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Janesville School Board tight on taxes

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
September 9, 2009
— The Janesville School Board set course for a relatively small tax increase at its meeting Tuesday night.

The board could change course between now and the end of October, when it must set the tax levy. But a majority of board members seemed content with a 1.91 percent hike in the levy for school taxes paid in 2010.


The district's new chief financial officer, Keith Pennington, offered the board three options:


-- The 1.91 percent increase, to $34.93 million, which covers only the increase in payments on referendum debt. That would increase taxes on a residence valued at $141,000 by $37.54.


-- A 3.27 percent levy increase, increasing taxes on the same house by $53.70.


-- Taxing to the maximum allowed by law, which would have been an 8 percent levy increase.


Most board members seemed to favor the first option, which comes with a price tag: It means a shortfall of $464,434. Pennington said the board could fill the budget gap with more taxes, budget cuts or dipping into the general fund balance, which means less money in reserve.


Pennington reminded the board that it had already made $2 million in budget cuts earlier this year. He said further cuts would mean cutting both fat and muscle.


The board's finance committee voted 4-0 for the 1.91 percent increase and directed the administration to come up with a list of cuts for the board to consider at the Sept. 22 meeting.


No other board member objected, but Lori Stottler said she voted with the majority even though she is concerned the new cuts would affect the quality of education.


Stottler suggested after the meeting that everyone share the pain of filling the budget gap: Taxpayers could kick in a bit more, the district could cut some but not all the $464,434, and teachers could take less in compensation than the $1.7 million that was built into the budget.


Stottler also was concerned about $3 million in computer technology improvements that were recommended by an audit but not included in the budget.


Board member Greg Ardrey, who is on a committee looking at the computer upgrade, said he is confident the final price tag will come in well under $3 million.


The $1.7 million for teacher pay and benefits translates into a pay/benefits package increase of about 2.6 percent to 2.8 percent, Pennington told the board.


That figure concerned board member Bill Sodemann, who pointed out that the board had offered the teachers a pay freeze this year, and he questioned whether the increase was telling the teachers that the board was not serious about a freeze as contract talks continue.


Pennington said the total budget would be in the $114 million range. He promised to deliver a full budget document to the board by its next meeting, on Sept. 22. The required budget hearing will be Oct. 13, and the board must set the levy by the end of October.


Other budget information:


-- Health care costs are projected to increase by 7 percent, dental by 3 percent.


-- Natural gas cost is going up 11.2 percent, or $131,000 more than last year. The district has been locked in at a low rate for four years, but that contract is up, and that means starting at the market rate, Pennington said.


-- Payments to the Wisconsin Retirement System on behalf of employees will increase by $479,000 for a $7.8 million total. The state imposed the increase.


Closed lunch coming to Parker, too

Janesville Parker High School's freshmen will be restricted to their school for lunch starting next January.


Parker Principal Steve Schroeder told the Gazette about two weeks ago that he didn't plan a closed lunch for freshmen until one year from now and even held out the possibility of no restriction at all if freshmen showed they could be responsible with an open lunch.


But Schroeder's boss, Superintendent Karen Schulte, said after Tuesday night's school board meeting that Schroeder had been told to get it done for the second semester of this school year.


Schulte said a promise was made to the community before the referendum vote in 2006 that both Craig and Parker high schools would close lunch to underclassmen. The referendum projects expanded the cafeterias at both schools to make that possible.


Craig started closed lunch for freshmen Sept. 1 and plans to do the same for sophomores one year from now.


School board member Kevin Murray raised the issue at Tuesday's meeting, prompting Schulte's announcement about Parker.



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