Madison School District could ask for $280M in potential referendum focused on high schools
Improvements and repairs at Madison’s high schools in a potential 2020 referendum could be the first in a series of asks for taxpayers to upgrade the Madison School District’s 50 school buildings.
On Friday, the district released updated draft recommendations largely focused on upgrading the district’s four main high schools — East, La Follette, Memorial and West — which could run as high as $280 million on a possible referendum during next year’s presidential election.
Projected enrollment growth in certain areas of the city and aging infrastructure at the elementary and middle school buildings, though, raise the possibility of a referendum in 2024 and another one eight to 10 years from now, said Chad Wiese, the district’s director of building services.
“Updating 50 sites around the district is not something that can be accomplished in one single referendum,” he said. “It is our belief that a series of reinvestment opportunities are going to have to happen in the coming years to get these buildings back to where we think they should be.”
The average age of Madison’s school buildings is 55 years, according to the district.
On Monday, the Madison School Board will be briefed on the draft recommendations during its Operations Work Group meeting to solicit feedback. A slide show to be presented to board members includes a bar graph showing $100 million in 2024 and $100 million in 2028.
“We put a $100 million placeholder just to kind of get the conversation started,” Wiese said. “It’s probably too far out to speculate.”
To get a question on the November 2020 ballot, the School Board would have to act by next May.
Focus on high schools
The district conducted focus groups with high school staff members and students throughout February and March to refine the recommendations made by two consulting firms, which suggested spending between $120 million and $280 million on the high schools.
The original portion of East was built in 1922 — followed by West in 1930, La Follette in 1962 and Memorial in 1966 — with additions tacked onto the school buildings throughout the decades.
The district is exploring three approaches to a 2020 referendum.
The “maintenance” level would focus on repairs and necessary upgrades to systems such as mechanical, electrical and heating, some of which were installed more than half a century ago, for about $120 million.
According to a study completed in 2017, the high schools alone have $154 million in deferred maintenance needs.
The “renewal” level would address deferred maintenance and modernize classroom, lab and common spaces for about $200 million.
The “aspire” level, estimated at $280 million, would cover deferred maintenance and building modernization while opening the opportunity for certain expansions.
“We’re recommending that we’re in a place, that after School Board feedback and the feedback we received from staff and students at each of these sites, that we’d like to take the ‘aspire’ option, which is the higher end of the three, out to the community for their feedback,” Wiese said.
Community input on a potential 2020 referendum is expected to take place in late summer and fall, he said.
District officials also suggest consolidating the facilities for one of the alternative high school programs.
Students at Capital High are currently split between two locations: part of the Lapham Elementary School building on the Near East Side and rented space across South Gammon Road from Memorial High School.
Under the recommendation, Capital High would be consolidated at Hoyt School. Currently, the district-owned building at 3802 Regent St. is the main office for Madison School & Community Recreation, which would need to move. It is recommended the building, constructed in 1956, be renovated as part of the potential 2020 referendum.
Wiese described the building as being in “rough shape” with $4.6 million in deferred maintenance needs.
Possible changes for elementaries
Also under consideration for the potential 2020 referendum is a new elementary school on the South Side that would affect Allis Elementary School and the dual-language immersion charter Nuestro Mundo Community School.
The district is offering a recommendation to build an elementary school in the area centered on Rimrock Road — generally bounded by the Beltline to the north, Highway 14 to the west and the Capital Springs State Recreation Area to the east.
Currently, there are 446 elementary students living in the area, which is part of the Allis Elementary attendance area despite being a long bus ride away from the East Side school, according to the district.
The majority of the children in the area, referred to by the district as “South Allis,” attend school at either Allis Elementary, 4201 Buckeye Road, or Nuestro Mundo, which is located in a leased building in Monona.
Wiese said a new elementary school on the South Side would mean a majority of the student population at Allis would move to that new building, providing them a school in their neighborhood and cutting down on travel time.
Under the recommendation, Allis Elementary School would then be renovated for Nuestro Mundo to move into the district-owned building, which would provide a long-term facility solution for the charter rather than continuing to lease space, Wiese said.
If voters were to approve a $150 million referendum, the owner of a $300,000 house — near the median-value home in the district of $294,833 — could have their property taxes increase by $93 annually, according to district estimates.
A larger referendum of $280 million is estimated to raise property taxes on a $300,000 house by $159 annually.
If a $280 million referendum were approved, the Madison School District’s debt, excluding interest payments, would be $357 million, according to the district.
The district projects its debt as a percentage of the total tax base value under a successful $280 million at 1.3% — estimated to be the third lowest out of 15 Dane County school districts.
Currently, the Madison School District has $77 million in debt, which ranks last out of the 15 districts for debt as a percentage of total tax base value, according to the district.