Milton’s School Referendum (and How to Fix Milton’s Mess)

The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin

2017 Referendum for $69.9 million

The Milton School District held a school construction referendum last night, the second within the last year. The 2016 construction referendum was for $87 million, the 2017 referendum was for $69.9 million. In fact, the 2016 referendum for the larger amount (with a different electorate, to be sure) was closer than the 2017 referendum for a relatively smaller amount.

A few remarks:

1. What Comes First. It’s true that I’m a critic of large spending projects, but fundamentally, here’s why: What happens inside the building will always be more important than the building itself.

First and foremost, schools should be run for the advancement of substantive learning (academics, arts, and athletics) and the promotion of a sound civic understanding (of liberty and equality within a free society). That’s more important than any building.

Mark this well – this position – substance first – is one that promotes educational accomplishment. One very well sees that construction is important – it’s simply not the most important matter.

It’s far easier to put in some new bricks than it is to teach a young person properly, even in the cases where bricks make teaching possible.

Educational officials in this community should approach every conversation about their work in this order: substantive academic achievement, assurances of fairness among students striving to achieve, and then construction and maintenance needs.

They don’t have to approach it this way, of course. It’s simply that to do otherwise produces second-rate work.

2. Milton’s focus was construction. That was all the talk (and I followed much of it, from newspapers and social media and in conversation). Even a construction referendum should emphasize other matters first.

3. Communications. No normal school district hires a former police chief, who was later a city administrator, as their comms guy. No normal place. ‘Communications Director’ Jerry Schuetz needs to go. Any money he’s paid should go to instructional materials, school lunches, even cleaning supplies. Those allocations would at least be useful for a positive end (learning, nutrition, sanitation).

Worse even than the referendum, Milton has had debilitating debates about lawful public recording of meetings. A district that isn’t behind open government from the beginning is simply fomenting community mistrust.

4. A Reasonable Amount. Milton’s a small town. Eighty-seven million’s possible for some communities, perhaps, but rural Wisconsin doesn’t have those communities. Even sixty-nine million was too much (and too much for the electorate).

Community leaders need to be realistic, and pick a more acceptable number (as most communities, including Whitewater, have done).

I’m not a construction booster, but those who are (in Milton or elsewhere) need to be practical. If they are, they can win at referendum. Until they’re practical, they’ll be nothing more than an example for other communities of What Not to Do.