As Madisonians prepare to cast their ballots in this year’s presidential election, residents must also decide whether or not they support the Madison Metropolitan School District’s Future Ready Referenda.
Since 2016, MMSD has been working on a $340 million overhaul, which will improve the school district’s decades-old facilities and strengthen its in-school and after-school programs. If passed, the referenda would result in a property tax increase of $77 for every $100,000 in home value for Madison residents.
“Your continued engagement is vital as we approach Nov. 3. I hope that you share our vision as we begin to recover together as a city. The chance to lift Madison up as a thriving, equitable and inclusive community for generations to come is more important than ever,” Madison School Board President Gloria Reyes said in a promotional video.
The most recent referendum of a similar nature, organized by MMSD in 2016, passed by a wide margin.
The referenda budget splits into two categories, represented as separate questions on the ballot: operations and facilities. The operations budget proposes $33 million in spending spread out over four years. An additional $317 million will be invested into the district’s “most pressing building projects.”
School board member Savion Castro described a feeling among MMSD educators that the budgetary increase would help ensure the school district continues its momentum toward achieving equitable education in the areas it serves.
“What we're really trying to do is to create learning environments that reflect our commitment to students, and [ensure that] our county is conducive to learning in the 21st century,” Castro said.
The target-areas of the operations budget cover a variety of needs. Flagship issues include the newly proposed Early College STEM Academy partnership with Madison College. The district hopes to provide a stepping stone for students of color, first-generation college students and low-income students into fields that might be otherwise inaccessible to them.
Another key program within MMSD’s budget referenda entails strengthening the Behavioral Health in Schools program, which hopes to address mental health treatment by bringing full-time mental health professionals into three more of MMSD’s 48 schools.
Finally, MMSD hopes to bring full-day schooling to four-year-old students, an area of education they say will most benefit Madison’s most vulnerable and underserved student populations. MMSD holds one of the highest achievement gaps in the nation between students of color and white students, according to a 2013 Race to Equity report.
Castro pointed out the stark inequities and expressed his confidence in the future possibilities for the school district if the referendum passes.
“All of the program investments we view as equity projects. When you look at the research, those things make the most difference in terms of improving academic outcomes and social-emotional outcomes for Black students,” Castro said.
Outside of major renovation projects to MMSD’s high school campuses, the key issues on the facilities part of the referenda include the opening of the new Rimrock Elementary School on Madison’s South Side and relocation of its Capital High program.
The Rimrock Elementary School will serve a neighborhood that primarily consists of students of color who must also take the longest bus rides in the district for elementary school children, according to Castro.
“Right now, that neighborhood is majority black and brown students and POC students. They either hop on a 40-minute bus ride to Frank Aliss [Elementary School] on the East side, or they hop on a similarly long bus ride to Nuestro Mundo (an English-Spanish dual-language MMSD school),” Castro said. “We really view that as an equity strategy.”
Castro also emphasized that while this new school would benefit its students the most, it will also open up opportunities to expand Pre-K and kindergarten at Frank Allis Elementary school, where Rimrock’s new students would have previously enrolled.
“We’ll be able to move Nuestro Mundo to the Frank Aliss building to allow that school to expand their program as well by having more space to expand to 4k,” Castro said.
Another goal of the facilities portion of the budget will give the Capital High program its own building. Currently, students enrolled in the program meet at two campuses: one in a strip mall in Madison’s far west side and another on the third floor of Madison’s 4K-2 Lapham elementary school located on Madison’s East side.
The Capital High program specializes in assisting MMSD students who struggle with traditional forms of learning. It also serves as an alternative educational path for program participants by offering smaller class sizes and more intimate teaching settings. Despite lacking the proper facilities, the program’s graduation rate has remained exemplary, according to Castro.
Castro also expressed the importance of this particular project and how it emulates the overarching goal of the referenda in providing educational equity to students of all racial and financial backgrounds in the school district.
The new location for Capital High will be at the Hoyt Building, which now houses the Madison School and Community Recreation offices. MMSD plans to renovate this building to create a state of the art, 21st-century learning space. The building will also house a program for pregnant MMSD students, to assist with their extra schooling needs and prenatal care.
These projects also accompany major renovations to all of MMSD’s high schools. The renovations, which will assume the lion's share of the facilities budget, range from updating classrooms, to adding entire new floors onto school grounds. Madison Memorial High School, for instance, will see its first renovation since 1970.
Ultimately, the proposed changes aspire to improve the experiences of students at every socioeconomic level across the city and set the stage for educational growth across Madison.
“This is a decade-long project that we’re really excited about, and if it passes, we think this could reshape the way education looks in Madison for every MMSD student,” Castro said. “We saw community support for these issues, so we’re optimistic about the referenda getting through.”
The MMSD referendum questions one and two will be up for a vote on the Nov. 3 ballot.