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Milton referendum opponents offer advice on next move

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Jim Dayton
Thursday, November 9, 2017

MILTON—Milton residents who opposed the school district's failed referendum have advice for the school board on what to do next.

A handful interviewed by The Gazette differ on how to relieve crowding in district schools, but they agree something should be done.

And they all believe a new high school isn't the solution.

“Cutting it by ($17 million) didn't affect anything. Word got out. I wasn't the only one out there arguing against it,” said town of Harmony resident Barry von Falkenstein. “People are just kind of fed up with the school board.”

District residents soundly rejected Milton's $69.9 million proposal Tuesday night, with 55 percent of people voting against it. The margin of defeat was wider this year than for the $87 million proposal that narrowly failed in 2016.

Both plans called for a new high school and an addition at East Elementary. The added space and redistributed grades would have freed up enough room to relieve crowding, the district argued.

For some, a new high school was too much.

“It's a project that fits Madison but not Milton,” city of Milton resident Don Axelsen said. “Milton is not big enough for that. We can't afford it.”

Axelsen was “pleasantly surprised” by the voting results. He argued the school district should add classrooms and a cafeteria by expanding existing buildings.

He hasn't met anyone who believes Milton's school facilities should remain as they are, but he hopes the district realizes a new high school is not the answer, he said.

If the school board were to go down the same road again, he would continue to fight against it, he said.

School board President Bob Cullen told The Gazette on Tuesday it was too early to guess the board's next move. The board will discuss the results Monday at its next meeting.

Jim Naughton, who lives in the town of Milton, questioned why the district pushed for a new high school if enrollment studies projected an eventual decline. If the district did not have enough space for its students, but the number of students was expected to eventually decrease, it made no sense to pursue a new building, he said.

He was confident the referendum would fail. The opposition cohort is much larger than the school district believes, he said.

“They don't understand the depth of the dissatisfaction of the electorate. I'm not the only one that sees this as smoke and mirrors, I'll call it,” Naughton said. “They tell you one thing, but then they'll do another. It doesn't make any sense.”

He suggested the district rent or buy portable classrooms to sit outside permanent facilities.

Von Falkenstein said he attended class in portable rooms when he went to Milton Union High School decades ago. Doing that again is an option, as is an expansion project that would cost roughly $20 million, he said.

When von Falkenstein went to the polls Tuesday morning, he saw mostly older people inside Harmony Town Hall. He speculated older voters living on fixed incomes made the biggest impact on the outcome.

After a second failed referendum in as many years, the school board must now make even more of an effort to reach opponents. Milton school officials told The Gazette before the election they had tried to make the community feel more involved in the process.

Axelsen and Naughton said they felt the district had not listened to their concerns.

They wanted the district to have more discussions with their side. But they questioned whether that would happen and doubted the opposition would have much input either way.

Von Falkenstein believes attempting a second referendum in two years left a sour taste for many voters. He said he wasn't sure if the school administration could ever rebuild trust with the community.

“I think they've gone beyond the limit. It's going to take some new bodies on the school board,” von Falkenstein said. “Most of the existing school board has lost the respect of the general public because of the way they've handled this.

“I really don't know if they can get that back.”


Last updated: 7:34 am Thursday, November 9, 2017


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