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Referendum temporarily on ‘pause’
Two sides agree to let the decision play out in court; judge’s decision May 3
New Gavel

MONROE — The lawsuit against the School District of Monroe and Board of Education has come to an agreed-upon standstill.

The district and plaintiffs, a group of four citizens, met for a status conference at the Green County Justice Center March 14 in front of Judge Thomas Vale. The aim of the plaintiffs is to strike down the $88 million November 2022 referendum, which they claim gained voter approval under false pretenses, namely the district’s lack of accurately describing the tax impact on area residents.

In the court appearance, the school district, as defendants, came to a momentary agreement with the defense on further proceedings. The school district will not move forward with any planning for the new high school or renovations of Abraham Lincoln Elementary. There will not be a new potential high school site selected, informational meeting held, or meetings of the electors to vote on a new property until a May 3 decision by Vale.

On April 3 and 4, depositions will take place. Open briefs will be presented by April 14, with responses on April 21. From 9 a.m. to noon on April 28, oral arguments on the case will take place. Vale will then make his oral ruling at 3 p.m. on May 3.

Dale Howarth, Larry Koschkee, Merlyn Gordee, Jr. and a fourth Monroe citizen are suing the school district. They are represented by attorney Anthony Coletti from Elkhorn. The School District of Monroe and school board are represented by Douglas Witte, Sarah Zylstra and Tanner Jean-Louis of Boardman Clark of Madison.

What happens after that is unknown. Should the school district come out on top, they would be able to proceed with the process of fixing the elementary school and figuring out where to build a new high school, pending a possible meeting of the electors if it is on new property. The plaintiffs would be able to appeal to a higher court if that happens, dragging the questions out further. 

The hope for the school district is a quick resolution, as the bonds are due by June 14.

Should the plaintiffs come out on top, it would be the first successful overturning of a referendum of its type in Wisconsin. The district could appeal, or else would still have to pay off its obligatory bonds and then go back to the drawing board to submit a new referendum, if so desired. By state law, a referendum must be called for with 70-day notice, with the next scheduled election after May 3 not coming until 2024.

The $88 million referendum passed by nearly 10% of the vote during the mid-term elections. It seeks about $3 million to upgrade Abraham Lincoln’s HVAC systems and to make it ADA compliant. The rest of the money would then be used to purchase approximately 70 acres of land and build a new high school off-site. The current site is approximately 26 acres, with nearly 40 acres of district land in total in the area. 

The district promoted a 13-cent per $100 tax increased based on previous year’s data, but when the taxes came in, the number was much higher thanks to an unprecedented increase in Total Estimated Fair Market Value and state equalization. Citizens received their tax bills in the days before the district’s first attempt to purchase land on 31st Avenue along the city’s far east side. That site was voted down at a meeting of the electors with about 110 residents attending.

At that time, Howarth started a Facebook group that aimed to bring out transparency from the school board and district. The group quickly grew to more than 1,200 members, though several reside from outside the district but have close ties and vested interest. 

Three months after the first site was declined, the district offered up a second site on County DR. Just a day after an informational meeting and Q&A with the public, and days before a vote on the site, Vale denied a temporary injunction that would have stopped the special meeting of the electors. More than 1,500 people descended upon the Monroe High School gymnasium on March 8 to vote in a meeting of the electors. 

“I’d like to thank the electors for their engagement in this process,” Board of Education president Rich Deprez said March 13 at the next public school board meeting. “Clearly highly engaged and interested in this process in a level we have not seen here in Monroe in recent memory. These are really good things, to have this level of engagement.”

In a nearly 2-to-1 margin, that site was also turned down by the electorate.

“It’s important to note that there is clearly a lot of interest in where the new high school will be built, but it’s also clear that we need to re-engage with the community to educate folks that are becoming interested in the site-selection process. And to determine a site that can be agreed to by the majority of the community — wherever that site ends up being,” Deprez said at the March 13 school board meeting. “We’re not sure what that process will end up looking like at that time, but we are exploring ways to be better informed by the community and bring back a site to be approved by the electors.”

Monroe superintendent Rodney Figueroa mirrored Deprez. 

“Because this is the first meeting the board has had since Wednesday (March 8), nothing has been determined yet, though as information becomes available, we will make that available on our website and through our social media channels,” Figueroa said.

The next day, the two sides announced the agreement to pause the project and cordially move forward with the legal proceedings.