Candidates face school budget crisis

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011
— Janesville School Board candidates all believe the district has serious budget troubles, but that's where similarities end.

Six men are running for three seats on the board:

-- John Burt, a civil engineer and project manager for Ryan Inc. Central.

-- Scott Feldt, who works in the state treasurer's office and teaches economics.

-- Kirk Henry, a UW-Whitewater student who runs a small computer business.

-- Kevin Murray, an incumbent and retired firefighter.

-- Fred Shahlapour, a retired businessman, engineer and teacher.

-- Bill Sodemann, the current school board president and owner of Phones Plus of Janesville.

The forum ran live on the district's cable channel and will be repeated in advance of the April 5 election.

Henry and Burt said the district's financial situation and declining enrollments mean an elementary school will have to be closed.

Burt said high school courses will need to be cut, too, but Henry opposed course cuts—especially in science, technology, math and foreign languages.

Feldt said enrollment and cost must guide the board's choices.

"We have to understand there are adjustments that are going to have to be made, and when I say adjustments, that means cuts," Feldt said.

But Feldt said the effects on each neighborhood also should be considered when closing a school.

Sodemann did not go into specifics but made it clear cuts are coming: "Let's not kid ourselves; it's going to hurt in some places."

Murray said he opposes closing Wilson or Roosevelt schools, which he said are more important to their neighborhoods than two other elementary schools that have been mentioned for possible closing, Jackson and Jefferson.

Murray said high school course electives have become too extensive and should be pared back.

Shahlapour said he would fight to save schools from closing but said there might be no choice.

In that case, "I will try to find a way so that it doesn't impact individuals," Shahlapour said.

When asked where else they might cut, candidates were largely reluctant to single out any specific item.

Murray was the most specific. He suggested a "partial hiring freeze" and more use of district reserves than is now allowed by board policy. He did not set an amount.

Murray said he would move charter schools out of rented buildings, which he said now cost $250,000.

Murray said he believes a tax increase is needed, although figures released by the district Monday show the district would be allowed to increase taxes by only a paltry amount under Gov. Scott Walker's proposed budget.

Henry also called for a tax increase, and he called for a referendum in which voters could authorize a higher tax rate.

Henry also said the board has not considered ideas from staff members on saving when it comes to salary and benefits. He did not describe those ideas.

Feldt said with a projected deficit now exceeding $13 million, he would look at the budget in its entirety to find savings, using academic achievement as the most important criterion for making the decision.

Burt noted that Brodhead recently cut sports and found itself losing students whose parents moved them to other districts.

"None of this is going to be easy," said Burt, who stressed his experience in balancing budgets as a qualification.

Sodemann noted that the great bulk of district costs are in salaries and benefits.

Employees are worthy of what they're paid, but they should "participate" in helping save money because the alternative is laying off "hundreds" of people, Sodemann said.

Shahlapour opposed cutting any programs, which he said would not save enough money and would harm children's educations.

Shahlapour said he has ideas for increasing district enrollments, which would improve the financial situation. However, he offered no details.

When asked about merit pay, Burt, Feldt and Sodemann said they would back a system to reward good teachers.

Henry and Murray opposed merit pay. Shahalapour said he would have to study the issue.

The Janesville League of Women Voters and Janesville Area Council-PTA sponsored the forum.

Last updated: 4:48 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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