Unable to come up with an agreeable question format that the majority of the members could support asking voters, the MAPS Board of Education elected to punt on holding an advisory referendum on the April ballot.
The idea of having district voters weigh in on two or three options to give feedback to the board was first discussed at the Town Hall Meeting the board held. Because of restrictions on length and facing a deadline to submit the question to the County Clerk for inclusion on the ballot, the board has wrestled on the best way to ask what voters want.
As originally proposed by School Superintendent Dr. Lisa Snyder, the non-binding referendum would have asked voters to pick one of three options they favored as a course of action to cut the district budget if state revenue cuts force the district to make “worst case scenario” reductions. The first option would be to close Pine River and Maple Grove elementary schools. The second would be to cut elective classes at the high school, possibly eliminating a whole department in the process. The third option would be to ask voters for additional money through a levy exception in a separate referendum.
The sticking point for some members was would the options pit supporters of the elementary schools against supporters of band, technical education or business classes, which were three departments identified for possible elimination.
Even the attempt to merge the first two options into one was rejected by some board members because then the results were seen as not being enough to give the members a sense of what the community would rather do on budget cuts.
Getting feedback from the voters was critical, since, as Board President Jeff Verdoorn said, if MAPS doesn’t find a way to get on top of the structural deficit in the budget, both cuts will have to happen eventually.
“We have eliminated all the easy cuts,” he said. “It will get to the point when we will have to approve these cuts. It’s a matter of when, not if.”
However, he felt that if the board was going to ask voters for their opinions, the group needed to be united in what it is asking and why. The uncertainty of what the state government will do on the next biannual budget means the board doesn’t know yet how bad the problem will be. Verdoorn said Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget won’t be available until Feb. 22, a date that is past the deadline to get on the ballot with a referendum question. The board seemed fairly close to an even split on two or three questions, with Loretta Baughan opposed to holding any referendum.
“The board has to be united in what we ask, otherwise it could result in chaos,” he said. “We want to unite our community around protecting all of our programs.”
While getting feedback from voters who have no children in the schools or own businesses in the community was a goal of the referendum, asking too narrow of a choice would provide meaningless data, some members said. The fact that the vote would be non-binding, meaning the board could vote opposite the results if it felt it was the responsible course to follow, also created some disagreement among the members. These concerns peppered the discussion on the matter for nearly an hour.
“I won’t lose sleep if we don’t hold an advisory referendum,” Verdoorn said at one point. “I will lose sleep if we divide our community.”
Eventually a motion was made to hold the three question referendum, but the matter failed on a voice vote.
Verdoorn said the board can either explore other avenues to get public feedback or hold a special election for a referendum, although the district would have to pay the costs of it. He also didn’t rule out more Town Hall meetings to let the public discuss the facts directly to the board.
“Our goal is to keep the public informed and participating in the serious decisions we as board members have to make in regard to the budget cuts,” Verdoorn said after the meeting. “It is their school district.”