Elected officials in the City of Verona and Verona Area School District disagree how much the city should pay for a piece of land to help fund a new road leading into the new high school site.
Monday night, the Common Council and school board held a joint meeting that included each body going into a closed session, featured questions over each side’s motives and planning and ultimately produced no resolution.
The district needs to submit its site plan and other documents by the end of the year to stick to its 2020 opening plan without knowing how much the city will contribute. If the city contributes less, other parts of the project might be cut, which could affect the approval and design process and endanger the timeline.
“Decisions by these bodies here need to be made as soon as possible, because it really impacts the ultimate goal of getting the site permitted,” said district consultant Hans Justeson of JSD Professional Services.
For the council, that’s no sooner than January. Alders came out of an hour-and-15-minute closed session without a quorum but asking for more information from city staff before committing any money to the road, particularly the projected cost of the road and the value of a school district property being swapped for it.
“Our hope is to be able to have those numbers (from staff) and to have a meeting of the Common Council to discuss this at the first meeting in January,” city attorney Bryan Kleinmaier said after alders returned from a closed-session meeting.
As the meeting was about to adjourn, city public works director Theran Jacobson suggested that Justeson submit the district’s documents as planned before the end of the year, regardless of monetary decisions.
“You need to move forward with your schedule,” Jacobson said.
The district’s original plan for a road to provide what’s believed to be a necessary additional access point to the site would have connected to Paoli Street. The city strongly supported that in concept.
In December 2016, city administrator Jeff Mikorski told VASD superintendent Dean Gorrell the council had committed up to $5 million for the costs of the connector road, according to a timeline provided by Gorrell. The district has used that number throughout the planning before and after voters approved the referendum in April.
The district abandoned efforts to build a connection to Paoli Street because of a lack of city support for an intersection far too close to the U.S. Hwy. 18-151 onramp – something that was expected to be an issue with getting state approval. So the district instead pursued a road connecting to South Nine Mound Road – in addition to roads planned off West End Circle and Wall Street – as another access point.
It continued to use the $5 million figure for its planning, but city officials told the board Monday that road would offer less of a “benefit” to the general public.
“It seems like this is more something that’s serving people just to and from the high school, it’s not necessarily serving the larger community,” said Ald. Elizabeth Doyle (Dist. 1). “There’s been some back and forth about what was actually committed to from a council standpoint.”
Land value questioned
Under either scenario, the city’s funding would be in exchange for district property where Sugar Creek Elementary School and New Century School stand now.
Ald. Evan Touchett (D-4) said the value of that property should provide an easy answer for how much the city should contribute.
“Whatever is deemed a fair value of these properties, I think it’d be very fair to ask the city to contribute for these roads,” Touchett said. “If it’s X, why wouldn’t we give you X?”
But Meredith Stier Christensen suggested that rethinking the number would violate the principles of negotiating in good faith and that the district has been relying on that number since it first decided how much to ask for in the referendum.
“We’ve been relying on our plan and on the assertions from the city at that point when we were making our referendum,” she said. “I am rather disappointed that we had some assertion from the city that we would be supported in some numerical way that is maybe not reflected here in the opinions today.”
There were strong disagreements over the validity of that argument because of the $5 million figure’s tie to that specific road to Paoli Street, which would have featured an assortment of complicated engineering issues. Staff on both sides also disagreed over statements made in an Aug. 10 meeting, about two weeks after it became clear the Paoli Street connection would not happen.
Gorrell’s written timeline states that, “I was told we should expect the same level of financial commitment from the city as previously stated, $5M.”
But Mikorski countered that Monday, saying the council did not discuss making the swap and paying for a different road until Sept. 25.
“Council never got back together to reaffirm that commitment,” he said. “Basically that was, ‘Council has not changed the commitment because it had not gotten together.’”
On Aug. 28, with the $5 million in city money for the road still a part of their plans, the school board approved spending $5.7 million to add a second pool to the aquatic center at the new site, a move that appeared to take city leaders by surprise.
Representatives of both bodies questioned why, with deadlines fast approaching, this meeting waited until late November.
Both sides appeared to be scrambling and some members were uncomfortable with it.
“We’re just trying to look at things fairly, what’s fair to the city, what’s fair for the school district,” Touchett said. “I’m sorry, but we can’t move as fast as you want us to.”
Both bodies have met independently in closed sessions over the last year to discuss the road and land swap.
School officials said they had been requesting a joint meeting since January to discuss these issues.
“We have hit some notable points at which this information would’ve been helpful to know,” said school board president Noah Roberts. “We’ve made decisions based on the information that was provided to us. We would appreciate if a decision would be made tonight because our timeline is crunched.”
Mikorski said the city had also reached out to request a joint meeting in September but was turned down because the new road was not worked out yet.
Touchett said he was unsure “where the disconnect happened” on a joint meeting, because the council is interested in that, as well.
“As both groups, we’ve all had the same desire,” he said. “I don’t know why it hasn’t happened.”