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Money woes continue to haunt Janesville School Board

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
June 23, 2010
— The Janesville School Board’s budget worries soured what might have been a routine celebration of newly hired administrators Tuesday night.

Superintendent Karen Schulte, like superintendents before her, brought to the board three assistant principals and a central-office director for board approval.


But unlike every such school board vote in recent memory, the vote was not unanimous.


Board member Kevin Murray voted against every appointment. He was in the minority, losing 6-1, with Lori Stottler and Kristin Hesselbacher absent.


The combined annual salaries of the four positions is $365,640.


Board member Kevin Murray spoke up as the superintendent’s choice to be the new director of at-risk and multicultural programs, Yolanda Williams of Milwaukee, stood at the lectern in front of the board.


“I’m sure this person is highly qualified,” Murray said, but in these tough economic times, “I can’t support filling any administrative positions right now. I just can’t. It just doesn’t feel right to me.”


Murray said he is not anti-education. Both his parents were teachers, he said. His grandchildren will go through the Janesville public schools.


“I’m making a stand here. It’s not easy to do. It’s very tough, emotionally,” Murray said.


Board member Peggy Sheridan said she could tell it was hard for Murray to speak those words, but she said his concern should have been brought up when the positions opened up, not at the end of the selection process.


Board members Karl Dommershausen and Bill Sodemann agreed that Murray’s timing was wrong.


Murray joined in the congratulatory applause after the votes, but two issues remain: How much will the board have to cut to balance the 2010-11 budget, and how high will the board raise taxes.


Those questions hung over the rest of the meeting.


The board briefly discussed possible raises for about 100 staff members not represented by unions, including all administrators but also social workers, physical therapists, confidential secretaries and others.


That group had its pay frozen this year, Schulte noted, and she wanted the board to discuss how it wanted to handle the situation. The board deferred to its personnel committee, but not before Sodemann responded.


The nonrepresented staff are deserving, worked very hard and are “very special,” Sodemann said.


“And yet, in these economic times, I’m not sure we can do any increases.”


Sodemann also worried that any raise could set a precedent for the unionized employees who are still negotiating their contracts.


The board also voted to go ahead with borrowing money to pay off its $17 million liability with the Wisconsin Retirement System. The plan it chose will mean spending about $415,000 in the coming year’s budget. The payoff is being able to get rid of the liability in 20 years, versus continuing with minimum payments and paying 7.8 percent interest on the balance with no end in sight.


The board briefly discussed the 2010-11 budget, with member DuWayne Severson repeating his contention that taxes should rise by no more than 2 percent because too many district residents can’t afford it.


Severson warned that the board faces the likelihood of cutting teachers and closing a school in the 2011-12 budget if the district’s finances don’t do an about-face.


Board member Peter D. Severson said that according to his calculations the board is looking at a $107 million operating budget, down about $7 million from the current year—even with a 6 percent tax hike.


“We’re not raising taxes just to go spending more money. We’re trying to soften the blow to a pretty big budget cut,” Severson said.


Sodemann said he suspected Peter Severson’s math was off.


Peter Severson also noted there will be four fewer teachers in the district next fall, although he said the board probably should have looked at cutting more positions before the layoff deadline passed.


All the budget numbers being thrown around are tentative and based on a variety of assumptions. District CFO Keith Pennington said the district’s top administrators are discussing budget reductions, and he hopes to present a preliminary budget at the board’s meeting July 27.


Listening session produces little feedback

It may have been the first time ever the Janesville School Board set up a system to collect opinions on the budget before the annual public budget hearing, but only five people spoke at the board’s listening session Tuesday night.


Another six district residents sent e-mails to express their opinions on taxing and spending for schools.


Three of the speakers said the board should hold taxes to a minimum. Two spoke of the need for a quality education.


All six of the e-mails, as summarized by school board President Bill Sodemann, were for holding the line on taxes.


“You seem to feel that school officials and teachers are a protected class, exempt from the problems and burdens facing the huge number of unemployed, under-employed and retired citizens in this community,” Al Lembrich, 541 Miller Ave., told the board.


Don Branz, 336 S. Harmony Drive, said he has never seen so many homes for sale or rent or unoccupied with long lawns, perhaps “soon to be occupied by vandals.”


“Please have the fortitude to stand in there and have a responsible budget in these economic times,” Branz said.


Ed Reich, a former teacher, spoke for sufficient funding for a quality education.


“If it goes down the tubes, we have nothing,” Reich said.


Jose Carrillo, a district employee, also advocated for schools.


“A community with a good school system is a plus. It’s a sign of progress,” Carrillo said.



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