Janesville school taxes going up

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Frank Schultz
Wednesday, October 30, 2013

JANESVILLE—School taxes in the Janesville School district will increase on December's tax bills, even though the total amount of taxes will go down this year.

The school board on Tuesday approved a tax levy of $35.82 million, a 0.7 percent reduction from last year.

Problem is, the total value of properties in the district went down. That means there is less value to tax, so individual taxpayers will end up paying more taxes.

The vote was 7-2, with Kevin Murray and Bill Sodemann voting “no.”

Murray and Sodemann both proposed cutting the levy by different amounts, but they garnered no support.

Sodemann's cut was $200,000.

“It's not a large amount, but every cent makes a difference in this economy,” Sodemann said.

Sodemann said no one complains when taxes go up a little bit, but then it's a problem to reduce them by a little bit. That's what has led to Wisconsin's tax situation, he said.

Murray's cut was $2 million, which he said would be close to a no-increase tax bill. But that, too failed, even though Cathy Myers joined Murray and Sodemann in voting for it.

Murray argued that the district saw a “windfall” this year, with most employees for the first time paying more for health insurance and paying half their pension payments, savings of more than $8 million.

That money could have been set aside for the replacement of the Franklin Middle School boiler, for pre-funding early-retirement benefits and for settling the teachers contract, Murray argued.

Instead of saving that money, the administration decided to spend it, Murray said

Board member Scott Feldt said he liked the fact that the levy would decrease by 0.7 percent, noting that inflation increased by about 2 percent.

“Whenever the increase is less than the rate of inflation, that means you have efficiencies, so I'm happy with that,” Feldt said.

The tax rate increases from $9.79 per $1,000 of equalized value to $10.06. Taxes are based on assessed values, which differ from one municipality to the next, however, so those figures give only a suggestion of what the actual tax increase will be.

District Chief Financial Officer Keith Pennington said a $100,000 house would see a school tax increase of $27, but again, that calculation was based on equalized values.

The levy had been set to increase slightly, by 0.16 percent, but state lawmakers passed a last-minute tax-relief bill, which resulted in the Janesville levy decreasing.

The board also approved the operational budget of $111.2 million after extensive debate over one item: a plan to reward employees for superior performance on the state report card.

The district's report card score surpassed other Rock County districts and also was the highest among the top 10 largest districts in the state.

Superintendent Karen Schulte proposed $600,000 to reward employees.

Sodemann tried to reduce that amount to $400,000, but only Murray agreed. Board President Greg Ardrey, whose wife is an aide in the district, abstained from votes on the reward plan.

Schulte said Tuesday that she was considering $500 for each full-time employee—those working 35 or more hours per week. Part-time employees would get lesser awards, but the method for determining who gets how much was the focus of much debate.

Several board members opposed giving the bonuses to administrators because the board previously approved a plan to “incentivize” administrators for their performance this year, up to 4.5 percent of their salaries.

Schulte had argued that the incentive pay is for work done this school year, but the bonuses were for work done in the 2012-13 school year. The report cards were based on scores from tests that students took in fall 2012, and everyone had contributed to that success.

“We're all in this together. That's been our message, our motto,” Schulte said.

Schulte, seeing the opposition to giving administrators bonus pay plus the potential of incentive pay, changed her proposal, saying the administrators' bonus pay would come out of the money the board had already approved for the incentive pay.

Two groups of employees will not receive the bonuses: employees who are new this year and those on “intensive supervision,” which means they are being scrutinized after warnings and previous interventions failed.

In the end, at Feldt's suggestion, the board voted to require the administration to return at a future meeting with a plan for distributing the money. The vote was 6-2, with David DiStefano and Kristen Hesselbacher voting “no” and Ardrey abstaining.

A separate vote to approve the $600,000 was 7-1-1, with Murray voting “no” and Ardrey abstaining.

No date was set for distributing the bonuses, although Schulte mentioned January as a possibility.

No one spoke at Tuesday's annual budget hearing.

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