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Janesville schools tax levy far from settled

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
May 12, 2010
— Community anger over a Janesville School Board vote on taxes last week was still echoing in the board’s meeting room Tuesday.

Most criticism comes from those who say a tax hike would be too great for many people in a town that is still suffering the effects of hundreds of local layoffs as well as the nation’s economic downturn.


The board heard from a couple of people on the budget. One advocated for smaller class sizes and one for computer-technology spending. But no tax critic showed up Tuesday.


Board member Lori Stottler said she has gotten “quite the spanking” in the six days since the board’s vote. She said the Gazette’s headline was misleading, because the board only set a goal of raising taxes, which she said is different from simply voting to raise taxes.


The distinction may not be readily apparent to the casual observer, but the thinking apparently is that the goal is meant to be a working number that could change in coming months.


It appears from board members’ comments Tuesday that the final tax levy is far from being determined, and tough decisions have yet to be made.


One item from last week’s meeting got clarification: The board’s goal of a 6 percent tax increase pertained only to the operational budget. When the debt-service portion of the budget is added in, the levy increase would be 4.7 percent, district CFO Keith Pennington told the board.


Pennington also informed the board that each school’s budget for materials and supplies had been cut by 28 percent before the board cut those budgets even more last Wednesday.


Stottler said principals, at a meeting she attended after the board vote, were quite upset about the additional cuts.


Board member Kevin Murray said it appeared to him that people were not trying to “soften the blow” of the tax-goal vote.


Murray voted in the minority last week to raise taxes by 2 percent—or 1.6 percent when debt levy is added in.


Murray said he believes Janesville’s economy will get tougher for people before it gets better. He wondered what the effect of 120 laid-off General Motors workers leaving town might have on the local economy. Workers were informed last week that they must report for work at an Ohio plant or lose most of their benefits.


Murray hinted that he had ideas for budget cuts, but for the second meeting in a row, he said he wouldn’t reveal his ideas, because he didn’t want to upset people.


Murray did offer one suggestion: He said the board should consider cutting high school elective courses that only 10 students are taking.


“We need to feel some more pain before we can start to settle things, in my opinion, here in the district,” Murray said.


Murray said he doesn’t take a back seat to anyone when it comes to a desire to improve student learning, but he said throwing money at that objective is not the way to go, and he worries most about taxpayers’ ability to pay.


“I, for one, will certainly look to micro-manage the budget this year,” Murray said.


The board is slated to approve a preliminary budget May 25. A public hearing on that budget is required, but a date for the hearing is not yet set. The budget could be altered after the public hearing.


The board is not required to set the tax levy until October.


The largest question mark hanging over the budget deliberations is the cost of salary and benefits for most employees. The district is negotiating new contracts with two unions, one representing teachers and one for the maintenance, custodial and food service workers.


In other business

The Janesville School Board on Tuesday:


-- Heard from CFO Keith Pennington that Moody’s recently upgraded the district’s bond rating from Aa3 to Aa2. Moody’s has only two ratings that are higher. Pennington said Moody’s recently recalibrated all its local-government ratings after it was accused of being too harsh.


-- Heard that the state Department of Public Instruction randomly selected the district for an audit of its recent enrollment reports, which are key for determining state aid. The district’s reports were found to be accurate, said CFO Keith Pennington.


-- Agreed to hold its first June meeting on June 3 rather than June 8 so that Superintendent Karen Schulte and personnel director Steve Sperry can attend a seminar.


-- Heard a report on the recent listening session on diversity issues from board members Peggy Sheridan and Greg Ardrey. The board members said they did not intend to verify the negative stories that parents related or have action taken regarding those incidents. Ardrey said that anonymity was promised and he sees the stories as ways for staff to manage situations in the future.


-- Confirmed the superintendent’s recommendations that Alison Spiegel become the new Craig High School principal and Kim Ehrhardt be the new director of instruction. Both are district employees.


-- Heard a proposal that the board appoint a member to attend meetings of the Janesville Area Council-PTA, to help with communication between parents and the board.


Kristin Hesselbacher, a new board member and longtime activist in the PTA, proposed the idea. Lori Stottler said Hesselbacher should be appointed for the task. The board will take up the idea at its May 25 meeting.



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