Board senses support for referendum
But too early to know, president warns
By Scott Bellile
Local residents at listening sessions seemed to support a school referendum, but the district needs more perspectives before jumping to conclusions, according to New London School Board President Terry Wegner.
A total of 48 attendees offered opinions regarding a referendum at three sessions held between July 12-18 at various school district facilities.
New London School District officials used each session to explain how the district has fallen behind on building maintenance projects due to continued decreases in state aid since 1993. At the end, officials collected written feedback, much of it positive.
“My only cautionary note, there’s value in this, but don’t take it as a survey of the community. It is not that,” Wegner told the school board at a meeting July 30. “The sample is not randomized and certainly not large enough.”
School board member Mark Grossman added he believes up to half of attendees at some listening sessions were teachers.
Wegner, a retired marketing director, still said the feedback provided some useful information.
According to the feedback:
• All 48 respondents said they “support the needed maintenance of our school district’s facilities to ensure sustainable learning environments”.
• Forty-seven support paying an annual property tax mill rate of at least $7.50 per $1,000 if a referendum were approved. (If the district did not attempt a referendum, next year’s mill rate would drop to $6.48 because the district just completed a 2014 referendum and paid off the 1999 construction of New London High School.)
• More than half of attendees, 25, support maintaining the 2017-18 mill rate of $9.16 into 2018-19. This would be consistent with a $25 million referendum.
• Eleven said they support reducing next year’s mill rate to between $8.75 and $9.15.
• Ten said they support reducing the mill rate further to between $8.10 and $8.74. This would be in line with a $20 million referendum.
This small sample of respondents indicated they would actually back a higher dollar amount referendum than what school officials are proposing.
Board members have shown preference toward a $15 million referendum, which would mean a $7.73 mill rate in 2018-19.
Grossman predicted most taxpayers would not support maintaining the current $9.16 mill rate next year for a $25 million referendum but would agree to a $7.73 mill rate for a $15 million referendum.
The New London School Board must decide by Aug. 27 whether to put a referendum question on November’s midterm election ballot.
Some respondents questioned whether a November referendum would give the district enough time to inform the community of the schools’ needs. Some suggested delaying the referendum until April 2019.
“If we waited until April, we would most likely lose that following summer as one of our major building times,” Wegner said, due to the bidding process taking several months and the unlikelihood contractors would work during the school year.
Board Vice President Virginia Schlais said as mill rates decrease in 2018-19 due to the district being relieved of the two major expenditures, now would be an easier time to win over voters than if the district delayed the referendum until next year, had the mill rate plummet to around $6, and then asked residents to hike the mill rate again.
The higher voter turnout that comes with midterm elections would also provide the school district a more accurate snapshot of the community’s thoughts than a spring election would, Schlais said.
If the board votes this month to go to referendum, it will finalize a list of maintenance projects and a total cost.
Top priorities identified so far include upgrading HVAC systems, updating lighting to LED and replacing windows at schools.
Parkview project revisited
An additional item the New London School Board discussed placing on the referendum projects list July 30 is an addition to Parkview Elementary School to address space needs.
Unesco, the firm hired for referendum planning, presented an option of converting the building’s two southernmost classrooms, 133 and 134, into a combined cafeteria and mechanical room. Rooms 133 and 134 are currently used for special education and 4-year-old kindergarten.
The existing kitchen would be rearranged so the north-facing serving window would face south toward the new cafeteria. Students would line up to get hot lunch in the existing hallway. Interior walls could be eliminated to make the area more open, Superintendent Dennis Krueger said.
Two more classrooms, a flex room and a second set of restrooms would then be added on to the building between the school and the south playground, east of rooms 133 and 134. Special education and 4-year-old kindergarten would move to the addition.
Under this proposal, the existing gym would only be used for physical education and school-wide functions.
School officials believe the current practice of using the gymnasium as a lunchroom creates a time crunch with physical education schedules due to the set-up and tear-down of lunch tables. Board members feel building a new gym is not the solution because such a proposal could upset voters and sink the referendum.
The cost would be $1.8 million to move the cafeteria and build on four new rooms versus $3.1 million to build a new gymnasium.
Board member Kim Schroeder said she appreciates school officials’ willingness to think “outside the box” to fix Parkview’s space needs, but worries an added wing on the south side of the school would be a poor location for new restrooms.
“The building is challenging the way it was designed from the outset,” New London School District Business Services Director Joe Marquardt replied. “Putting a bathroom in locations other than at ends right now is very, very difficult, and that’s something that we’re just schematically going to have to work with.”
Unesco alternatively provided the district an estimate of $330,000 to convert room 119, Parkview’s northernmost classroom, into a restroom, Marquardt said.
This story has been updated to state that 4-year-old kindergarten and special education would remain at Parkview Elementary School if a cafeteria moved to their existing classrooms.