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Divisions remain as Milton School Board moves on from failed referendum

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Jim Dayton
Tuesday, November 14, 2017

MILTON—Community division simmered Monday at the first Milton School Board meeting after another failed facilities referendum, with some expressing disappointment and others complaining about school district tactics.

But all sides vowed to move forward less than one week after voters handily rejected a $69.9 million proposal to build a new high school and make other district upgrades.

How quickly the district will proceed remains uncertain.

“I have a sense there’s still a lot of intense feelings in regards to the solution," school board President Bob Cullen said. "I’m also optimistic this district will find a solution, but it won’t be tonight, probably won’t be tomorrow, and might not be a month from now or the first of the year. We all need to take a collective breath as a community.”

The $69.9 million proposal received only 45 percent of voter support. In 2016, an $87 million referendum received 49 percent approval, falling short by a few hundred votes.

Most board members shared their disappointment and said they were hopeful the board could find a new solution.

Betsy Lubke suggested bringing back the strategic planning committee. Karen Hall said she wanted to hear directly from residents about alternatives.

Don Vruwink said he had friends who voted against the proposal. He didn’t want to condemn their decision, saying many "no" voters were good people who wanted to help kids.

Tom Westrick thanked those who voted and said it was now up to the board to find a new solution. But he said he was upset about divisive comments that affected public perception of the board and district.

“It’s really easy to throw stones without being at the meetings and knowing true facts,” Westrick said. “It’s easy to throw stuff out there and cast doubt and question what we do.”

He also said the board does not receive enough praise for the good work it does, such keeping the district's tax rate low. The board recently approved a 2017-18 tax rate of $8.41 per $1,000 of equalized property value. That’s 75 cents lower than last year’s $9.16 rate.

Cullen also stuck to the common theme of disappointment, but he encouraged board members to unite around future proposals.

“Once a decision is made by the board, whether unanimous or not, it’s important the board get behind that decision,” Cullen said. “Because that’s what a good board does, whether you’re unanimous or 4 to 3.”

Board member Brian Kvapil, who told The Gazette last week he voted against the referendum, said there was a solution the district and its taxpayers could support. But finding it would be difficult, he said.

Public comment exemplified that.

Resident Lance Fena said the $69.9 million proposal was “window dressing” for the district’s wants.

Joy Myers and her son Todd complained of teachers using class time to advocate for the referendum. Hallways displayed pro-referendum banners, Joy said.

“These tactics push the boundaries of ethically acceptable,” she said. “I do not find them acceptable at all.”

Fena and the Myers family received a round of applause after they finished. So did Milton East Principal Jennifer Cramer, who spoke on behalf of the referendum and said both sides needed to help each other.

Cullen said the board could consider hosting a formal listening session like it did last year to gather community input.

Westrick said that was a possibility, but the board has already collected plenty of feedback.

“I’m not saying we can’t do that again. But we need plans, we need specifics, instead of ‘We can’t spend that money,’” Westrick said. “Well, how much money do you want to spend and how do you want to spend it?”



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