School board divided again over plans to reduce overcrowding

Kurt Gutknecht, writing in the Fitchburg Star about the recent Board and public discussion of the East / West Task Forces:

There was a sense of déjà vu when the Madison Metropolitan School Board met Jan. 30 when the schism that fractured it last year – and which appeared to be a key factor in the defeat of a referendum last spring – surfaced again. Four members of the board appear solidly in support of another referendum and two members appear steadfast in their opposition, although the board hasn’t officially acted on the matter.
The possibility of a divided board has already alarmed supporters of a new addition to Leopold Elementary School, who think it will provide additional ammunition to critics.
The discussion was often heated as Ruth Robarts and Lawrie Kobza charged that the board was rushing to a referendum without an adequate long-range plan.
Their stance irritated Juan Jose Lopez, who accused them of “playing politics” with the future of schoolchildren simply because they didn’t like the outcome. “I for one will not sit here and allow you to do that,” he said.
A key disagreement involved the weight accorded the recommendations of the task forces charged with formulating long-range options.

The Memorial/West Task Force endorsed a new school on far west side and an eight-room addition to Leopold.
“If we didn’t like what they said, we should have done it ourselves,” Johnny Winston, Jr. said, noting that it would be “an act of total disrespect” to ignore the recommendations.
No matter how hard they tried, the West/Memorial Task Force simply couldn’t ignore the “800-pound gorilla in the room,” – the need to expand Leopold and construct a new school on the far west side, said Bill Keys.
“It would be wholly inappropriate” to reject their recommendations, he said. “They are the experts” and the board could put “full faith and credit” in their findings.
“The task force did not enter this process with that (new construction) in mind,” Keys said.
But Kobza said overcrowding would be a greater problem in the Memorial and LaFollette attendance districts, based on projected enrollment for 2011. Carstensen said those concerns should have been addressed when the task forces were created and that crowding in the West/Memorial attendance district, particularly at Leopold where students must eat in shifts and classrooms have been jammed in hallways, demanded immediate attention.
“I don’t understand your refusal to build an addition at Leopold,” Keys said.
Carstensen asked Kobza how her long-range planning would differ from the four-month deliberations by the task forces. Carstensen insisted the recommendations of the task forces were a long-range plan and said Kobza’s request appeared to “come a little bit out of left field.”
Carstensen rebuffed charges of rushing to a referendum. Information concerning when a draft resolution must be completed in order to be placed on the ballot in April was simply a realistic timeline to avoid the need to call a special election, if the board approves a referendum.
The fate of students in Swan Creek occupied much of the discussion.
Kozba suggested moving students from the development into adjacent schools and claimed that one option, transferring them to Midvale/Lincoln, had never been seriously considered by the task force. “It would be tight” even if Swan Creek students were moved to Midvale/Lincoln, said Mary Gulbrandsen, chief of staff for the district.
Carstensen said students couldn’t be viewed simply as numbers, and that the attempt to balance enrollments at different schools shouldn’t take precedence over other objectives. The Memorial/West task force came to a similar conclusion. Christensen said parents especially objected to “third level” moves in which their children were transferred to accommodate students from another school.
Robarts questioned whether redevelopment plans for the Ridgewood apartment complex, located adjacent to Leopold, would markedly reduce the number of students. Gulbrandsen reiterated that the district couldn’t consider these factors until redevelopment plans had been officially approved, just as it couldn’t consider students from new developments until those developments had been platted.
Keys said proposals to bus Swan Creek students to other schools involved “gigantic distances” “We have done that to these kids (in the Allied Drive neighborhood) for too long. I wouldn’t want to put that kind of sacrifice on any other kids,” said Lopez.
Four residents of Swan Creek reiterated their desire to stay at Leopold, but said a better option was to construct a separate school in southern Fitchburg, citing a statistic by Gulbrandsenthat 1,000 students in the district lived south of the Beltline.
Wendy Cooper, a member of the task force, said they had considered every option but didn’t think a new school in south Fitchburg was realistic, considering voters’ previous opposition to new buildings. The reluctance of Swan Creek residents to consider moving to Lincon/Midvale largely reflected concern about long bus rides, Cooper said. She said such a shift represented only a temporary solution.
“I do not want to see a mega school for Fitchburg students,” said Renee Hammand, a Swan Creek resident, referring to the approximately 1,100 students that would attend Leopold if an addition was added.
“We cannot fail children again” if another referendum fails, said Deborah Gilbert, another resident of Swan Creek.
Annette Mongomery, a resident of Brynewood, angrily castigated the board for its indecisiveness and said residents of the Fitchburg subdivision were selling their houses because of the uncertainty. Two had already been sold and five residents were waiting to put their houses on the market, she said.
Kobza said the board was treating growth in Fitchburg no differently than in other parts of the district. The boundaries for Leopold should have been redrawn two years ago, she said. And she questioned whether the board’s policy of limiting bus rides to 45 minutes was too restrictive. Bus rides of up to 50 minutes would be acceptable, she said.
More support for school in Fitchburg?
Several members of the Madison Metropolitan School Board appear to be more receptive to building a school in Fitchburg, although there’s little likelihood that this will occur soon.
There have long been complaints that the school board had an unofficial policy of not building outside the city of Madison. The district has denied the charge.
In response to an e-mail inquiry, Ruth Robarts said “population expansion to the south will necessitate a Fitchburg-area school.” Lawrie Kobza said she “would support buying property in Fitchburg for an elementary school site. However, I would want to wait to decide whether the next new school (after the Memorial area school) should be built in Fitchburg or the LaFollette area.”
Board President Carol Carstensen wrote that a new school in Fitchburg “would be several years down the road. My experience is that finding land and then getting agreement on price can take a long time (up to two years) – and then it is another two-plus years to build. I am not ruling out supporting a school in Fitchburg, but that does not solve our immediate problem.”
Robarts and Kobza repeated their call for a long-range plan for the district, beyond the recommendations of the task forces. Kobza wrote that she didn’t think additional study was necessary. “I think we need to put all the pieces that we already have together into a written comprehensive five-year plan for the district.
“My personal feeling is that the timetable for the Leopold area would include immediate redistricting, the purchase of land for a future elementary site and continued evaluation of when that new school should be built, taking into account the growth in other areas of the district.
Robarts repeated her concern that the addition to Leopold would result in an elementary school that would pose educational and safety problems. A short-term solution to overcrowding at Leopold would probably involve moving some students from Swan Creek to Midvale-Lincoln, although not until there was a five-year plan, she wrote.
Kobza believes “there is enough capacity at Midvale/Lincoln to handle the overcrowding at Leopold for the next four to five years.”
Robarts also called for an analysis of “ending the practice of moving students from school to school to affect income levels of the student body.”
She also recommended moving school administrators to underused school buildings, and then leasing or selling the building currently used to house administration offices, and determining whether magnet programs could increase the voluntary movement of students to schools outside their attendance area.
“I believe we must deal with the overcrowding at Leopold first,” Carstensen wrote. Failing to build at Leopold would address overcrowding for no more than three years, she wrote. “Doing something that you know will be inadequate in a few years is not good long-range planning.”

Fitchburg Star. Audio / Video of this meeting