Dull is one way to describe the list of proposed upgrades for the Janesville School District.

And that’s a good thing, in terms of the district’s ability to pass a referendum for voter permission to pay for the upgrades.

Just ask the Milton School District how easy it is to pass a referendum to buy something new and shiny, i.e. a new high school. Not very. That district’s referendum failed not once but twice.

Milton succeeded, however, in persuading voters to approve an April referendum to repair and upgrade current school buildings.

Janesville School Board member Greg Ardrey is correct in saying Janesville’s $120.43 million list is about maintenance. A new report breaks down the proposed projects into four categories: acceptable, caution, alert and alarm. About $78 million worth falls into the “alert” or “alarm” categories.

There’s no talk of remodeling locker rooms or installing Olympic-sized pools. This list tackles some of the least glamorous aspects of school buildings: asbestos, sprinkler systems, boilers, doors, air handling units, drain traps, lighting, windows and roofs.

The good news is the district’s buildings were made to last and have “good bones,” according to Unesco, the firm hired to assess building conditions. “Most SDJ buildings are only halfway through their designed life, meaning they are excellent candidates for revitalization.”

Voters might be tempted to reject such a referendum, believing maintenance items can be delayed. That would be shortsighted, as anyone who decided to put off fixing a house’s crumbling roof knows. Deferring maintenance often proves costlier in the long run.

Besides, many of the proposed upgrades for Janesville schools would pay for themselves over 20 years. Energy management projects across the district would result in thousands of dollars in savings, according to the Unesco report. For example, sealing Marshall Middle School to stop air leakages would cost $31,100, while it would save $82,700 over a 20-year period.

It’s too bad the school district must contemplate a referendum to pay for energy efficient projects because Act 32 had allowed school districts to avoid referendums for such upgrades. Gov. Scott Walker suspended this revenue-limit exemption in the 2017-19 budget and, in fact, ended it for 1,000 years. That’s right—not until 3018 can school districts use Act 32 to pay for energy efficient projects without seeking voters’ permission via a referendum.

A referendum is likely the district’s only option, though it’s premature to speculate on when one might happen. Discussion about it now serves as a trial balloon to gauge public reaction. We’re optimistic the public would be receptive to a referendum, though only if the district sticks to maintenance projects and avoids projects that might be viewed as a “want” instead of a “need.”

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