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La Crosse School Board votes to close Lincoln Middle School, add referendum to spring ballot

La Crosse Tribune: Chloe Hilles | Published on 1/24/2023

The La Crosse School District's Board of Education voted Monday to close Lincoln Middle School. The board also unanimously approved adding an operating referendum of $60 million to the spring ballot.

The board voted 6-2 to close the doors of Lincoln Middle School on Aug. 31. Annie Baumann and Brad Quarberg were the two board members to vote against the closure.

La Crosse public middle school students will have two options: Longfellow on the south side and Logan on the north side.

Superintendent Aaron Engel said that a building closure and school consolidation has been a conversation for years now due to declining enrollment and the increased costs in caring for aging buildings.

Engel also said that the district should be able to reassign most staff to other city schools.

“I love Lincoln Middle School. I recognize the importance of this middle school in this community,” said board member Shaundel Spivey, who later made the motion to close the school. “And we've also talked at great lengths about how consolidation needs to happen in this district for us to truly be able to be effective and successful.”

Four community members spoke during public comment against closing the middle school, saying it was a critical aspect of neighborhood cohesion.

$60 million question
The operating referendum is a total of $60 million over six years. If voters approve the referendum — which would support staff wages, necessary maintenance and programs — it would increase the mill property tax rate for six years by $0.29 — about $58 for a $200,000 home.

The new referendum will follow the rejection of the $195 million referendum the district presented last fall. Seventy percent of voters said no to the referendum that called for new high school on the South Side.

Even with the financial savings due to closing Lincoln and the possibility of increased revenue from the referendum, the district’s budget is still bare bones, according to the board.

“The reality though, and I just want folks that are listening and hearing this to really understand, that no matter if Lincoln closes or we keep the referendum at this minimum baseline, it's still not enough,” Spivey said.

Four seats are available on the school board in the April election. Spivey, Emily Mootz, Laurie Cooper Stoll and Brenda Leahy have filed declarations of non-candidacy. Nine community members are vying for the four seats.

April 4 vote
Monday night was the last opportunity to add a referendum to the county ballot for April 4 – all referendums must be submitted 70 days prior to the election.

Engel provided a recommendation to the board for a referendum extending six years, totaling $55.5 million with an estimated annual mill rate impact of $0.17.

“I think the referendum is about identifying what is an appropriate amount to fund our schools that our parents expect, but it's also responsive to the financial capacity of our community,” Engel said.

However, the board elected to increase the referendum ask to $60 million over six years. In the first year, the district could see a levy of $6.25 million and a levy of $10.75 million in years two through six.

The reason for the referendum increase is to provide a larger salary increase for district employees. Under Engel’s recommendation, salaries would see an increase of 3%. However, under the $60 million referendum, as sponsored by board member Katie Berkedal, salaries would increase by 4%.

“It's imperative that this referendum gets the support of the staff of our district,” Berkedal said during the meeting. “I think going for an assumed 3% increase isn't enough. Four percent is not enough either, but it's better than 3%.”

Closing Lincoln
Some board members proposed postponing the closure for another year to give families time to adjust. However, others stressed the emergent need to consolidate schools.

“It is of paramount importance to me to ensure that we have high quality education,” said Juan Jimenez, school board president. “I see the challenge, I feel the challenge of needing to make this decision tonight. But I do not feel that we can wait any longer.”

If the board had delayed the closure, the district would have had an additional $1.5 million budget deficit.

Since 2001, the district has seen a reduction in enrollment of about 1,800 students. Declining enrollment is projected to continue and the administration expects a districtwide loss of 800 to 900 students over the next eight years.

At Lincoln, the school is only being utilized at 44% — enrollment is at 323, but building capacity is 727 students. Logan and Longfellow Middle Schools have similar utilization rates at 46% and 49% respectively.

About 208 current sixth and seventh grade students at Lincoln will need to change to either Longfellow or Logan Middle after the end of this academic year. The district estimates that about 14% of the total middle school population and 3.5% of total district population will be disrupted by the closure.

The new neighborhood boundary for the two remaining middle schools will use the current high school boundary which stretches Ferry Street.

The consolidation will not change class sizes, which are at about 25 students per class, but rather would increase the number of classes and teachers on a campus.

Additionally, the district has projected savings of about $8.5 million in staffing, maintenance and operational costs with the closure of Lincoln, which can be repurposed toward other maintenance and programs.

As for the future of the building, the district sees little opportunity for building reuse as the structure needs about $5 million in repairs. The land the building will likely be sold.

“The salability of the lot is high while the alternative uses for the existing buildings are limited due to the significant amount of maintenance needed,” Engel wrote in his recommendation to the board.