|Voters mull upcoming Beloit school referendum|
|Written by Dennis Hines/Stateline News|
|Thursday, 15 March 2012 15:40|
Parents listen to a presentation about the $70 million Beloit school referendum during a meeting March 8 at Converse Elementary School. Dan Plutchak/staff.
BELOIT — Officials from the School District of Beloit feel now is the time to act on a major renovation and reconfiguration in the district.
Others in the community aren’t so sure.
The $70 million referendum on the April 3 ballot would fund renovations and added space at Converse, Gaston, Hackett, Cunningham, Merrill, Robinson and Todd elementary schools, as well as Beloit Memorial High School.
(Analysis: Sorting through the pros and cons) (Read this and more stories from the March 18, 2012 Stateline New HERE.)
“We’re trying to hit the facility needs we have for the majority of the buildings in the district,” said Superintendent Steve McNeal. “In the referendum, we will be able to address all the specific maintenance needs like the roofing, heating and air conditioning and windows at each of our primary buildings, which are pre-K through third grade.”
The plan also includes adding a new swimming pool at Beloit Memorial High School and renovating the existing swimming pool into a fitness center. McNeal said the pool leaks about 500 gallons a day and cannot be used for home or conference meets. The tennis courts also would be replaced.
But as important as the renovations are, the referendum also would allow the district to proceed with a long-planned reconfiguration that would group students in six pre-kindgarten through third-grade schools and four intermediate schools for fourth- through eighth-grade students.
District officials and parents have been holding meetings throughout the district to explain the plan.
Rick and Carol Rochester will have two children attending Converse Elementary School next year, and for them, the upcoming school referendum is about their kids.
The Rochesters, who attended a meeting March 8 at Converse Elementary School, say they are concerned that there still are many unanswered questions involving the reconfiguration plan, including how it will affect Converse during construction and remodeling.
Either way, they are leaning toward voting for the plan.
“I’m going to vote yes because of the kids,” Carol Rochester said, “but I’m not sure it will pass.”
Despite the potential disruptions during construction and remodeling, Antonia Vargas, who has students at Converse and McNeel Middle School, also is a supporter.
“I think it’s going to be a great thing for the school district to do this,” she said.
Aldrich and McNeel middle schools and Cunningham Elementary School would be converted to intermediate schools. A fourth intermediate school would be constructed on the east side and would replace Morgan Elementary School.
Royce, McLenegan, Wright and Burdge elementary schools would be retired, along with the Kolak Center. McNeal said the reconfiguration would save the district about $2.3 million a year.
If the referendum is approved, the renovation and construction projects would begin as soon as possible.
Although the referendum asks for $70 million, taxpayers won’t be on the hook for nearly that much.
As a low property value district, the state will subsidize 64 percent of the cost, or roughly $45 million.
That would leave the remaining $25 million to be paid by local taxpayers.
The cost to the average homeowner would be $5.63 a month, or $67.50 a year, for a resident who owns a $75,000 home.
Matt Roegner of Imagine Beloit, the group that is promoting the referendum, said now is a good time for the district to place a referendum on the ballot when interest rates and construction costs are low.
“We’re fighting against time here,” Roegner said. “We have rising interest rates forecasted in the economy. The economy is starting to perform again, and interest rates are starting to go up, and construction costs and material costs are going up. If this gets delayed and interest rates go up, you’re talking $700,000 in additional interest costs in the first year alone. So, a delayed referendum could potentially cripple the referendum’s ability to service what we need to service.”
Not everyone is convinced that this is the right referendum at the right time. Board of education member Tia Johnson said she feels more groups should have been involved in the discussions regarding the referendum. Johnson and former school board member Pam Charles are part of a group organized to oppose the referendum, Beloiters for a Better Referendum.
“We understand now is a good time because of the low interest rates,” Johnson said. “It’s unfortunate that they have not moved ahead a little bit more slowly and thoughtfully, including more community people.”
McNeal counters that the district has been discussing the issue since 1998, and that the district has conducted several informational meetings regarding the referendum. Roegner said the district has a 20-page document that lists the repairs that need to be done to the school buildings.
“That’s a lot of background,” Roegner said. “In the court of public opinion, one of the issues that’s brought up is that it looks rushed, but it’s been talked about since 1998.”
Charles said the referendum does not include improvements that need to be done to Aldrich and McNeel middle schools, as well as other work that needs to be completed at the high school, including roof repairs.
“If you have roofs that are actively leaking in our schools, that’s damaging an entire building,” Charles said. “Wouldn’t that be a higher priority than a fitness center? If you’re going to have, a maybe to be funded, shouldn’t that maybe be the fitness center and not the roof?”
McNeal said the district has developed a five-year plan regarding the work that needs to be done to those three schools. He said the referendum would allow the district to free up money to renovate and repair those buildings.
“When (the schools included in the referendum) are ready to go, McNeel and Aldrich also will be ready to go,” McNeal said. “Then after that, we will be able to dedicate more money to Beloit Memorial High School for roofing in the fine arts area and other things we need to do in that area.”
Charles said she also is concerned about how the school reconfiguration would affect the district, especially middle school students. She said she is concerned whether middle school students would be able to participate in band, orchestra or theater, as well as be able to take certain electives.
“The experts say whatever you have now, don’t spend the money to reconfigure it,” Charles said. “Don’t change things around, because there’s no magical reconfiguration of grades that help schools be more successful. I look at it as a waste of our money if we’re going to do something that the experts have told us not to do.”
McNeal said research has shown that other grade configurations work better than the middle school concept. He said, with the reconfiguration, the class sizes would be one teacher for 18 students or two teachers for 30 students.
“The choice to go to this configuration was based on educational research, which shows that you do a different configuration than middle schools,” McNeal said. “That’s part of this referendum, balancing what we needed to do and what we could afford to do.”
If the referendum is not approved, the district would probably place another referendum question on the ballot during a future election, asking for less money. However, McNeal said that would not allow the district to complete all the projects that need to be done.
“The truth is we won’t come back for more money.” McNeal said. “If we were to come back, it would probably be for the very basic needs, which would mean we would be locked in the same configuration that we have now. It would mean that we would not save $2.3 million in that consolidation of staff and resources, which would mean we would have some severe budget cuts in the future.”
Roegner said he hopes residents make an informed decision when they go to the polls on April 3.
“Don’t vote no without understanding. That’s our biggest fear, people walking into the voting booth without information in their hand,” Roegner said. “You can be against it, but understand it.”
|Last Updated on Thursday, 22 March 2012 13:13|