By Jody Knauss — Barely five years after passage of a $134 million building referendum, the administration of Madison Area Technical College is quietly moving forward with plans to sell its Downtown Education Center (DTEC), hoping to defuse opposition by proposing to use the proceeds to fund a new campus in south Madison.
DTEC, just off Capitol Square, has been an anchor downtown since it was built in 1921 as Madison Vocational School. The building, including a major 1950s–era addition, and small parking lot fill the block bounded by Wisconsin Avenue, West Dayton, North Henry and West Johnson Streets.
Arguing for the 2010 referendum, then President Bettsey Barhorst’s administration reported DTEC to be in fair condition and recommended spending $1.2 million to upgrade classrooms there. Now current MATC President Jack E. Daniels, who came to the school in 2013 from Los Angeles, claims the building needs a $30 million overhaul and “isn’t worth it.”
Instead, and with no supporting analysis of the proposed costs or benefits, Daniels has suggested closing and selling DTEC and using the estimated $12–$13 million in proceeds to replace the current South Campus at Villager Mall with a new, leased facility elsewhere on the south side.
All recommendations to preserve DTEC ignored
The current saga dates to the fall of 2014. The last faculty union contracts allowed under Act 10 had run out and Daniels instituted a new “shared governance” planning process. One of the first tasks taken up was to study the three Madison-area “metro campuses”: DTEC, the West Campus near West Towne, and the South Campus at Villager Mall in south Madison.
Surveys of stakeholders—faculty, students, and community members—were done, all of which recommended maintaining DTEC. Nevertheless, administration representatives pushed to close and sell it. But twice, the College Assembly, the highest level of shared governance, refused to agree.
The second proposal, brought to the Assembly in early April 2015, first raised the idea of using the proceeds from selling DTEC to fund a new south Madison campus. The South Madison Initiative was a classic “one-pager,” with no supporting analysis of the need for or outcomes to be achieved at a new south Madison campus. Again the Assembly did not approve.
Undeterred, and confirming the fears of shared governance skeptics, Daniels chose to ignore the Assembly and bring his proposal to sell DTEC directly to the Board of Trustees. The Board also refused to go along, deadlocking 4–4. (There was one Board vacancy at the time, which has since been filled by near west side Ald. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff.)
Instead, the Board authorized the administration “to explore and report the options for the highest and best use of the DTEC facility consistent with the needs of the district, students and taxpayers” while at the same time “granting authority to staff to present to the Board for its consideration a South Madison Initiative which may include enhanced comprehensive services and new or improved facilities.”
President disregards Board
Shockingly, the Daniels Administration has thus far blown off the requested DTEC study entirely by continuing to argue that the claimed $30 million in needed investment is a deal breaker.
In fact, there is no publicly available documentation for the $30 million figure, which is over $10 million more than the higher of two estimates MATC received last year for a proposed total DTEC overhaul. A second estimate suggested just $10 million in upgrades, with another $5 million for extras specifically requested by the administration.
Truthfully, and consistent with the analysis made in 2010, DTEC at this time is perfectly functional, with many state of the art classrooms and workspaces (including art and animation studios), operating child care and fitness centers, and with no immediate big-ticket needs. About 6,000 students still attend DTEC, more than the two other metro campuses combined.
Nor has the administration yet shown how a new south Madison “comprehensive campus” will serve south Madison students or residents better than the current site.
But it has already held an open house in south Madison to gin up neighborhood support, has begun exploring leasable, build-to-suit sites on the south side, and is still planning to ask the Board to approve selling DTEC this April or May.
Déjà vu all over again
Madison old-timers will recall the previous instance when MATC leaders tried to ram through a plan to abandon DTEC, shortly after the 12-county MATC district was created in the late 1960s.
By 1973, sprawl was killing downtown and MATC, with the blessing of the state board, decided it wanted its own suburban-style campus. A referendum to fund relocation was quickly passed in 1974.
Thankfully, foresighted city residents and officials recognized the importance of DTEC to downtown, and did everything to forestall the move. It took a decade to resolve all the lawsuits, with the result a compromise allowing a new main Truax campus to be developed near the airport in exchange for the college’s commitment to preserving and reinvesting in DTEC.
The final court ruling in 1984 affirmed the decision of the MATC and Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) boards to “site their expanded facilities at 211 North Carroll Street and … at the Truax Airpark.”
In contrast, the 2010 referendum, in which MATC leadership wisely committed to reinvesting in DTEC, passed overwhelmingly with virtually no opposition. At no time did the MATC Administration or Board suggest that, just five years later, the future of DTEC would again be called into question.
Why rush with so many questions still unanswered?
The list of questions not yet answered about the plan to sell DTEC and build a new south Madison campus is staggering:
Who are the students to be served by the new campus and how will they be served better than at the current South Campus?
Would south Madison students and residents benefit more from increased staffing or new bricks and mortar?
How does selling a perfectly functional building, owned outright and easily accessed by public transportation, in order to lease and staff a new south Madison campus fit with MATC’s current budget picture? How quickly will construction and leasing costs eat up the proceeds from the sale of DTEC?
Is this an economic development project or an education project? Where would classes and programs currently housed at DTEC end up? How would abandoning DTEC affect the college’s growing college transfer relationship with UW–Madison? What are the true maintenance needs at DTEC?
That the MATC Board has not demanded answers to these questions is troubling. It may again be up to city leaders and residents to find the right solution to serve the needs of all MATC students, and keep the college from shooting itself in the foot.
Look for an update in April.