Milton School District voters reject second referendum attempt
MILTON—A revised plan to build a new high school was not enough to sway Milton School District voters Tuesday, who rejected this year's referendum by a wider margin than last year's proposal despite a reduced price tag.
The $69.9 million plan to build a new high school and make an addition at East Elementary only garnered 45 percent of the vote. The sole race on the ballot, the special referendum election had 49 percent voter turnout among the district's 12,000-plus eligible voters.
The bulk of this year's $69.9 million would have been used to construct a new high school just west of the current facility. Adding that space would have allowed the district to redistribute its students throughout existing buildings and eliminate cramped classrooms and hallways, District Administrator Tim Schigur said.
At a gathering inside the school district office Tuesday night, district staff, teachers and school board members waited for the final results. The room turned quiet when the first voting totals were posted on large video boards and showed a considerable deficit.
All board members except Brian Kvapil and Karen Hall were at the watch party. The roughly two dozen people in attendance stared solemnly when the final tally flashed across the screens.
Schigur said he was disappointed with but not surprised by Tuesday's result.
“Knowing and seeing the challenges we have every day and for the last number of years, those challenges have not gone away and will continue to not go away,” he said. “That's where the disappointment is. There's the disappointment that the needs will not be met anytime soon.”
Last year, an $87 million proposal received 49 percent of votes. The margin of defeat was so thin that some referendum supporters suggested putting the same terms back on the ballot for another try.
While the district trimmed money off last year's referendum, the core of the proposal remained the same. Schigur said the new high school would have solved overcrowding issues, but it would not have been as large as originally proposed and would have used less expensive construction materials where possible.
Milton would have then rearranged its grade levels to better align with curricular needs.
The proposal also included an 8,000-square-foot addition at East Elementary that would have gotten all classrooms there out of the basement.
“This is the solution the board felt comfortable presenting to the public for their input. We still think it was the right solution,” School Board President Bob Cullen said. “The needs are still there, so you have to address the needs going forward.”
Milton has long argued a new high school would solve problems related to overcrowding.
In 2007, the school board formed a design team to explore overcrowding solutions. The design team eventually recommended building a new high school, but Milton scrapped those plans once General Motors closed its Janesville plant.
The district revived its pursuit of a new high school in 2014 and sought feedback from residents. While many agreed something needed to be done to fix overcrowding, the community splintered on how to achieve that.
Two advisory committees formed. One recommended a new high school and the other advocated for renovation and expansion.
After the $87 million referendum failed one year ago, Milton tried to make more of an effort to incorporate public feedback. Schigur previously told The Gazette listening to people and making them feel involved was just as important as cutting costs.
Such efforts were not enough Tuesday.
Cullen said the school board would discuss the referendum results Monday during its next board meeting. It was too early to speculate what the board's next move will be, he said.
Kvapil, who told The Gazette he voted against the referendum, expected the proposal to narrowly pass, he said.
He voted no because the price was still too steep. He was also afraid the district would have to ask taxpayers in the future to raise the revenue limit to accommodate other needs, he said.
Before he was on the board, Kvapil was the spokesman last year for the advisory committee that pushed for expansion instead of new buildings. He believes something needs to be done, just not at this cost, he said.
“I don't think anyone would disagree there's definitely needs within the school district and within the buildings. The disagreement is what those needs actually are,” Kvapil said. “We have such a diverse group of people within the community. What one group of people see as needs, another group of people see it as not being a need.”
Lance Fena, a town of Milton resident who voted against the referendum, suggested the school district use remaining money from an operational referendum passed last year for capital improvements.
“I think the taxpayers have made it clear with the survey, the first (capital) referendum and this referendum that they don't see the need for a new school,” Fena said. “It's the board and school administration's job to look at academics and learning versus just putting up the biggest brick-and-mortar structure they can get the voters to vote for.”
Fena, Kvapil and school district officials were all impressed by this year's turnout, considering there were no other races on the ballot like last time. The school district released a prepared statement thanking residents for voting.
Cullen said it had been difficult for him to predict whether the referendum would pass. But he went in optimistic.
“When you're as close to it as the administration, staff, students and the board are, you remain hopeful,” Cullen said. “The results are disappointing, but we go on.”