CALEDONIA — After residents renewed efforts for suburban municipalities to cut ties with the Racine Unified School District last year, the village boards of Caledonia and Sturtevant are expected to put the question to a vote in April.
The votes — advisory referenda — won’t definitely decide the matter or bind village governments to act in any way, but officials say putting the question on the spring election ballot will show whether residents really want to break from Unified and start their own school systems.
“The goal is to find out who’s really interested in an independent school district,” said Caledonia Village Board President Bob Bradley. “It’s just to see where the people are.”
The Sturtevant Village Board approved putting a question on the April ballot on Thursday. Caledonia’s board took steps toward this end in a meeting last week, but will have its final vote on Monday. Bradley expects the board to approve an advisory referendum.
Mount Pleasant, however, will not pursue an advisory referendum on the issue, Village Administrator Kurt Wahlen said.
Wahlen said a referendum would be a moot point since current state law prohibits the village from withdrawing from Unified. He also noted a majority of village residents supported the Nov. 4 Unified referendum increasing spending.
“I think the time for right now is just to sit back and see what happens,” Wahlen said.
He added he was looking forward to seeing the results of referendums in Sturtevant and Caledonia.
Study would follow vote
With a majority of Sturtevant residents voting against the Nov. 4 referendum, Sturtevant board member Chris Larsen said the referendum results did not spur the village to pursue the advisory referendum, but he acknowledged that it can serve as a benchmark to show residents’ dissatisfaction with Unified.
He said he has increasingly seen more parents finding alternatives to Unified, but the village cannot put money toward exploring the issue until they have a signal that the people want it.
“Before we allocate a single dime, I want to make sure this is wanted by the majority of our residents,” Larsen said.
If approved, both Larsen and Bradley agreed that a feasibility study of creating a school district would be the likely next step. Bradley noted that the cost of such a study is not to exceed $30,000, which is the cost of a similar study performed in 2007.
Brain Dey, member of the Caledonia School District Steering Committee and long-time proponent of a separate district, lauded the idea of an advisory referendum.
As he works with legislators to change state law on how school districts are separated — advocating that a referendum of residents rather than a school board should set a community’s education policy – Dey said that legislators would be more willing to support the idea with a referendum showing that residents want it.
“For me this was a big triumph because we’ve been trying to get this on the ballot for eight years,” he said.
Unified officials, on the other hand, urged village officials to focus not only on the benefits but also the drawbacks of breaking up the district.
“We hope the community leaders make sure the implications, impact and costs are thoroughly studied and openly shared with voters before they are asked to make such an important decision,” stated Unified Superintendent Lolli Haws in an email.
Echoing that statement, School Board President Dennis Wiser explained that “starting a school district can be costly and complex; I hope voters have enough information to appreciate that.”