Residents: Raise our taxes
Janesville School Board members haven't heard that idea in recent years, but they got an earful of it at a listening session Wednesday night at Adams Elementary School.
The reason seemed to be that the board needs nearly $10 million to balance the 2011-2012 budget.
The board has already cut an assistant principal and is looking at cutting teaching and social worker positions.
Social workers do essential work, said Leon Freeburg, a retired social worker.
"My wife and I have discussed it. We don't mind if you raise our taxes," Freeburg told the board.
Nancy Hansen-Bennett, also a retired social worker, said the school board should not be cutting those jobs, which are needed by children more than ever because of the difficult economic times.
"We are willing to pay more taxes if it would mean our children will continue to enjoy the services they receive now," said Hansen-Bennett, who is married to a retired firefighter.
The audience was by no means a representative sample of school district taxpayers, but board member Peter D. Severson said afterward that he had never heard people ask to have their taxes raised.
Severson said he still gets e-mails asking him not to raise taxes, but he wondered if there is some shift in at least some people's thinking.
Board President Bill Sodemann said part of the budget problem is the raises teachers got in the recent contract. The board knew they would have to cut teachers in order to pay for those raises, Sodemann said.
"It's not fun to say that, but it's economic reality," Sodemann said.
Jim Reif, a teacher who was on the teacher's side of the bargaining table, challenged that idea. He said teachers agreed to smaller pay increases than the average increase statewide.
"We're doing our part," Reif said.
Reif said if the board had taxed to the maximum allowed by law in recent years, it wouldn't be in the financial straits it finds itself now.
Perhaps taxpayers needed a "breather," Reif said, but now the economy is on the upswing.
"Time to go to the people and say, 'maybe we need a little more from you,'" Reif said.
Board member Peggy Sheridan noted that more than 40 percent of district students live in poverty. Their parents can't afford a tax increase, she said.
Janesville needs to rethink and retool how it provides education, Sheridan said.
Severson said it's not the board's fault.
"State officials have pushed off on the local taxpayer the burden of education," he said.
Severson noted that the state and federal governments never lived up to their commitment to pay for the education of students with disabilities, for example, so local taxpayers pick up the slack.
Call your representatives and ask them to fund special education, he suggested.
Board member Kevin Murray said he is hearing more comments—both for and against a tax hike—than at any time in his six years on the board.
"We're going to raise taxes, but the debate will be how much," Murray said.
A number of social-worker advocates attended, including Wilson School teacher Jen Drach, who said it is criminal to take away social workers, who take care of the neediest of the needy.
Murray challenged that statement: "I hear you, but don't accuse me of being a criminal."
Drach retracted her words but suggested that "upsetting" and "reprehensible" might have been better choices. She and Murray seemed to come away from the exchange with a better understanding of each other's viewpoints.
Seven of the nine board members attended this, the first in a series of listening sessions. In the audience were Superintendent Karen Schulte and other school officials and about 20 other district employees.
Board members noted that even if they raised taxes to the maximum, they'd raise only $4.4 million, which is not even half of the amount they need to balance next year's budget.
Have your say
The Janesville School Board has scheduled monthly listening sessions through May. The next session is set
for 3:30-4:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 17, at Jefferson Elementary School, 1831 Mount Zion Ave.