New high school remains focus of Milton's revised referendum

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Jim Dayton
Sunday, October 29, 2017

MILTON -- After an $87 million proposal to build a new high school failed narrowly last fall, Milton School District officials tried to figure out what went wrong.

Some district residents said $87 million was too much money. Others believed the district had prioritized wants over needs. And a handful thought the district should slap the same referendum terms on the ballot again; the proposal was only a few hundred votes short of passing.

Referendum round No. 2 reflects the school board's decision to make changes. This year's proposal trims the cost to $69.9 million by reducing square footage at the proposed new high school and by using less expensive construction materials where possible.

But constructing a new high school remains at the referendum's core. The district has long said a new facility is the “linchpin” to fixing crowded classrooms and hallways at all its buildings.

“The best way to free up space is to create a new space and then redistribute the kids,” District Administrator Tim Schigur said.

If the referendum passes, Milton would rearrange its grade levels. Elementary schools would host pre-K through second grade, and grades three through five would be housed at the intermediate level.

The current middle school would become a second intermediate school. The current high school would become the middle school, which would include sixth through eighth grades.

Redistributing students would free up multiple classrooms throughout the district. It would take years of growth to fill the space, Schigur said.

Some residents preferred the district make additions at each facility rather than build a new one. Milton explored the idea but realized it would take more than $100 million to do that, Schigur said.

Even with reduced square footage compared to last year, a new high school would free up enough space to solve crowding.

As Schigur puts it, this year's referendum scope is similar to last year's, just with less cost.

But some aren't convinced.

“I don't like it because there's too many loose ends, questions not being answered,” district resident Lance Fena said. “I don't think they're addressing true needs versus what people would consider wants.”

He voted no last year and plans to vote no again. The school district has tried to spin too many small issues in its own favor, and that's lost him, Fena said.

Others with similar views have told Fena the athletics and physical education space is too big in relation to the rest of the school, he said.

The district reduced the gym space from a proposed four-station facility last year to a three-station gym this year. That means one fewer basketball court.

School officials understand not everyone will support the referendum. They've gotten their own feedback, and they've seen negative comments or letters to the editor in newspapers.

District officials believe in the $69.9 million proposal, but if it's such a good plan, why are some voters adamantly opposed?

“In general, perhaps a resistance to change. There's a natural component to that,” Communications Supervisor Jerry Schuetz said. “Any time you look at a society or a community evolving and growing and developing, that there is understandable, associated fear or concern about that.”

And there are some who disagree with the district's definition of need.

Some people think including a gymnasium and pool is excessive. But the gym is a necessary classroom space, and after converting the current pool to more classrooms, the new one would be the only one in the city, Schigur said.

Schuetz hopes voters can at least consider the referendum with an open mind.

He thinks the district has done a good job listening to feedback and incorporating that into this year's proposal. Last year was the first time they tackled such a major plan, but in this second time through they understood the process better and learned from it, Schuetz said.

While the district has worked on quantitative changes such as reduced cost, the qualitative approach of making people feel like they've been heard has been an important shift from 2016, Schigur said.

Fena disagrees. He often participates in public comment periods at school board meetings, delivering thoughtful skepticism.

“I feel like sometimes I would be listened to more if I would talk to an empty wall. They look past you. It seems like it just goes in one ear and out the other,” Fena said. “I feel they had their mind made up two years ago, and the only thing they will listen to is suggestions on how to get a referendum passed.”

Schigur insists that's not the case.

“Our goal is not to pass a referendum. Our goal is to find a solution,” he said. “If we want to pass a referendum, let's put $20 million out there and we'll pass it, right? For what, though?

“We want something that's going to address something now and into the future.”

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