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Janesville School District seeks opinions on coming budget

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
June 19, 2010
— Can you afford higher school taxes? Or can you bite the bullet and pay them in the name of high-quality schools?

The Janesville School Board is looking for input on those questions. One way to have your say is to speak at a listening session Tuesday night.


The input may help the board make its decisions, but board members already have divided themselves on the question. Some say they want to keep any tax increase to a minimum, while others—at least for now—are willing to tax a little more.


The hold-the-liners are Kevin Murray, DuWayne Severson and Bill Sodemann. They favor no more than a 2 percent tax levy hike, but they’d prefer less.


Others are either uncommitted or have indicated a willingness to go up to 6 percent.


The district estimates that a 2 percent levy increase could mean a $21 tax increase on the average house with a fair-market-valued at $144,222.


A 6 percent increase would mean about $62 in additional taxes.


Board members were asked to weigh in via e-mail this week.


Some say it’s all about the economy.


“As difficult as it would be to limit the increase to 2 percent, it is nowhere near the difficulty that I see our businesses facing here in Janesville as well as all of their employees who have had to take actual pay cuts as well as pay more for benefits, if indeed they are fortunate enough to still have a job,” Sodemann wrote.


Sodemann said the only tax increase he could support would be 2 percent or less, just enough to pay for borrowing money to pay off the district’s Wisconsin Retirement System liability.


The liability is being paid off at 7.8 percent interest, and the board Tuesday will consider a plan to issue bonds to pay off the debt faster and at a lesser interest rate.


Even a 6 percent tax hike will require about $2 million in cuts, board members know. A 2 percent hike would mean cutting even deeper.


“I know that getting there will be extremely painful and ugly,” Sodemann said. “I also know that we can not get there without a freeze in payroll. …”


Contracts with the teachers and one other union remain under negotiation, and several board members said it’s hard to decide what kind of a tax hike they would support without knowing the outcome of those contract talks.


Several board members noted that other major unknowns are state aid and next fall’s enrollment.


Board member Kristin Hesselbacher said she’s comfortable with 6 percent as a working number as the budget is being formed, although the resulting cuts will hurt.


“We should be prepared for an effect on student learning,” Hesselbacher said.


Murray suggested cutting high school electives that only 10 students register for, closing a school and housing all the charter schools in that building, and not hiring an assistant principal at Edison Middle School, where that position was not filled for the past year.


“I am ready to make tough decisions because our taxpayers are making them at home, as well,” Murray said.


Peter Severson said he could live with an increase of 3 percent to 5 percent.


“State government has not kept up with funding as they should and have pushed this off on the local taxpayer,” Severson said. “The school district has made every effort to minimize the increases to taxpayers.”


Lori Stottler said 2 percent or less is overly optimistic, but she would oppose the maximum tax increase allowed by law—about 12 percent.


“The lower we can stay, the better for the taxpayer,” Stottler wrote, “but I also do not want to erode the quality of education which our district currently provides.”


Stottler noted that the board earlier approved no layoffs of teachers and that the deadline for laying off teachers has passed, so “we are likely going to need to make some unpopular and difficult decisions that could and will likely impact students.


“I feel sick about asking anyone in this community for more in a time where we are living on so much less, but … I don’t believe children should suffer physically, emotionally or intellectually from grownup problems,” Stottler wrote.


DuWayne Severson said if the board doesn’t make hard choices now, it’ll have a worse time of it next year.


Hesselbacher and Stottler will miss Tuesday’s meeting, the former for a family vacation and the later for a professional conference.


A note about percentages used in this article: They are based on the operating budget. When debt service is thrown in, 6 percent becomes 4.7 percent and 2 percent becomes 1.6 percent.
HAVE YOUR SAY

The Janesville School Board’s listening session is set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the boardroom of the Educational Services Center, 527 S. Franklin St. The regular school board meeting will follow.


Comments of 250 words or less also may be sent to budget@janesville.k12.wi.us or mailed to Board of Education, Attn: Nancy Hewes, assistant board clerk, 527 S. Franklin St., Janesville, WI 53548.


The district’s announcement says all comments must include the author’s name and home address. Mailed comments must be signed.



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