Milton School Board might discuss referendum options in near future
MILTON Nobody in the Milton School District is shouting the word "referendum" from the rooftops, but the idea is officially on the district's radar.
During a discussion on staffing and burgeoning class sizes in the district's elementary schools Monday, school board President Rob Roy hinted it could be time to start considering a referendum to exceed levy limits to pay for district operations—and potentially, more classroom space.
Last month, the board grappled with burgeoning class sizes at the elementary school level. Some classrooms at Northside Intermediate School have grown to as many as 28 or 29 students, according to district estimates.
The board had sought suggestions from teachers on ways to alleviate class sizes.
The Milton Education Association, the district's teachers union and individual teachers in the district submitted suggestions ranging from adding more math and reading specialists to adding full-time teachers.
The board on Monday seemed to abandon the option of hiring more full-time teachers this year, mostly because some school staff and parents believe it would disrupt students' learning to move them into a new classroom mid-year, officials said.
Discussions about class sizes continue, however, and the board likely will approve a plan for additional staff at the elementary schools when it OKs the 2012-13 budget later this month.
Along with short-term planning to add staff, the specter of a space crunch has arisen, Roy said.
"We need to have a discussion that addresses not only class size, but if we're going to look at in the future adding teachers, we're going to be very soon out of classroom space in the district," he said. "So that leads us to the issue of how do we deal with that issue as well."
The district had formed an ad hoc community group to discuss building a new high school in recent years, when the district hit a population boom. But the plan was shelved in 2008 amid a worsening economy and flattened growth in the area that combined with the announced closure of the General Motors assembly plant in Janesville.
"We decided there was no sense having that discussion," Roy said. "We thought it would be silly when everyone was worried about their jobs and their homes, it would be silly to have a discussion about a referendum and raising everyone's property taxes."
Roy said there now are enough glimmerings of the local economy picking up that it could be time to probe district voters on their appetite to spend through referendum.
"We're seeing some improvement now so it's time to start that discussion again," he said. "Milton's teachers union has made it clear that it wants the district to pursue not one, but two potential referendums in the foreseeable future."
In an email to Roy dated Sept. 28, Milton Education Association President Michael Dorn said the union would like a referendum for "operating expenses." One of the largest areas of operating expenses is staffing.
Dorn urged the board to start discussing the option.
"The MEA is more than willing to partner with the board to get this done," Dorn wrote. "Let's get our PR people banging the drum."
In the email, Dorn also asked the board to resume discussions of a potential referendum to build a new high school. He said the existing high school could be used as extra classroom space to alleviate class sizes in the lower grade levels.
"Now is the time to build a new high school," Dorn wrote. "Opening up the current high school space would allow us to have the reduced class sizes we all want, because the space for those classes would exist."
Roy said the board is not in a hurry to dive into a potential referendum. He said the district first must create a plan on staffing to deal with classroom sizes this year.
After that, the board will work to set up a community committee to examine needs and conduct strategic planning sessions. Roy said the earliest the board would begin seriously discussing referendum options would be early in 2013.
Even then, he said the district likely would need to set up several public listening sessions and even use surveys to figure out taxpayers' willingness for referendum spending.
"It's a process," Roy said. "We can address that through this year. I don't think there's any hurry to have any kind of referendum by the spring (2013) election."