Most Milton School Board members thought they had devised a referendum voters would accept—not too expensive, but enough to get a new high school built.
They were wrong, and so were we.
For a second time, the school board underestimated voter skepticism. Not only did the $69.9 million ballot measure fail Tuesday, it failed by a larger margin than last year’s $87 million proposal. The defeat was even more stunning given it happened in a special election, which typically favors a referendum’s passage.
We believed the district’s leadership put forth a credible case for building a new high school, and we believed, in fact encouraged, voters to recognize the long term value of improving education infrastructure. Clearly the district leadership was not effective in convincing their constituents.
But rather than wallow in self-pity, school board members and district officials should do some self-reflection. A referendum isn’t going to pass so long as district leaders continue to advance plans that voters aren’t willing to support. As much as it might pain some referendum supporters, they need to listen more closely to what the referendum’s opponents are saying.
In other words, stop trying to bend the voters’ will and instead bend to the will of the voters.
That message should have been received after Brian Kvapil, one of the main opponents of last year’s referendum, won a seat on the school board in April, defeating three-term incumbent Jon Cruzan.
To be sure, The Gazette is as guilty as anyone for playing down the opposition’s strength. Kvapil told The Gazette in July that passing another referendum wouldn’t be as simple shaving off several million dollars. He noted district taxpayers already felt stung by the passage last year of a $2.5 million operational referendum. The resulting higher tax bills might have soured support for Tuesday’s $69.9 million proposal. In retrospect, last year was likely the district’s best chance for getting a new high school approved.
From Day One, Kvapil has been advocating for more modest improvements to district facilities, addressing security and space issues without building a new high school.
District administrators have said remodeling district buildings wouldn’t be cost effective or address the district’s needs, but if the majority of voters disagree, district administrators have little choice but to rethink their position. Even if remodeling is not ideal, the fact is many school districts remodel their schools, and following two stinging referendum defeats, it doesn’t make sense for district officials to claim it cannot be done in Milton.
Voters last year rejected plans to build a more lavish new high school (with four gymnasium stations and a brick facade) and Tuesday rejected a more modest one (with three stations and a metal facade). The notion that the district could win voter support if only it figured out a less expensive plan seems naive after Tuesday’s blowout. To try to push a third referendum for a new high school could result in something worse than defeat. It could lead to a taxpayer revolt, potentially expanding Kvapil’s and his allies’ influence. As it stands, referendum opponents seem poised to pick up more seats in the next school board election.
Referendum backers must face reality and acknowledge a new high school, at this point, isn’t going to be acceptable to voters. We still believe a new high school is the best solution for the Milton School District, but school officials who dismiss Tuesday’s results do so at their own risk. The voters have spoken, and they deserve to be respected.