Lakeland School plans progress

Approved designs get $400,000 in gifts

(Published August 9, 2006, 9:09 a.m.)

By Mike Heine/The Week

The future of Walworth County's Lakeland School building project became a lot clearer Tuesday night, but one cloud still remains.

The county board approved schematic drawings for the school, accepted $400,000 in guaranteed donations and OK'ed an intergovernmental agreement to cease paying for district-wide special education in 10 years.

But a civil suit filed July 31 by a state disability advocacy group could turn plans upside down.

Disability Rights Wisconsin is suing the county because it wants to build a bigger school for children with disabilities. The group claims the plan violates Americans with Disabilities Act standards because it further promotes the segregation of children with disabilities.

"The board still has a series of decisions to be made and a strategy needs to be made with respect to the lawsuit," County Administrator David Bretl said. "Any delays in construction will cost real dollars. We'll take it one step at a time here."

Despite the recent filing of the lawsuit, the county board voted 22-2 to approve Plunkett Raysich Architects' schematic design for a $22 million school. The plans will include the most expensive pool options presented after the Geneva National Foundation pledged $350,000 and Whitewater businessman and philanthropist David Ketchel offered $50,000.

The county will pay $460,000 - the amount for the most basic pool option - toward the estimated $720,000 pool area, which includes a 46-by-75-foot lap and exercise pool and a smaller hydrotherapy pool. The difference in costs will be made up by the donations. Remaining donations will go toward other aquatic center needs, such as wheelchair lifts.

In order to receive bonding for the school, the county needed to reduce its costs by unloading its in-district special education services.

The intergovernmental agreement calls for a 10-year transition of those services to the county's 15 school districts. Within four years, districts will have to hire their own special education aides. By the 2016-2017 school year, they must pay for their own special education teachers.

Currently, the county employs 73 teachers and 36 aides in the school districts. It is anticipated that many of those employees will be absorbed into the school districts where they work.

The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee, could have an effect on the county's ability to borrow for the school, Board Chairwoman Ann Lohrmann said.

It's unknown what will happen if the county builds a bigger school and Disability Rights was successful in its case. The group is not against the county building a smaller or equal-sized school, said Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick, attorney for Disability Rights. A bigger school promotes segregation, according to the suit.

"I can't imagine a lending agency wanting to borrow us money if they aren't sure we can build a school," Lohrmann said.

Lohrmann and Supervisor Rick Stacey voted against the schematic designs, primarily due to costs. Stacey has been opposed to a larger school because of the potential tax increases.

In two years, the county rate could jump 12 to 20 percent and it might not be able to afford any road construction in 2008, he said.

"After two years there will be a tremendous impact on our tax bills," Stacey said. "I believe it will be so tremendous that I believe in the next election none of us is going to be reelected."

In September 2004, the county board committed itself to maintaining a school for children with disabilities. It later opted to build a new school on a new site.

Supervisor Bob Arnold opposed to the 10-year transition plan developed by county officials and representatives of the county's school districts. He felt it could be done in three years.

His motion for a speedier timeframe was easily defeated.

"This was discussed between the Children with Disabilities Educational Board and all of the administrators of the 15 school districts of the county," Supervisor Jerry Grant said. "This is a program that everybody can buy into. If we go to a three-year term and expect the school districts to be able to accomplish what we expect them to do in 10 years, it will be next to impossible. This is the only way we can get cooperation between those 15 school districts and our county."

County board members expect area school boards to easily approve the transition plans at upcoming district meetings.

Lakeland School building timeline

* August-October, design and development

* October-February, construction blueprints created

* February-March, construction bidding

* March-August 2008, construction

* September 2008, occupancy

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