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School closing discussed, but decision left up to Janesville School Board

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
September 7, 2011
— No one spoke in favor of closing a Janesville school at a public hearing Tuesday.

About 20 adults and a few children showed up for the first in a series of three hearings this month on the issue.


Fourteen people spoke, all with reasons for keeping all the elementary schools open.


When asked by school board member DuWayne Severson whether they’d be willing to pay higher taxes to keep a school open, the answer was yes.


“To me, these taxes are pretty low compared to New Jersey, where I come from,” said Mary Ellen Waite, who sends her granddaughter to Kennedy School.


Severson said he could easily find other district residents who would oppose any tax increase.


Four members of the school board met as a committee after the hearing. The finance/buildings and grounds committee voted to send the issue to the full board with no recommendation.


Committee Chairman Greg Ardrey said the board would likely make its decision at its Sept. 27 meeting. Two more public hearings are planned before then, on Sept. 15 and 22. No time or place has been set.


Severson pointed out that the board is wrestling with how to solve a $9 million deficit projected for next year’s district budget.


“I know it affects kids. I know it affects parents. I get all that,” Severson said. “But if I don’t cut $1 million here, then I have to cut somebody else’s program. How do I respond to them?”


Taxing to the maximum allowed by law would be a tax increase of about 7.5 percent and yield about $2.5 million, officials have said.


The savings from closing Harrison, Kennedy or Jefferson school is estimated at between $1 million and $700,000, although officials admit those savings could erode as unforeseen costs become known.


In addition to parents and a few others who commented at Tuesday’s hearing, the board also heard Superintendent Karen Schulte’s opinion: “I think we need to look at finding other ways to find the money, and it will be difficult, but I do not support closing a school.”


Severson suggested that the board could cut 150 or more teachers out of next year’s budget to make ends meet. He bemoaned the fact that the teachers union has refused to reopen its contract and make concessions to save the district money.


Severson said he wasn’t sure which way he would vote on closing a school.


Ardrey and committee members Peter D. Severson and Karl Dommershausen said they wanted to wait for the full board to act.


Ardrey said he disagrees with parents who say their children will lose out on a quality education if they are moved to another school.


Children with caring parents and quality school staff will perform well no matter where they are, Ardrey said, and it’s inappropriate to suggest that the teachers at other schools would not be as good as the ones at the closed school.


The district’s boundary lines committee has studied the issue for months. The committee voted 5-0 two weeks ago, with one abstention, to recommend that no school be closed.


Boundary lines committee member Mary Spielmann said the committee focused on the taxpayer in its recommendation. She said keeping all schools open would attract new people and businesses to town.


“We looked at everything, upside down and inside out, and we cannot justify closing a school,” Spielmann said.


OVERHEARD AT THE PUBLIC HEARING

Here are some comments from a public hearing Monday night at the Educational Services Center on the question of whether to close a Janesville elementary school:


-- “If the answer isn’t obvious, then the decision to close any school seems risky.” —Suzanne Gilliom, who sends her children from the Milton School District to Jefferson School in Janesville.


-- “It hurts that this is happening here. It really does.” —Harrison School parent Ginger Meinders, who was one of two speakers who choked up with emotion.


-- “Realistically, you close Kennedy, we go to Milton, or we try to find a way to go to the private school.” —Parent Nichole Hinkel


--“We already pay quite a bit for taxes. However, for my kids’ education, I would pay the limit. I don’t think we pay enough for our kids’ education.” —Rebecca LaCount, who sends her youngest child to Kennedy School.


--“Do whatever you have to do. Just please, please, please keep us going.” —Harrison parent Erika Schultz, who said the board should raise taxes even though “it’s not going to be popular.”


--“Kids need to be put first, not the money.” —Kennedy parent Mary Ellen Waite


--“I would be really upset if my child’s school were turned into offices (as has been suggested). I think a lot of people would be upset.” —Kennedy School parent Kelley Marotta


--“Janesville needs a long-term vision. It’s rotten right now as far as the state of the economy, but the Janesville School District is the bright spot.” —Roosevelt School parent Ann Roe


--“I’d sure hate to see this town go backwards.” —grandparent Joe Eichert



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