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Baraboo School Board ends fall referendum plans after survey results

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JYMS ribbon cutting (copy)

Baraboo School Board members laugh as President Kevin Vodak, center right, and District Administrator Rainey Briggs struggle to cut a ribbon with oversized scissors in October to mark the completion of work at Jack Young Middle School. Board mmbers at the time, from right, are Mike Kohlman, Katie Kalish (obscured), Alex Schenck, Tim Heilman, Gwynne Peterson and Paul Kujak.

Results from a recent community survey have prompted the Baraboo School Board to end its consideration for an $89.9 million fall referendum.

Less than 39% of likely voters would support the measure, said Mike Kohlman, the board member who presented the results of the survey to the rest of the board Monday.

“I can understand how inflation, gas prices, the recent tax reassessment in the city and COVID-19 has made some voters hesitant to make such a large investment at this time,” Kohlman said.

There were 1,659 responses, Kohlman said, which means a 15% response rate. That rate is “very similar” to participation numbers in two previous surveys conducted by the district for similar measures, Kohlman said. The age of the respondents, with the largest group being those 65 or older followed by those 35-44 and 45-54, reflects average voter turnout.

Of the respondents, 42% had children in the Baraboo School District and 94% live within the district. The other 6% were either staff members who lived outside the district or families with open enrolled students. The biggest proportion of people who took the survey, either via a paper copy or online, live within the city of Baraboo, with the second largest within the town of Baraboo and the town of Delton.

The survey was prompted by an identified need to improve all of the elementary schools within the district. In 2012, the board and community created a Long-Range Facility Master Plan to renovate all school facilities. The plan has four phases.

The first, to update safety, security and maintenance throughout district buildings, was completed in 2015. Phase II, which was completed in 2018, updated and revitalized Baraboo High School. The third phase to update Jack Young Middle School, was finished in 2021.

Upgrading four elementary schools and closing another was to be part of Phase IV, though it has now been halted after survey results showed that 38.5% of respondents did not support the $89.9 million referendum measure.

Residents did not seem to reject the idea without basis, said board member Paul Kujak.

“Referendums we’ve had fail in the past, I felt the sentiment simply from the people who voted no was, ‘We’re just not going to do this,’ but this time I find people saying, ‘We really wish we could do this, but we just can’t do it right now.’”

Referring to current economic concerns, such as inflation and gas prices, “It’s a bit of a perfect storm right now,” Kujak said.

He referenced “city projects” as another concern for taxpayers. A city plan to construct a new combined fire and EMS station will not raise taxes, City Administrator Casey Bradley has said more than once during meetings to discuss the project. A recent revelation that the city had been engaging in “excessive taxation” for a decade has driven planners to seek out how to reduce the budget by roughly $826,000 and is the reason taxes would not go up, Bradley has said.

The Baraboo Board of Education formed the Elementary Facilities Advisory Committee in 2021 made up of community members, parents and staff members. Committee members found four primary issues: age, outdated classrooms, classroom capacity and limited space for a cafeteria and gymnasium.

The average age of the elementary buildings is 55 years old, with updates over the decades, though major systems, such as ventilation, electrical systems, plumbing, roofs, doors and windows, have never been replaced, Kohlman said.

In total, $17.2 million in investment is needed for simple maintenance on these systems: Al Behrman Elementary School, built in 1956, $3.8 million; East Elementary School, built in 1954, $5.4 million; Gordon L. Willson, built in 1970, $3.4 million; North Freedom, built in 1991, $1 million; and West Kindergarten Center, built in 1951, $3.6 million.

Closure of the West Kindergarten Center has a number of benefits, Kohlman said, like avoiding the cost of work on the facility built in 1951 and creating more unity for students who would then not have to move to another building.

“I’d like to emphasize that the district’s position on the future of West is conditional on whether the community supports revitalizing our elementary schools and passes a referendum,” Kohlman said.

Planners projected it would require $3.6 million to replace the roof, rusted exterior doors, decayed wood and repair the exterior and loading dock as well as remove brickwork at an old coal chute, replace doors, wood cabinetry, countertops, mechanical systems, old electrical panels, lighting and the water heater.

That work still would not make the building compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements nor upgrade outdated classrooms. Research also shows that students are more likely to “become disengaged and experience academic delays,” as the number of schools they attend increases, Kohlman said.

Planners decided to close the school instead of further investment, which they posited would help reduce transportation costs, strengthen connections between the school and families, support teacher collaboration across grade levels, increase options and resources for students and reduce the strain on families with more than one child.

Because learning and teaching models have changed over seven decades, classroom configuration changes are needed, Kohlman said, to accommodate student collaboration and hands-on learning.

Three of the schools are near capacity based on their original design and over capacity based on modern instructional standards, with Al Behrman capacity at 333 with 325 enrollment and projected enrollment at 345; East Elementary School capacity at 327 with 318 enrollment and projected enrollment at 338; Gordon L. Willson capacity at 280 with 318 enrollment and project enrollment at 338; North Freedom capacity at 146 with 106 enrollment and projected enrollment; West Kindergarten Center capacity at 102 with 60 currently enrolled.

Three elementary schools also lack a cafeteria space, which means lunch is served in the gym, where tables are set up and taken down each day. The setup can also interrupt schedules for physical education and programs.

School board members agreed with the recommended committee plan to address the issues. The amount would have been split among four schools, from North Freedom Elementary as the lowest at $14.7 million to GLW, which would need $26.7 million.

“I feel like it’s important to say that setting the referendum question aside does not create a crisis,” Kohlman said. “Next year, the district will continue to operate as usual. However, I’d also like to be honest with everybody and note that the needs identified by the people involved in the process are real and they’re not going away.”

Follow Bridget on Twitter @cookebridget or contact her at 608-745-3513.

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