Redrawing Milton School District boundaries not as easy as it looks

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Jim Dayton
Thursday, November 16, 2017

MILTON—Some Milton School District residents and others believe the long-sought solution to overcrowding is simple—redraw the school district boundaries.

The idea, suggested in The Gazette's Sound Off column, web comments and other places after the failed Nov. 7 referendum, calls for removing the city of Janesville from the Milton district. Janesville schools for Janesville kids and Milton schools for Milton kids, the thinking goes.

In reality, making such a change is far more complicated, said state Department of Public Instruction spokesman Tom McCarthy.

A Milton graduate, McCarthy knows firsthand how much the city of Janesville affects the Milton School District. Much of Janesville's northeast side extends into the Milton district, and it would be highly unusual for a school district to transfer such a large swath of land to a neighbor, he said.

Milton School District officials declined to comment for this story. In an email, District Administrator Tim Schigur said talking about altering district boundaries was too complex to discuss right now.

“It is a conversation I'm not yet prepared to have with the media, unless or until the board of education has any interest in the topic and directs staff to begin exploring the concept further,” Schigur wrote in the email.

The Gazette was unable to reach school board President Bob Cullen for comment.

The district did provide data showing 34.6 percent of its students live in the city of Janesville. Janesville contributed 32.2 percent of the district's tax levy in 2016.

The Department of Public Instruction provides multiple ways for school districts to alter their boundaries. The amount of property involved would make any potential Milton-to-Janesville transfer a large territory detachment, McCarthy said.

Under that definition, a majority of electors within that territory would need to petition the Milton School District to leave and join Janesville. Both school boards would have to approve the exchange.

No referendum would be required unless either board decides to have one, or if enough residents in either district file a petition to do so, according to state law.

But the city of Janesville was the only school district municipality to vote in favor of the recent $69.9 million referendum, with 53 percent supporting it. Nearly 60 percent of voters in the district's eight other municipalities rejected the proposal.

The numbers indicate Janesville residents living in the Milton School District—the ones needed to jump-start this move—are not a rebellious group eager to depart.

Besides a territory exchange, the districts could consider consolidation.

Consolidation does not happen often, but it has occurred twice in Wisconsin in the last two years. Both involved K-8 districts that feed into Hartford Union High School northwest of Milwaukee.

Both school boards would need to approve consolidation. Like a large territory swap, a referendum would not be required unless requested by the board or the electorate, according to state law.

McCarthy said there is no common reason for school districts to reorganize.

“The genesis for why people want to use it is different,” he said. “It's not always 'I want to shed kids' or 'There's overcrowding.' Sometimes it's open enrollment always going to another district.”

Open enrollment is a relative wash between Milton and Janesville—213 Janesville district residents enroll into Milton, while 305 Milton district residents enroll out to Janesville, according to numbers provided by the Milton School District.

Janesville Superintendent Steve Pophal said his district has not discussed anything related to a territory swap or consolidation. He was not sure whether the Janesville School Board would ever consider such a move.

But he understood adding a large piece of land to the district would immediately overcrowd Janesville schools on the city's northeast side.

“It's not a simple solution for either district. It's not something you can do quickly,” Pophal said. “It's a big, complicated thing.”

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