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What ‘yes’ vote means for Madison schools referenda

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Madison East High School

MADISON (WKOW) -- Madison voters are being asked to make a big commitment to schools this election.

There are two questions on the ballot to support the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD). One is focused on building upgrades and the other helps balance the district's budget.

District officials say the questions are designed to be approved together.

"Investing in just the building but letting our staff and our programs be under-invested will not move MMSD forward for the future. On the other hand, if we were to just invest in the operating referendum and continue to let our facilities fall apart and not invest in them, it's going to be very hard for students to excel in school," said Kelly Ruppel, chief financial officer for MMSD.

Facilities Investment

The $317 million facilities referendum would pay for renovations at each high school, consolidate the district's alternative high school into one location and build a new elementary school.

The district would spend $70 million to upgrade each high school.

"It's really been decades since we've really invested in these sites," said MMSD's executive director of building services, Chad Wiese. "I think you can certainly see what's even happened to neighboring districts, in terms of what 21st century learning spaces look like. And we believe the time is right now to reinvest in our high schools."

East High School was built nearly a century ago and the aging facility has seen better days.

"There's some pretty old features. It's got a sort of historic charm to it but that's not necessarily something that appeals to your average student in the year 2020," said principal Brendan Kearney.

Kearney showed 27 News around the school Wednesday. He says cramped classrooms with decades-old equipment and furniture are getting in the way of learning.

The planned renovations will space out classrooms and bring in new equipment so students can focus on interaction.

"It's going to be opened up for more opportunities for students to collaborate with each other. There'll be major upgrades in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics areas," he said. "We'll also be looking at, ultimately, a building that as you walk around students can feel proud to be in and feel a sense of value in their education and see that their community and their school values them."

The school's heating and cooling system would also be upgraded in the remodel. Since the WWII era, the school has been heated by a boiler system that makes for uncomfortable classrooms.

"You're going see students wearing winter coats in one part and wearing t-shirts in another and that's not something they should have to think about in their educational environment," Kearney told 27 News.

Filling a Budget Shortfall

Meanwhile, the other question on the ballot is whether to approve a $33 million operating referendum that aims to fill a budget shortage, funding programs and keeping teachers on staff.

Before COVID-19 hit, the district was already anticipating a budget shortage of about $30 million in the next four years. The pandemic meant state budget cuts making that situation even worse.

"When enrollment drops, our budget will decrease simply because our enrollment drops. Now, what we hope is that this is only a one year trends tied to COVID-19 and we'll be able to get those revenues back next year. But we just don't know that yet," said Ruppel. "So, you could be looking at up to $40 or $48 million budget deficit over the next four years."

MMSD has frozen hiring of about 90 staff positions but district officials say they still need the referendum to get by.

If approved, the bigger budget would pay for new efforts like all day 4K.

"Students who attend a full day 4K program have really a boost in their pre-literacy skills and also social and emotional development before they go into 5-year-old kindergarten," said Lisa Kvistad, MMSD's assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.

The referendum would also help keep existing equity programs going. One of those that's running out of funding is a STEM Academy partnership with Madison College. It allows students to earn an associate's degree as they get their high school diploma.

"Our program is specifically designed to focus first and foremost on students of color and females that are underrepresented in the STEM and STEM-related fields. And we're also focusing on students that come from low income backgrounds or students that come from a family that they would be the first in the family to go to college, because we know this is definitely a game changer to be able to take advantage of college opportunities," said Cindy Green, director of secondary programs and pathways at MMSD.

If the referendum fails, some mental health and support services in schools would also be at risk. MMSD runs a behavioral health program in 16 schools that's served about 160 kids. Right now, the program is funded by a grant that expires at the end of the school year.

"We have a $225,000 funding gap and if the referendum does not pass and we're not able to reallocate funds, that would mean that we'd have to pull back that support from a number of our schools," said Jay Affeldt, MMSD's student and staff support director. "We're hoping the referendum could not only close that gap for us, but allow us to expand over the coming years into as many as 20 additional schools."

Costs to Taxpayers

The district is hoping taxpayers will see the value in these programs and upgrades and approve a hike in their bills.

The operating referendum would raise taxes by $27 every year, for three years, for each $100,000 of property value. So, the average homeowner would expect to see $81 more on their taxes each year.

The facilities referendum would be a one-time cost of $47 per $100,000 of property value, or about $140 for the average homeowner.

"We have not lost track of the fact that this is an incredibly difficult time for lots of people," said Wiese, as he talked about the East High School upgrades. "This is like the community owning a house. You know the east side of Madison owns this school. And there are times that you have to reinvest into it to make sure we can get another century out of the thing."

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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