The Janesville School Board voted to hire a consultant to help them with referendum planning, but not without dissent and not without members making it clear they weren’t sure whether they would ultimately support a referendum.

Board members voted 8-1 to hire the Donovan Group, a Milwaukee-based firm that specializes in school communications. Kevin Murray voted no.

Hiring the company will cost $30,000 plus printing and postage for surveys.

The district is considering a referendum to help pay for some or all of its maintenance needs. A report from Unesco, a Madison-based management company, outlined an estimated $130 million in projects for needs ranging from replacing boilers to asbestos abatement. Of those projects, Unesco classified about $77.84 million worth in “alert” or “alarm” categories.

The district has already done about $15 million worth of the $130 million total Unesco identified, district Chief Financial Officer Dan McCrea told the board. The current budget for maintenance work, outside of custodial work and capital improvements, is about $1.4 million a year.

“So $1.4 million into 100 and some million—I don’t think that’s a timeline we can necessarily afford,” McCrea said

The Donovan Group has already provided a sample roadmap for a fall 2020 referendum. That timeline calls for community meetings, surveys, a social media campaign and mailers over seven months. McCrea said the sample roadmaps were just that—samples.

“There will be a number of go or no-go moments in the upcoming months,” McCrea told the board.

In other words, hiring the consulting group does not make a referendum vote inevitable.

Murray told his fellow board members he wasn’t willing to vote for the consulting group. He said he was concerned that the district didn’t bid out the project and about the effect of the city’s recent property reassessments.

“I’m really anxious to see my tax bill,” Murray said. “And I’m really curious what the rest of the community is going to say to me once they get their tax bills.”

He argued it was too early to think about hiring a consultant.

“I’m concerned we’re paying $30,000-plus and we—and I—don’t even know what we’re talking about. Is it for $50 million or $110 million?” Murray asked. “I don’t like spending taxpayers’ money on a litmus test to ask the taxpayers ‘How much pain can we get out of you? What’s your threshold?’ To me, that’s what we’re asking.”

Cathy Myers said she, too, was concerned the district had not gone out for bids. But as a member of the finance committee, she reminded her colleagues that they were talking about maintenance of older buildings, not new building improvements.

“As a teacher, I can tell you that there is a direct correlation with the quality of the facility and student achievement and the student experience,” Myers said.

Board member Michelle Haworth wanted to make sure the Donovan Group wouldn’t have a financial interest in pushing a referendum or in a referendum passing or not passing.

McCrea said the Donovan Group’s fee would not change if a referendum passes in the future.