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Guest Column: Axe New Gym, Spend $10M on MHS Needs, Not Wants

When I toured my alma mater last week, Madison High School principal Sharon Knowlton said more than once that the proposed $16.9-million new gym and renovation project is the only way to accomplish all of the architectural changes the high school needs.

Orland organic farmer Charlie Johnson begs to differ. Below is his commentary, which appeared in last night's print MDL:

First of all, let us provide a few facts before the discussion. A bond issuance is collateralized by the taxable value of real estate within the taxing entity. There is no deferment for cases of unemployment, poor crop years, declining income, sour economy, etc. The bond commitment is for 25 years. Most home mortgages taken out today do not extend out that far. A $16.9 Million bond issue averages about 48,000 per MHS student (16.9 million /350). For every registered voter in Madison school district, the average commitment is $2600 (16.9 million/6500).

By estimation, property tax levies will increase 11.3% (2/11.3) on bare agricultural land in Orland Township. The increase just on school levy will be 26.5% (2/9.1). For an owner occupied home in Madison the increase in levies will be 9.7% (2/20.6). The increase in school levy will be 21.9% (2/9.1). These percentages could change slightly in future years as property valuations fluctuate and tax requests by all entities change. It would be an accurate statement to say that property tax increases will be anywhere from 8% to 20%-perhaps more. The impact will vary from agricultural land to commercial to residential. The same can be expected for property located within Madison versus property in one of the townships. Keep in mind also the capital outlay fund and levy (3 mills) is committed in large part for 12 more years to pay for the recently built elementary school.

A former friend and county commissioner, Bud Giles, on many occasions pointed out that there is a difference between wants and needs. He stressed also there was importance to know the difference. Elected officials have the responsibility to aggressively address the needs while prioritizing wants as time and resources become available. Like most projects, the MHS facility project is a combination of wants and needs. We need to provide safety and function of the school building by improving lighting, ventilation, wiring, plumbing, and other upgrades. We want to improve programs by relocating and expanding rooms, adding additions, and building a new gym. There is no excuse for failing to take care of needs. There is nothing wrong inherently wrong in bringing discussion to a well planned, prioritized list of wants. Reality is that you have the money. Never should accumulating wants be placed on top of needs in an attempt to justify the latter.

Within this sobering commentary, I offer a 4 part recommendation to the MHS facility project.

  1. $16.9 million is too high and unrealistic. Cap the bond issue at $10 million. Even at that figure, we are doubling up on debt for the school district. Is it prudent for the district to implement a financial step that most households and businesses would not consider? If the facility project carries on a higher figure, it must do so with private money or other sources.
  2. Regardless of how the bond issue is decided, take the responsible steps to provide safety and function of the building by taking care of the upgrades that are needed. Many of the voters who opposed the spectator gym in 2007 felt the need for improvements at MHS was more important.
  3. In the area of wants, consider a fine arts annex to provide more room for band and chorus. Do not destroy a perfectly good wooden floor gym as a spiraling attempt to justify a new spectator gym. Adult recreation programs use the present gym space extensively. Providing practice times for all sports at all grade levels, boys and girls is a premium and plus for proper programming. Eliminating a fantastic gym floor is wrong regardless of whether a spectator gym is built or not.
  4. The spectator gym is a definite want and should be funded with other sources. Supporters of a spectator gym may want to consider a partnership with the city of Madison to develop a vision of a true events center that will attract and cater to events throughout the year.

Regardless of the outcome of the bond issue, the sad commentary is that education as a whole will continue to suffer as funding levels fail to provide enough money for adequate salaries and resources for our educators. We are asking an 18th century tax system to provide for 21st century education and it is failing miserably. If only persons eligible under the times in the 18th century were allowed to vote on the facility project bond issue, the bond issue in Madison would be decided by whites who were male and property owners. How about that for progress?

Charlie Johnson


  1. JohnSD 2010.11.30

    If those who think no want to look at just needs, that's fine, then a vote should be framed around their definition of needs, but to put a dollar cap on it doesn't make sense. Spell out the needs and give voters a choice. I'm disappointed former high-school teachers (other than Cory) haven't expressed their opinion. They know the most and don't have politics to worry about. Minor in scope Sharon Knowlton told me they would try to sell the gym floor (which is beautiful by the way) to another school. She said it couldn't be reused here because it wasn't large enough for the new space. I did wonder why they couldn't build around it, but it's difficult for us to know the ins and outs on this type of construction as well as how much things should cost. I do think they could find some work-around solutions if they had to. If it's hard on the piano to move it from the practice room to the auditorium, maybe they need a second piano. Sometimes the dollar amount does scare the bajeezus out of me, and although Johnson makes a point about an events center, isn't that the Prairie Playhouse? Shouldn't we learn something from that debacle? People tell me they hired an architect without experience and the building didn't/doesn't function well. Do we want to repeat that by making minor changes, or get a facility that actually functions appropriately for the next 20 years. What's the meaning of Johnson's last couple of sentences? The rest of his letter made sense other than his wild statement about possible tax increases: "anywhere from 8% to 20%-perhaps more." You don't have to scare us Charlie, we're scared enough already.

  2. GoldMan 2010.11.30

    I have tremendous respect for Charlie Johnson, an eco-friendly natural farmer and classmate, but he's presented a lot of creative math about the effect on taxpayers that seems inflated and manipulated. Maybe he wasn't given correct numbers or perhaps he has not taken the tour. My understanding so far is that homeowners can expect $2 per thousand dollars of county taxable value as an increase. On a $100,000 home, taxes would increase about $200 per year or $17 a month.

    Remodeling would extend the life of our High School another 40 years and provide a first class building that we can be very proud of, one that will improve learning conditions for generations of our students.

    You can't divide the cost of improvements by only those 350 students in the high school for one year because it will be used by every student from K-12 for another 40 years. Take 1150 K-12 students each year over the next 40 years and you get a more realistic financial picture.

    Anyone who hasn't taken the half-hour tour should see the building as it is today. We can provide better, healthier facilities than where we currently educate our young adults.

  3. SuperSweet 2010.11.30

    Don't tax you, don't tax me, tax the man (in the city of Madison)behind the tree.

  4. caheidelberger 2010.11.30

    I'll let Charlie defend his numbers, but I will say that Charlie has taken the tour. And even if he hasn't, I will not accept the argument that we can summarily dismiss the arguments of folks who haven't taken the tour.

  5. nonnie 2010.11.30

    No one is arguing that there are not NEEDS that need to be addressed. The rest are wants. To quote Sharon KNowlton on the tour, "My dream is to see Madison seniors graduate in their own gym with their own school colors on the wall." Huh?? She can dream all she wants. She won't have to pay for this and might not even be here after a few years to pay for this, if she pays anything in property taxes anyway.

    And the point about buying a second piano is exactly what I thought during the tour. It seems they are showing all the worst things during these tours.

    Remodel the existing office space and you have a good view of the front entrance. Why the need for new construction for this?

    The fact is that the real cost of this project is close to $31M which is the total cost after interest, and unless the interest is being paid out of blue sky, that will be part of the bill we taxpayers are presented with.

    Address the actual NEEDS as Charlie has expressed so well in his letter. Look for other sources for the wants.

    Employees in this area have lost jobs or had reductions in hours and benefits, many have had no raises and do not have the benefit of double dipping, and seniors have had no cost of living increases for two years.

    As the paper headlined this week, utility costs are going up again in the city. Food, gas, insurance, and clothing prices are on the rise. We already have the opt out in place. And don't forget the higher taxes to come on the federal level.

    We all want a good education for our students. New office space, destruction of a perfectly good gym so a new will have to be built, and other wants will not improve SAT scores, allow any more students to play varsity sports, or lessen the need for remedial courses in college.

    As Charlie said, address the needs. The wants can wait until we can afford them or can be funded through other avenues.

  6. Michael Black 2010.11.30

    My father always told me to do things right the first time.

    Are we making needed repairs for just for today or are we preparing for the next 45 years?

  7. GoldMan 2010.11.30

    One thing the tour does not promote is the fact that interest rates on bond issues are the lowest in history and will never be lower than the coming year. Also, there is tremendous competition among contractors for projects with some coming in at 15-20% below estimates due to the economic slowdown. Neither of those factors will last long as inflation looms. It is the perfect time to remodel and expand if voters are willing to support creating a world-class learning environment.

  8. nonnie 2010.11.30

    Isn't the money supposedly saved by building immediately because of lower costs offset by the approximately $13 million in interest over 25 years? And those who are saying we have to take advantage of low costs right now are admitting that inflation is coming. That is one of my points. Inflation IS coming, and with it higher costs for food, gas, clothing, insurance, everything. Wages are not and will not rise at a like rate. But the higher taxes for the new construction will continue regardless. I would like to know exactly how much the promoters are paying for this. Would they like to post here? This is a very unfair way to build new schools, two of which have been built recnetly and one of which has 12 years to go to be paid off, obligating the capital outlay fund for that length of time. By the time this new constrution would be paid off, the school will once again be outdated.

  9. Charlie Johnson 2010.11.30

    I laid out the facts just as they are. It is up to each individual voter to decide how the facts weigh in on their decision. As to the investment per student, that is simple cost accounting as you learn either through schooling or first hand running a business. If i buy a different combine for the farm, i have to judge my cost on a per acre basis. Granted I may use that machine for many years but it is still important how it affects my bottom line on a per unit basis. It would be good for any school district to know what their infrastructure investment per student is.

    By the way, I did take the tour. I spent four years in school at MHS. Five of our children attended MHS. I do want to take care of our needs within the MHS building. I do want Madison School District patrons to fully explore all information on the project before they vote. I want every concern resident to vote.

    What I perhaps need to point out again is that we have a weak and ineffective tax structure to support education. This same tax structure is being asked to support the bond issue. In the end you can argue and advocate all you want for education(we all try to), but very powerful economic and political forces will always strive to be in charge to maintain the status quo. I know in my most sincere belief that resources given to educators in terms of good salaries, administrative support, day to day operations is far more important than new brick and mortar.

  10. Erin 2010.12.01

    Rod, I know you've mentioned before on this blog the programs our district has lost in recent years--like the gifted program. Could you refresh our memories on which programs we've lost?

  11. Erin 2010.12.01

    I like Charlie's idea about building a fine arts annex instead of a new gym. None of the commenters here so far have weighed in on that idea. Thoughts, commenters?

  12. Chris 2010.12.01

    I'd love to have a public discussion on the additions and improvements concerning the fine arts aspects(theatre, music, arts) and how these could benefit the whole of our community. More so, if this is essentially a fine-arts facility, should it not only be built for the students, but for the whole of the community, providing programs and facilities for everyone?

    I'd like a discussion directed towards how this could be accomplished, and how a joint-use facility could be created and maintained with a community-whole emphasis.

  13. caheidelberger 2010.12.01

    This is a complicated political environment in which to host such a conversation... but I'm trying!

    Charlie's proposal for a fine arts annex deserves attention. I worry that it may be difficult to get all stakeholders at the table. The school district is committed to selling the current new gym/renovation proposal. Entertaining discussion of the fine arts annex idea would challenge their narrative that the current plan is the only way to go. But the conversation needs to happen.

  14. GoldMan 2010.12.01

    Erin, using information from the 2006 Opt Out, almost $1.5 Million has been cut since 2000 in offerings to students including the Gifted Program, two Middle School teaching positions, 6th Grade Athletics, Volunteer Coordinator, an Elementary Teacher, NCA accreditation, a secretary, field trips, NCLB Coordinator, and dozens more. Those were based on declining enrollment which reduced the State's payments to the district. I've been off the board for two years now, but I doubt much has been brought back off the list.

  15. Erin 2010.12.01

    Thanks for the info, Rod!

  16. Michael Black 2010.12.01

    Madison's declining enrollment mandated the staffing reductions. If your graduating class is 20 or 30 students more than your incoming kindergaten class, then according to the state funding formula, you have $4000+ times the loss of students. That could easily be $100,000 to cut each and every budget cycle until school population numbers stabilize. Those dollars are going to come from cuts in staff and the programs that they teach. Any opt out helps but does not cure the funding problem. In short, schools are being asked to do more with less dollars. A few years, teacher pay raises were a top priority in the news. When was the last time that teacher pay was mentioned in the paper? Our legislature is facing an $80 million dollar shortfall. Since education funding is the greatest expense for the state, we can expect that further cuts will come from higher ed and that K-12 funding will be again be frozen. Even though the school has cut staff and programs, the students are required to do more in order to graduate. The state requires school attendance until a student's 18th birthday, but then cut funding for alternative schools leaving local districts with the opportunity of educating challenging kids that don't fit the standard classroom model.

    Given the situation the school administration finds itself, I think that they have done a great job: they have made due with what they were given.

  17. caheidelberger 2010.12.02

    But Michael, now they are asking to take more than what they've been given and, rather than using that money to restore a host of valuable academic programs that have been axed, spend those public resources on a luxury gym. Instead of $2.9 million (or more?) for a new gym, let's first direct $1.5 million toward restoring the gifted program and field trips, expanding foreign language offerings, strengthening our AP courses, getting the debate team back on the road, and other academic priorities that have been hurt in the last several years.

  18. Charlie Johnson 2011.01.05

    Have we got an answer yet on why or how the 5.8 million gym in 2007 is now 2.9 million? School officials please provide this information. The cost layouts on the brochure do not add up to 16.9 million. Why?

  19. nonnie 2011.01.08

    This is just my opinion on the difference in costs between the two gym projects. I think this time they are only counting the shell of the gym, NOT the locker rooms, offices, concession area, lobby, restrooms, mechanics room, fitness center, even the room for the booster club. I kinda think that none of these last items would exist apart from the gym; therefore they should all be counted as cost of the new gym part of the project. Of course, that wouldn't look as good when spinning the project costs to taxpayers. Or maybe the other option is that costs have declined that much (ha!) in which case I'm going to consider building onto my house right now too!

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