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Our Views: Milton should view problem from new angle

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Sunday, November 26, 2017

Milton school officials aren't eager to talk about redrawing district lines, but their insistence that a new high school is needed to alleviate overcrowding makes the once unthinkable more plausible.

Pointing to two failed referendums, some naysayers say the solution to overcrowding is obvious: Cede some portions of the Milton School District overlapping the city of Janesville to the Janesville School District.

By sending Janesville students to Janesville schools and Milton students to Milton schools—the logic goes—a new high school would no longer be necessary. Redrawing district lines would both save Milton taxpayers and make new space at Milton schools.

Furthermore, sending more students to the Janesville schools would help that district grow amid a declining enrollment trend. Both Janesville and Milton districts would seem to get something from the trade.

A map of the two districts appears to buttress the claim that the current arrangement is awkward. Families moving to northeast Janesville might find it odd their children go to Milton schools. Likewise, Milton residents might be surprised to know nearly 35 percent of Milton students live in Janesville.

But this is where redrawing district lines goes from being a good idea in theory to a difficult one in practice.

The biggest hurdle is current law, which sets a high bar for triggering consideration of redrawing district boundaries. A majority of residents living in the territory to be swapped would have to petition the districts, and both districts would have to approve the plan.

To expect Janesville residents living in Milton territory to file a petition assumes a great deal. For one, these residents actually voted in favor of November's failed $69.9 referendum, while Milton voters overwhelmingly opposed it. That suggests Janesville residents are in no hurry to leave the Milton district, and it's easy to see why.

New state report cards show Milton schools mostly perform at a high level, with one of its schools, Consolidated Elementary, scoring higher, 98.7, than any elementary school in the state. Several Janesville schools also received a high rating, but Milton is clearly doing its job well, leaving Janesville residents without motivation to leave the Milton territory.

Though changing district boundaries might be impractical, that doesn't mean the two districts cannot cooperate to better address each other's needs.

In general, school districts operate too much like little kingdoms, competing with each other for students to capture as much state aid as possible.

It's no wonder Milton District Administrator Tim Schigur eschewed The Gazette's questions about redrawing district lines. “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,” he stated last week in an email.

District reorganization is political kryptonite. To shrink is to lose money, and many Milton officials would probably be content to suffer from overcrowding than to pursue a fix involving the removal of some students from the district.

But maybe there is a third way—one that doesn't involve redrawing district lines but encourages Milton and Janesville districts to share resources. Both school boards should meet to figure out if they have common problems for which there might be common solutions. They won't know unless they try.

Overcrowding in Milton schools won't fix itself, and doing nothing shouldn't be an option for either the referendum's opponents or advocates. Now is the time for Milton officials to rethink their approach and brainstorm new ideas.



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