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Holland is 'baffled' by council's action in light of referendum

Tom Holland

Profoundly disappointed is how Hudson Board of Education President Tom Holland described himself following the decision by the Hudson City Council not to rezone St. Croix Meadows for use as a school.

The voters, including those in the city of Hudson, approved a referendum to purchase the former St. Croix Meadows dogtrack last April. A contingency of the sale was that the property be rezoned from commercial use to public use. The track closed 12 years ago and has been on the market ever since. The city collects around $20,000 annually in property taxes from the owners.

Holland said he was speaking only for himself and not on behalf of the entire school board. He believes the council has the right to make the decision they did but questions the rationale they used in explaining their decision before casting their votes, 5-1, against the school district's and property owner's request.

Based on the comments of individual council members before their votes, Holland thinks that they had already made up their minds to vote against rezoning even before the school district made their presentation at last week's meeting.

Holland said that the district had been asked by the city's plan commission to provide information not only about the property they were seeking the rezoning on but also on several other properties the school board had considered but rejected as viable sites.

According to Holland, the district and the property owners spent several months and substantial resources to research and provide the information requested to answer the commission's questions specifically and to address the council's concern about lost tax revenue as well as make their case for the viability of the dogtrack as the best school site available.

"But the bottom line is that they never had any intention of rezoning the property. They based their decision on a hunch and a hope that they will realize a bounty of tax dollars sometime down the road. They made that decision based on something that we believe is just not likely to happen," said Holland.

Holland also took issue with many of the council members' comments that seem to "blame the district" for the failure of the request and for not coming to them sooner about the question of rezoning. Holland said any implication that the mayor and the council did not know about the rezoning issue prior to the referendum is "just not true."

He noted that it was former mayor Dean Knudson who approached the district about contacting the owners of the dogtrack about two yeas ago. "We had talked to the St.Croix Meadows owners about the property but the cost was beyond our reach. But when we learned they were willing to come down in price considerable, we pursued it," said Holland.

Holland said the district talked with the city prior to the referendum and requested a conditional rezoning - that the property would be rezoned if the voters passed the referendum. The city refused and told the district they would take up the matter if and when the referendum passed. Holland said the district administration and board members had ongoing conversations with city officials about the rezoning of the property.

Holland said that despite requesting a substantial amount of information about the dogtrack and other possible school sites by the city' plan commission, their position was clear before the district ever presented their findings.

"At that meeting earlier this month, the chairman (Paul Rademacher) in his opening remarks asked us to withdraw our request before they had even heard the presentation. If that was how they felt, why wouldn't they just say that instead of making us spend all that time and money on something that we clearly know now they were never going to do?" asked Holland.

Holland said it would have been far better if the mayor and the city had simply been up front from the beginning and said no to the project. "We wouldn't have wasted valuable time we could have used pursuing other options."

Holland said the cost of putting together the presentation to answer the questions posed by the city was approximately $20,000 with half paid by the property owners and half by the district and taxpayers.

Holland said that he appreciated the comments made by council member Rich Vanselow. "He simply stated that he was going to take the chance that they track could be developed commercially. But I was frustrated and disappointed that other council members tried to use the district as the scapegoat for their decision and blame us. They made it seem like the district was demanding and disrespectful of the process. That is just not true. It was completely irresponsible to make those statements."

@by:What's next?

@t:Holland said the school board and the district administration are ready to move forward. "Everything is back on table...except the dogtrack."

While it is too soon to be specific, Holland said the board and administration are considering other options. "And we are looking at doing some things that will shorten the time it will take. We think that is the right thing to do for the community."

Holland said he would not like to see the district build on the property along County UU but stressed he he was speaking only for himself and not for the rest of the board.

Holland said the board hopes to have a new plant before the community within the next six months, maybe sooner. He said the board will be seeking community input on any new option.

Holland acknowledged that the cost of a new secondary school, particularly a high school, will be high. While he understands the public's concern about the cost of both the land and school construction, he said the impact will be positively affected when $40 million of debt are retired over the next few years.

"That means we will have that money to apply to new construction without raising taxes. It won't be the kind of savings we would have realized at St. Croix Meadows but it will be a good start."

When asked about the evident tension on the school board over this issue and others, Holland said he believed disagreement and debate are healthy for the district. "And I think we can work together toward a common goal even when we do. But there is a trust issue on the board and we need to come to an arrangement where we can trust each other again."

In the meantime, Holland said the administration continues to deal with the shortage of space at both the Hudson Middle School and Hudson High School. Among the interim solutions being used are online classes, teachers on carts and increased class sizes, although Holland says class size is the "sacred cow" the board wants to protect. The district has also investigated the use of portable classrooms.

"There just aren't a lot more good solutions out there but our administration and teachers will continue to do everything they can to ensure a good learning environment for our students."

Holland said that while he is deeply disappointed in the events of the last month, he says he is hopeful and advises the community to be the same. "Just know we are working to find the next best solution."

Meg Heaton

Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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