Janesville52.2°

Economy, loss of GM could delay Milton referendum

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Stacy Vogel
June 22, 2008
— As a Milton resident and grandfather of children in the Milton School District, Marv Wopat believes the district needs a new building to help ease overcrowding.

But as a GM employee, he also knows all too well that now might not be the time to ask Milton residents for $76 million to build a new high school and remodel the old one.


“Right now, if they put that to a referendum, a vote, I think it’d be tough to pass,” he said. “The whole community’s kind of looking at putting the brakes on.”


The Milton School Board agrees. All seven members said they think a fall referendum to build a new high school is unrealistic, even though the high school design team will make its recommendations to the board in July. Some said even a spring referendum might be too soon in light of local economic woes.


“The economy in general is going to affect the timing of anything we do as far as a referendum,” board President Rob Roy said. “It wouldn’t make sense to have a question go before the voters when things are looking bleak.”


Things were looking positive when the board voted to pursue plans for a new high school last August. Milton enrollment was growing by about 100 students a year, and new housing developments were expected to push that rate even higher.


But since then, the national housing market experienced a sharp decline. In spring, two developers halted projects in the Milton School District that were supposed to bring 1,000 homes each.


Gas and food prices have skyrocketed, and several area companies have announced closings or layoffs in recent months.


June 3 brought the biggest blow of all, as General Motors announced plans to close its Janesville plant by the end of 2010, and possibly sooner.


The closing could have a big effect on Milton. More than 200 of Milton’s 5,600 residents work at the GM plant. That doesn’t include Janesville residents in the Milton School District who are GM employees.


“All communities are going to be affected,” Wopat said.


School board member Mike Pierce said the district will have to wait at least until fall, and probably longer, to even begin to see the effect GM’s closing could have on enrollment.


“Maybe we’ll have 80 new kids this year, but then next year, we won’t have any,” he said. “That’s the problem: If you build this big a referendum, if you don’t have the new houses and the growth, it’ll really hurt the taxpayers.”


Pierce said the district should wait at least a year before holding a referendum. Roy said spring probably would be the earliest the district would hold the referendum, and other board members said they don’t know yet when the district should hold it.


But while most of the board members agree the flagging local economy will delay a referendum, they disagree about other steps the board might take in light of the situation.


Pierce believes the board should look at ways to cut costs from the new building, such as building a smaller gym and working with the YMCA on a possible pool collaboration. He also believes the middle school can be moved into the existing high school building for less than the projected $7.3 million.


But fellow board member Jan Bue-Wells said the school board should focus on building a school that meets the district’s needs, not on penny-pinching.


“The design team has done a lot of work getting together their recommendation for a high school, and I don’t know that we’d chop apart their recommendations because we do want to do it right,” she said. “We don’t want to necessarily cut back on things and not build the proper building.”


Both Pierce and Bue-Wells said the board might look again at whether it’s best to build a new high school or a less expensive middle school, but others said they remain convinced a high school is the best choice.


The district will face problems if it waits, as well, board members said. Construction costs are climbing, and space is already tight at several Milton schools, especially the middle school.


Board member Bob Cullen suggested the board wait to hear what the design team has to say before jumping to any conclusions. The team is expected to make its recommendations at the school board meeting Monday, July 14.


“To be fair, I don’t think any of us should presume anything until we’ve had a chance to hear their recommendation, have some discussion and make our decision,” he said.


DESIGN TEAM TO MAKE RECOMMENDATIONS

The Milton High School Design Team has almost completed its work and plans to make its recommendations to the school board Monday, July 14, chairman Bill Wilson said.


The team has worked with Miron Construction and Plunkett Raysich Architects to design a $68 million high school. The team also will recommend the school include a geothermal heating system at a cost of $1.4 million.


The estimated cost to move Milton Middle School into the existing high school building is $7.3 million.


The team also will present options involving green technology and remodeling the smaller “green gym” at the existing high school building, Wilson said.


It’s the school board’s responsibility to choose a design and set a referendum, but the design team believes the district needs to move quickly on building a new high school, Wilson said.


“If the frame of mind is that the Janesville and Milton area is going to rebound, then this is something that needs to be looked at in a relatively short frame,” he said.


“If you put everything on hold, you’re really just saying the area is down for the count.”



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