Milton capital referendum would build new high school

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Jim Dayton
Wednesday, November 2, 2016

MILTON—Milton School District residents will decide Tuesday whether to commit $87 million toward the construction of a new high school and other safety, security and maintenance upgrades across the district.

The capital referendum is one of two district referendum questions on the ballot. The other question would allow the district to exceed state-imposed revenue caps by $2.5 million each year for five years, beginning with the 2016-17 budget.

If the capital referendum is approved, its tax impact would begin with the 2017-18 budget.

The district’s current tax rate is $7.52 per $1,000 of equalized valuation. The operational referendum would add a projected $1.24 to this year’s tax rate, and the capital referendum would add an estimated $1.77 to next year’s rate. If both referendums are approved, district residents could see a tax rate of $10.53 per $1,000 of equalized valuation beginning in the 2017-18 budget, according to district estimates.

Barry Brandt, a spokesman for Vote Yes for Kids, a group advocating for the passage of both referendums, said this capital project is a financially responsible move that balances the district’s needs with taxpayer concerns. He noted the tax rate has fallen each of the past three years and said the district needs to take advantage of low interest rates.

“It’s never going to be cheaper to do these things. The needs will be there regardless. If we wait, it’s just going to become more expensive,” he said. “Ultimately, that means the cost to taxpayers, from a historical perspective, will be better to do it now.”

Brandt was a member of the Facilities Advisory Community Team, or FACT, that explored possible facility solutions and ultimately recommended a new high school. FACT committee members believed a new high school was the “linchpin” to alleviate overcrowding, he said.

The existing high school would become the new middle school to make the best use of existing facilities. Buildings would be separated into K-2, 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12 grades, which would be a more effective grouping of curriculum levels, he said.

Rearranging grades would create new, flexible spaces, particularly for science lab needs, to promote collaborative learning. This has replaced ineffective, lecture-based teaching methods, Brandt said.

Brian Kvapil has been an outspoken opponent of the capital referendum. The district could alleviate overcrowding by building more additions, which it has already done several times at the high school. While the district has provided cost estimates, it is uncertain what the project’s full cost would be for taxpayers, he said.

One of Kvapil’s central critiques of the $87 million capital referendum is that part of it would go toward construction of a new fieldhouse and pool for athletic events. This would cost $20 million, he said.

Kvapil was a part of FACT but split off to form his own referendum study group called Citizens Commission on School District Facilities. While on FACT, the new fieldhouse became a motivation for other members and blinded them to other alternatives, he said.

“This referendum is all about a $20 million fieldhouse that’s way too exorbitant and too much of a want. We don’t need a $20 million fieldhouse. We need to fix our schools,” Kvapil said. “There has been no option that was even explored that did not include a $20 million fieldhouse. That’s irresponsible.”

Brandt said the fieldhouse and pool would be part of students’ physical education experiences and that athletics did not take priority over academics at FACT meetings.

“If you were present during the discussions we had, I wouldn’t say we didn’t ever talk about (a new fieldhouse and pool), but the basis was about curriculum, overcrowding and flexible learning spaces,” Brandt said. “The reality is if you’re going to build a new building, you’re going to build a new gym.”

Kvapil said someone on FACT proposed turning the high school’s current gymnasium into a two-story science lab to account for classroom space needs and then building a new gym, but the idea was rejected.

Kvapil is concerned the school district’s “connections” to various Milton youth sports organizations led to a prioritization of athletic facilities. He considers most members of Vote Yes for Kids to be sports supporters, and he said the district is emphasizing athletic wants rather than academic needs because of that.

While he does not oppose the idea of a new high school, Kvapil said the proposed referendum terms are not the right solution. The school district needs to make facility improvements, but for $87 million, it could do much more if it removed the fieldhouse, he said.

Instead, he wants the school to focus on safety, security and disability access upgrades. Those are included in the capital referendum, but Kvapil does not believe they go far enough to fix deferred maintenance issues across the district.

“I would like to see the district actually fix these things so that they don’t have to come back to the public for another referendum and ask for more money,” he said, referring to the possibility of another operational referendum in the future. “I believe the district will have to do that under the current plan.”

Brandt believes the referendum will provide sufficient upgrades to the district’s failing infrastructure. The district has not made a significant investment in its infrastructure in “decades,” pushing boilers and other systems to the end of their usefulness, he said.

Approving the capital referendum would create a “domino effect” that would resolve the district’s mechanical and safety issues, alleviate overcrowding and increase the number of flexible learning spaces, Brandt said.

“When we look around the room, generations built schools for other generations,” he said. “It’s time for this generation to step up and make an investment for the kids of Milton School District.”

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