the district’s most pressing needs and serves as the starting point for a longer-term facilities study. Fixing all of the district’s facility problems, without new construction, could cost as much as $100 million based on previous estimates, Howard said.

“We need to improve our facilities if we want to keep our population here,” he said. “We have invested less in our buildings than anyone else in Dane County. It’s really time to do it now.”

Part of that long-term solution could involve boundary changes, which were considered but not adopted before the school board voted unanimously to ask voters to expand crowded schools. District officials have said most of the district’s elementary schools are reaching capacity, making that option less effective. According to district data, seven elementary schools are below 80 percent capacity.

Howard said one concern he has with the short-term versus long-term approach to facility planning is whether the money the district puts into schools this time around will be moot if the district needs to replace a building a couple years down the road.

“I do think we have to be careful,” he said.

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.