Janesville School Board seeks union answers

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011
— Janesville School Board members expressed frustration Tuesday that they don't know whether the teachers union is willing to help them climb out of their latest budget hole.

The board is facing a $2.1 million budget hole because of the new state budget, Chief Financial Officer Keith Pennington told the board.

The state budget cut the district's aid more than previously estimated but provided a way out: Get the money from local property tax payers, Pennington said.

Board President Bill Sodemann said board members were "surprised" when they learned July 8 that the state was allowing them to increase taxes by about $2.5 million, or a 7.6 percent increase, when previously they had been told that the state would limit them to virtually no tax increase.

The budget bill also includes a provision that would allow the Janesville Education Association to reopen its contract and negotiate economic concessions while preserving the rest of the contract until 2013.

District officials have indicated they could save about $3 million a year if teachers began paying the employee share of their pension payments.

Janesville Education Association President Dave Parr's last word on this issue was that teachers would take up the question when they returned in late August.

Several board members said they are assuming that the union won't help. Others complained that Parr's statements to the media have not been clear, and they wanted a definitive answer.

Board member Scott Feldt said he had intended to quiz Parr at Tuesday's meeting, but Parr did not attend.

Feldt asked that a letter be sent so that the union could reply formally. The board in the end, however, instructed Sodemann to talk to Parr to get the answer.

The vote was 6-3 with Kristin Hesselbacher, Kevin Murray and Peter D. Severson voting "no."

Board member Lori Stottler said she's been telling constituents who ask her that she thinks the union's answer will be "no."

"And I don't disrespect them for that," Stottler said, but she wants a clear answer.

Board member Karl Dommershausen said he also assumes the answer is "no," and he didn't want to put anyone "up against the wall" by sending a letter.

"When you're cutting budgets, somebody's got to be against the wall," board member DuWayne Severson responded.

"This is not putting anybody up against the wall," Stottler said later. "This is asking them (the union) to make a decision so we can move forward."

Murray at one point said he didn't like the board's direction.

How about sending a letter to the governor, asking for a reversal of the state-aid cut, Murray said, or a letter to Rep. Joe Knilans, R-Janesville, "to open up real negotiations, not just saying 'let's let the employees pay for their pension and not talk about anything else?'"

Knilans authored the budget-bill provision that allows unions who had contracts before Feb. 1 to reopen those contracts only for the purposes of making economic concessions within a 90-day period, which ends Sept. 29.

Murray recently announced he would run against Knilans in 2012.

DuWayne Severson reminded Murray that the board has sent letters to lawmakers before.

"Touche," Murray responded, apparently satisfied.

The board on Tuesday heard from three taxpayers opposed to tax hikes.

"Some people say the taxpayer has an unlimited fund that can just keep going and going and going," said Lon Coplien, 1620 N. Little Court.

Stottler asked the administration to come up with a prioritized list of $2.1 million worth of cuts to this year's budget, so that residents could see "what we're not going to do anymore for students if we don't tax."

Feldt said residents also should be told what the board can't cut. People will ask for job cuts, Feldt said, but some jobs can't be cut at this time of year because of legal or contractual restrictions.

To recap, the board's options to fill the budget hole appear to be:

-- Reap the benefit if the JEA agrees to start paying for pensions.

-- Cut the budget in a year that has already seen massive cuts.

-- A 6.4 percent property tax increase, which Pennington said would be about $55 a year on the average house.

The board could tax even more, up to a 7.6 percent increase, Pennington said, which would cost the same homeowner about $67.

A fourth option the board might consider is using more of its reserves. It has already decided to use $4 million from the so-called Fund 10 balance. Many if not most board members have indicated reluctance to go any further in that direction.

The board can delay a final decision on taxes until late October, when it must set the tax levy.

Last updated: 5:48 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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