If not now, when?
That’s the question facing Milton School District voters casting ballots in a Nov. 7 referendum to finance a new high school and other facility improvements.
Only a handful of new high schools have been built in Wisconsin since 2008, and the $66.8 million price tag for Milton’s new high school would make it a relative bargain. A recent JP Cullen analysis estimated the $209 cost per square foot for Milton’s proposal ranks below the inflation-adjusted price tags for high schools built in Prescott in 2014 ($221) and Sun Prairie in 2008 ($248). Only the Spooner high school built in 2008 ($197) is cheaper.
Opponents of last year’s failed $87 million referendum clamored for a better deal, and the Milton School Board delivered by lopping off $17 million, presenting a $69.9 million package. School officials found substantial savings by reducing the size of a proposed gym from four to three stations and replacing the gym’s brick facade with metal.
The proposal has been reduced by as much as 25,000 square feet.
Milton voters will be considering one of the leanest referendums put forth in Rock County in recent memory, and it’s now time to approve it. If voters reject it, we’re left to wonder what they’d find acceptable. Voters want any new high school to have walls and a roof, right? We’re not sure how else to save money on this project.
Rejecting this referendum risks undermining the district’s long-term interests. While conserving taxpayer dollars is important, so is investing in education. A balance must be struck, and districts perceived as making education a low priority have a harder time attracting new employers and families, ultimately leading to a lower tax base and higher tax rates.
Opponents of last year’s referendum portrayed school officials as favoring sports and adding too many frills to the proposal. The school board responded by cutting $17 million from the price tag. This year’s referendum represents a compromise—the best political outcome either side can hope to achieve.
The critics deserve credit for tirelessly scrutinizing both last year’s and this year’s proposals. They have ensured the new high school, if approved, would be modest, void of the sort of self-aggrandizing monuments that communities sometimes think they need. Should the Nov. 7 referendum pass, these critics will have saved taxpayers the $17 million difference between the two proposals plus interest on a smaller debt.
Unfortunately, many critics are still complaining. They sadly cannot see they’ve done their job. They won the debate over whether the previous referendum was too luxurious, but they are wrong in claiming the district can make do with current facilities.
As former and current school district employees have told Gazette reporters and stated on this page through their letters, current facilities are inadequate and crowded.
Beyond building a new high school, the referendum would free up space throughout the district, allowing the current high school to become a middle school. It would allow better groupings of elementary students, with preschool through second grades and third through fifth grades housed in the same buildings.
Should the referendum fail Nov. 7, Milton voters and community leaders will need to do some soul searching: What do they expect from their school district?
If not a new high school, then what?