The Ad Hoc Committee of the City of Stoughton Common Council, Stoughton Area School District and Stoughton Chamber of Commerce has targeted bringing young families to Stoughton – and keeping current ones here – as its mission.
The committee was started last spring to jointly address declining enrollment in the district and its effects on the community. Its latest meeting, July 23, was the first with an almost entirely new set of voting members.
Returning member and committee co-chair Jon Coughlin was joined by five newcomers – colleagues Kathleen Hoppe and Jill Patterson from the school board and council members Nicole Wiessinger (Dist. 4, co-chair), Sid Boersma (D-1) and Regina Hirsch (D-3) – in approving at that meeting a mission statement to “Make Stoughton a community of choice that attracts and retains young families.”
“That’s the direction our committee is going to be focused on, because that’s our purpose that the city and the school board started to form this joint committee, specifically to attack that issue,” Coughlin told the Hub last week. “Now, hopefully at some point, we can get a new name, because I don’t think ‘ad hoc’ it really gives people an idea of what’s going on.”
Ad hoc is a Latin term for something established for a specific purpose, as opposed to standing committees that address issues as they come up.
The committee will hold its fourth meeting in the past 10 months on Aug. 27, stepping up its meeting pace with the new members in place.
The school board approved the statement Monday, and its new official “mission” has Coughlin “really excited” about the group’s future.
“The first year was sort of figuring out what the purpose of the committee was, how narrow a scope,” he said. “Now, we can help the school district and the city council understand strengths and weakness specifically as they pertain to attracting and retaining young families.
“We have some momentum right now.”
For its next steps, the group talked about making use of a UW-Madison study released in December titled, “Gaining and Maintaining Young People in Wisconsin Communities,” and asking researchers about their findings.
Coughlin, an aerospace engineer/consultant by trade, said the study is packed full of exactly the kind of facts and information the committee needs right now.
“There’s real concrete research and expert advice on what steps to do moving forward,” he said. “They have do-it-yourself guides for assessing your community’s ability to attract and retain young families, so that might be a starting point for us as we try to wrap our heads around Stoughton’s current capacity … and anything we might need to do in the near future to increase our chances.”
Board president Frank Sullivan said the committee did a “good job getting us to the right place.”
“I was in that (ad hoc committee) meeting and it was a long discussion, and it was sort of meandering at times, but I thought it was interesting to hear all the perspectives,” he said. “I think this mission statement is exactly what this group needs to be doing, and it’s nice to see it expressed so succinctly.”
Looking for housing
While having a few fewer students every year might not sound like a big problem, due to the state’s enrollment-based funding formula, as the numbers drop, so does a district’s funding.
In recent years, the district has gone to referendum to essentially buy a few years’ time to defer severe cuts, but a long-term problem has clearly emerged.
“We’ve had declining enrollment in our district for a number of years, and the school district recognizes that it’s not sustainable if we’re going to continue offering a wide range of services and opportunities to our kids,” Coughlin said.
Part of the problem Coughlin said he has already heard plenty of – and experienced – is a lack of housing in the area for young families. He and his wife moved to Stoughton four years ago because it was between Madison and Janesville, but they have been renting ever since because of a lack of houses in the “starter” range they’re looking for.
“We’re in the market (but) there’s not a ton of inventory,” he said. “That’s something I’ve been vocal about at the joint meetings. It’s hard to find houses for a family like mine.”
Coughlin said several friends recently looking for houses in the area bypassed Stoughton in favor of places like Oregon, Evansville and Edgerton because they had trouble finding housing here.
“Those were people interested in coming to Stoughton,” he said. “I hope that my voice being one that’s sort of underrepresented in Stoughton politics – a family in their early 30s – maybe gives a little bit of a different perspective.”
One thing Coughlin said he’s learned from talking to hundreds of people during his 2016 school board election campaign, is Stoughton residents want new, young families in the area.
“When I talk to anybody and advocate on behalf of doing whatever we can to attract and retain more young families, the response is universally positive,” he said. “People sort of galvanized around that. I don’t know how I could have gotten elected if people were rejecting that idea.”
While Coughlin said he doesn’t believe most people are “emotionally resistant” to adding new residents to the city, there might be a few things to clear up.
“I do wonder if there is possibly a misunderstanding that bringing new people to Stoughton has to happen at the expense of the residents who currently live here,” he said. “That’s an idea I do hear at times, and I think that is one we can very easily change.
“You can have everything Stoughton has right now, while also attracting and retaining young families.”