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Madison referendum should include neighborhood schools

Madison is talking about a school referendum with a price tag as high as $280 million.

That’s a lot of money. Such a plan would cost the owner of a $300,000 home more than $150 a year in property taxes.

But it might be justified. The district’s school buildings are 55 years old on average. The city’s four main high schools were built between 1922 and 1966.

So some maintenance and improvements are almost certainly needed. At the high schools alone, the cost of overdue repairs and other work is estimated at $154 million, according to a study from 2017.

If you’ve been inside one of Madison’s high schools recently, you know that they, like an old home, have some distinctive features but nonetheless need a lot of work.

Taxpayers should be willing to consider a substantial school referendum, which school officials have talked about scheduling for November 2020 to coincide with the next presidential election, when voter turnout is expected to be high. Lots of public information and discussion will be needed. The district should welcome scrutiny and be transparent about its plans.

And as part of that discussion, one subject of debate should be proposals calling for the construction of one or more elementary schools in neighborhoods that are now without one.

We’ve been calling for a neighborhood school on Allied Drive for years, and the district has expressed interest. Many lower-income families live on and around Allied Drive, just south of Madison’s Beltline and east of Verona Road. Hundreds of children are bused out of their neighborhoods to other schools, making it harder for parents — especially those without cars — to attend school activities and teacher conferences.

A school in the Allied Drive area would encourage more parents to become involved in local schools and build more cohesion in the neighborhood. The school could become an object of pride and help improve student performance.

Justified Anger, a group of influential black leaders in Madison, has called for less busing of black students to predominantly white schools — even if such a policy would run counter to desegregation efforts. The Rev. Alex Gee of Justified Anger has made a convincing case that busing hasn’t worked. In Madison, just 66 percent of black students graduate from high school in four years.

Besides building on Allied Drive, district officials have talked about putting an elementary school in the Rimrock Road area south of the Beltline. Hundreds of students there are now bused to Allis Elementary on the East Side or Nuestro Mundo Community School, which is in leased space in Monona. We like this idea, too, which would allow Nuestro Mundo, a popular dual-language charter school, to move into the Allis building.

Strong schools are essential to attempts to ensure Madison remains an attractive and modern city that thrives in the global economy. Yet any request for additional money from taxpayers must be vetted and justified to help constrain the rising cost of housing in the city.

So far, the district is approaching a possible referendum with lots of advance notice and plans for public hearings. That’s good. If the price tag is going to be large, then there should be plenty of evidence that the projects are needed.

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