Medford seeks to improve security at high school entrance
Looks to tap into budget savings due to federal ESSER funds to expand and renovate front entrance at MASH
The main office of the Medford Area Senior High School could get a face lift along with security upgrades under a plan presented at Monday’s school board meeting.
Currently at the high school, if someone is buzzed into the building they enter into the main corridor and can have direct access to the entire school building. As a way to improve security, the district in its last failed referendum attempt had sought to reconfigure the entrance and expand the main office space.
According to district administrator Pat Sullivan, the project and particularly its security upgrades are still needed. What has changed, is the potential for the district to use existing funds for the work without needing to ask taxpayers for more money.
Medford, like school districts across the country received Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) grants as part of federal efforts to assist local schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. The money has a variety of uses including staff and technology upgrades to close educational gaps.
In the last biennial budget the state had directed schools to use this funding to supplement school budgets rather than giving additional state funds on top of the federal funds. This has led to concerns about the risk of incurring ongoing costs, such as staff salaries, for fear of facing a fiscal cliff.
At Monday’s school district finance meeting, which preceded the school board, district finance director Audra Brooks explained that what they have been doing is utilizing the ESSER funds to pay for qualified expenses including staffing and technology, therefore freeing up those funds in the district’s operational budget for other purposes.
At the end of last school year, the district was able to put more than $1 million in reserves from that practice and Sullivan projected they would have a similar amount this year.
Given the one-time nature of the funding, the school administration is looking to put it toward capital projects. Sullivan proposed using about $1.1 million of the money to expand and reconfigure the front office area of the high school to address space needs and improve security. He noted that the security concerns with the front office area ranked high in community surveys done in the district.
While supportive of the idea of doing a project, board members had different ideas about priorities.
John Zuleger suggested the district may want a higher priority for repaving the parking lot. Board member Steve Deml replied that while he is a fan of asphalt he would place expanding or upgrading portions of the building ahead of replacing blacktop. The district has been replacing sections of the parking lot within its budget.
Board president Dave Fleegel said he would prefer money being spent toward classroom spaces such as expanding technical education or creating new science rooms or walk-out access from the lower level so that in emergencies those with mobility issues wouldn’t have to wait to be carried out of the building.
He also expressed concern about if the district received the federal grant for a storm-hardened expansion including gym and technical education space, if the district would be able to cover the local match without draining all their local reserves.
“How can we best utilize these dollars for the future of the Medford School District?” Fleegel asked, describing this as a one-time opportunity.
Others such as board member Kurt Werner and Brian Hallgren suggested the option of going back to the voters with a referendum. Hallgren suggested they go to voters in the April election with needed projects. However this met with strong opposition from other board members including Zuleger who said he would not be able to support doing that.
Zuleger said he felt the district had the best chance of passing a referendum in the elections with the highest voter turnout and said the district should wait until the November 2024 general election before bringing any questions to voters. Hallgren chafed at the delays noting that in that plan it would be 2026 before any of the projects would be put into use meaning that none of the current high school students would see any benefit from them.
Werner, however, said he felt there would be support for smaller, focused referendums that were for specific projects such as the renovation of the office area. “I really think it would go,” he said, suggesting the office project be put to voters in the spring.
Board member Don Everhard questioned if voters would approve it, noting the message received from voters in previous referendums was to live within their budget. He said by utilizing the money they have on hand to do this work, they are showing to voters that they are living within their budgets.
Sullivan said he felt there could be support for referendums in the future if the dollar amount was right, noting the district had been able to pass a $5 million referendum in the past. He questioned if going for a $1 million project would be worth it for voters.
“I think people would like us to do a project with the money we have,” Everhard said.
On a voice vote, board members voted to move forward with the design process for the renovation and expansion of the high school office area to address security and space needs.
In other business:
Approved allowing Brooks to put $1.5 million of Fund 46 money into an 11 month certificate of deposit at Forward Bank for a rate of 4%. Brooks explained this is money that the district has set aside for future projects and cannot use until December 2024. If left in the current account, she said the district would see about $14,000 in interest income compared to $56,000 with the higher interest rate CD.
Received word that nomination papers for spring elections may begin being circulated December 1. Up for reelection are Hallgren, Deml and Zuleger. Nomination papers are due by January 3 with incumbents having until Dec. 23 to file a statement of noncandidacy.
Gave their blessing to a proposed change in the football-only Great Northern Conference proposed by Ashland School District which would see Ashland and Hayward leave the conference and Wausau East and Tomahawk come into the conference. The district opposes an alternative plan proposed by Hortonville schools which would see Ashland and Hayward leave but only bring in Wausau East leaving a bye week for conference schools to fill. Each school in the conference has an opportunity to weigh into the realignment plan which then goes to the WIAA. Activities director Ryan Pilgrim updated the board on the proposals and made the recommendation to support the Ashland plan.