By Jennifer Eisenbart
On one hand Wednesday night, the information provided by a district-wide survey on a potential facilities referendum for the Burlington Area School District was disappointing.
On the other hand, it wasn’t a referendum being voted down, and as a visitor from School Perceptions, Inc., was quick to point out, there is support for some sort of venture.
“At a high level, there’s clear support to do something,” said Bill Foster of School Perceptions.
But what exactly the public will support – and what the School Board will decide to put forward – is still unclear. The report on the district survey showed all three options not getting a majority of “yes” votes, and potential additional items at the high school such as an auditorium, expanded gym space and renovating other specific sections got less support.
The overriding question at the end of the night, though, was this: What should the School Board do moving forward?
School Perceptions anticipated about a 15 to 20 percent response rate for the survey, with representatives of the company saying anything over 400 responses would likely give a good sampling.
The district ended up with 1,408 responses, a 15 percent response rate. Forty-seven percent of the responses came from people between the ages of 35 and 54 years old, with 23 percent 65 or older and 19 percent 55 to 64.
About 75 percent of the district residents, Foster estimated, were non-staff, non-parent residents – and that group was the stingiest in showing support.
Just 56 percent of that group showed support for a referendum to renovate or replace Karcher Middle School and address other needs, while 58 percent would support addressing district-wide facilities needs that cannot be covered in the annual budget.
However, when it came to the options the School Board had chosen for the survey – renovating Karcher, renovating/rebuilding Karcher or simply building a new Karcher – the waters got much murkier.
All the Karcher options involve grades 5 to 8 going to the middle school, albeit in separate wings with Montessori getting its own wing as well.
Forty-eight percent said either probably no or no to the first option, 40 percent no or probably no to the second option and 50 percent yes to option three – the most expensive option.
However, breaking down into the individual groups and addressing the largest voting group – the non-staff, non-parent residents – it was 52 percent no for option one, 48 percent no for option two and 45 percent no for option three.
Even factoring in undecided voters, which Foster said tend to go about one-third yes and two-thirds no, the district would be gambling at the referendum passing.
Renovations at the high school showed even less support.
Comments show confusion
Even more confusing were the comments made in the survey. Foster said that School Perceptions put together a sampling of the most common comments, and there were trends.
- Many residents do not see the need for a public school district to fund Montessori.
- Many felt the communication and education for the process so far was lacking.
- A trend in the comments was that putting grades 5 through 8 together in one school was a bad idea.
However, the board members seemed to agree that the lack of education to the public played into the concerns about grades 5 to 8 at a middle school, specifically because separate wings for grades 5/6 and 7/8, as well as for Montessori, are being planned.
Also, Montessori parents showed strong support for that program throughout discussions in the summer and fall.
What to do?
School Board President Jim Bousman said he wasn’t necessarily discouraged by the results, although he was disappointed.
“This is not the referendum,” he said. “This is a tool.”
He asked how to move forward with those results, though, and board members expressed further frustration. Todd Terry, who will not be seeking re-election to the board in the April election, said the process seemed to have been executed without a clear plan to present to the public.
BASD Assistant Superintendent Connie Zinnen admitted the administrative team knew what it wanted but was advised to “let the process play out.” Now, she said, it may be too close to April to get an effective referendum question established.
The question would have to be formulated and submitted by the last week of January to qualify for the ballot for the April 4 election.
After the School Board kicked around ideas for a few minutes, board member Phil Ketterhagen said the board is paralyzed by fear.
“This board’s afraid to fail,” Ketterhagen said.
Bousman responded by saying the board needs to focus on putting together the right question.
“I’m more concerned with our success,” Bousman said. “We’ve got a couple of weeks to figure it out.”