School Board split on referendum: must vote by Feb. 17

By Susan Troller, The Capital Times, January 31, 2006
Madison voters may be looking at another referendum on school building this spring to address overcrowding issues, but the School Board appears split in its support of taking the issue to the voters.
School Board President Carol Carstensen has recommended that the administration prepare language that would ask voters to approve spending for a new $17 million elementary school on the city’s far west side and an addition to Leopold Elementary, south of the Beltline in Fitchburg. Both proposals were unanimously recommended by a citizen-led task force that has been studying boundary issues and overcrowding since last fall.

“From the beginning, I have said I would support the recommendations of the task force,” Carstensen said. She emphasized that the time frame for a referendum question on the April ballot would be very short, and that in order to keep that option open, it was necessary to move ahead with the language request.
“We have until Feb. 17 to decide whether to present this to the voters,” she said.
On Monday, board members reviewed task force recommendations for the West/Memorial attendance area as well as recommendations from an East attendance area task force on how to deal with declining enrollments in that area of the school district. No final decisions on the recommendations were made at the meeting.
The majority of the board seemed to support a referendum based on the task force recommendations, which were the result of hundreds of hours of work by dozens of citizen representatives.
But board member Ruth Robarts was wary about what she terms rushing to referendum. She said, “We have a problem if we make a building recommendation in a vacuum. People deserve a comprehensive multi-year plan that takes into account the needs of all sides of town.”
Robarts joined board member Lawrie Kobza in questioning the process at Monday’s sometimes contentious meeting. Kobza said she had hoped that the task force recommendations would be analyzed by the board as part of a broader examination of needs in the district.
“It never occurred to me that these recommendations wouldn’t become part of a larger plan,” Kobza said. She noted that the task force charge did not include any scrutiny of the La Follette High School area and its projected overcrowding within five years.
Kobza rejects the proposal to build a Leopold addition. She favors a solution to overcrowding at the school that includes busing students to the undercapacity Lincoln-Midvale paired elementary schools, even if it means bus rides that exceed 45 minutes.
“A 45-minute bus ride isn’t the end-all and be-all,” she said.
Other board members were vehement in their support of the task force recommendations. “We gave this task force this job and if we weren’t going to respect their recommendation we should have done it ourselves,” Johnny Winston Jr., board vice president, said.
“We need to make decisions and not prolong this to next fall,” Juan Jose Lopez said, noting that the schools are crowded now.
Arlene Silveira, a candidate for School Board and member of the West/Memorial boundary task force, supports a referendum to build a new school and an addition at Leopold. But she said she hoped that the decision to go to referendum would wait until the fall.
“My concern is that April is too fast,” she said. “I supported last year’s referendum and one of the things we heard is that people want information about how we came to the decisions we made. We need a communications plan to tell our story.”