Janesville54.1°

Board seeks $1 million

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
July 9, 2008
— The Janesville School Board was supposed to approve its 2008-09 budget Tuesday. Instead, the board asked Superintendent Tom Evert to come up with ways to save up to $1 million.

At least some of the board members want to reduce taxes. They worry about the loss of jobs from the General Motors plant and GM suppliers, as well as the generally poor state of the economy,


The district won't know until September whether the loss of a shift at the GM plant will mean fewer kids in classrooms. If enrollment dips, state aid and the taxes the board can collect will drop.


Board members also expressed concerned about residents' ability to pay taxes in a struggling economy.


"What property tax increase are we willing to defend in these economic times?" board member Tim Cullen asked.


Kevin Murray, Bill Sodemann and Cullen all said they'd like to see a budget with no tax increase, although it wasn't clear whether they wanted a zero increase in the tax levy or the tax rate.


The levy is the total amount of taxes the board imposes on all taxpayers.


The tax rate the amount a taxpayer pays for every $1,000 of assessed value of the property and depends on a variety of as-yet unknown factors, including individual assessments and the district's total property valuation.


Business director Doug Bunton said not taxing to the maximum allowed by law poses "a real danger for future boards" if enrollments decline, but he wouldn't say why. He said he would put together a worksheet to show the board what might happen.


Board President DuWayne Severson noted that the bad news from GM didn't come all at once. First it was the cutting the second shift. Then it was closing the plant by the end of 2010. Then the remaining shift was downsized.


Who knows what will happen next, Severson said.


Lori Stottler argued for approving the budget now so that administrators could begin making decisions about the coming school year.


It's not clear whether actual budget cuts would be needed to reduce taxes. The board has at least three sources of money it could dip into:


-- Interest earnings from the high school referendum bond issue. The money accrues interest until it is needed to pay contractors. The board last year used $500,000 from this source to lower the tax levy.


However, the interest income might be needed for the construction projects, so Bunton said he would like to err on the side of caution.


-- About $300,000 in projected revenue in 2008-09 that has not yet been allocated.


-- The district's projected $31 million fund balance. The board recently enacted a policy governing how the fund balance could be used and how much must be kept on hand for emergencies, to avoid cash-flow borrowing and other purposes.


It's not clear how much money the board might be willing to take out of the fund balance.


In addition, the board on Tuesday took a first step toward paying off two old bond issues early. The proposal is to spend $2.3 million of fund balance to pay off the bonds.


"It's like paying off a car loan early," Bunton said. "You save on interest payments, and you remove it from your monthly obligations."


The board is expected to vote on the early bond payoff at its July 22 meeting.


Paying off the bond issues would reduce the projected tax levy from $36.94 million, an 11.2 percent increase from 2007-08, to $36.36 million, a 9.4 percent increase. Those increases look hefty, but they're due in part to the fact that taxpayers have started paying off the high school referendum projects.


In addition, the board bought down the previous year's levy with one-time money, the aforementioned $500,000 as well as $1 million from the fund balance. That put the 2007-08 levy at a lower level, requiring more money to catch up this year, resulting in a higher percent increase.


IN OTHER BUSINESS

In other business Tuesday, the Janesville School Board:


-- Approved spending $15,000 to become part of the Stateline Career and Technical Academy, in which high schools around the county will offer “centers of excellence” with courses of study designed to channel students from ninth grade through post-high school study or training and into jobs. The academy is expected to start in September 2009.


Steve Huth, who coordinates career/technical education for the district, said the Beloit and Clinton school boards had already approved their participation.


-- Heard a report on a Critical Language Task Force that is recommending the district add Mandarin Chinese to its foreign-language options, without abandoning the current French, German and Spanish classes. Precisely how Chinese will be phased in has not been decided, but it appears Chinese will be offered to fewer students than the European languages, at least initially. The board is expected to decide the issue at its July 22 meeting.


The district already offers Chinese on a limited basis at a few schools.


-- Heard a report on expulsions for the past school year. The board expelled 42 students, down for the second year in a row after a peak of 58 in 2005-06. The most common reason for an expulsion this year was fighting or battery.


-- Approved spending no more than $75,000 to construct a handicapped-access ramp at Monterey Stadium this summer and to employ J.P. Cullen & Sons to do the job. The board will ask the Janesville City Council to help pay for the project.


-- Heard board member Lori Stottler say it’s too late in the year for her idea to add surcharges to the athletic fees for certain high school sports that are deemed high-cost. Stottler said students are already receiving information on fall sports, and it’s too late to change that information.


-- Voted to again hire Richard Hemming as the expulsion hearing officer. Hemming’s pay has not increased in two years. The board raised it from $175 to $180 per case.



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