Janesville school aid estimate drops

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011
— Janesville School Board members got some new budget numbers Tuesday, and they weren’t good ones.

The numbers suggested the board could raise property taxes this fall by up to 10 percent, although it doesn’t seem likely they will do so.

“It seems like we’re playing musical chairs, and every time the music stops, the state has moved the chairs around, so we’re not even sure where to go,” said board member Scott Feldt.

Board member Greg Ardrey tried to make sense of some of the figures but in the end threw up his hands: “I’m in Commissioner Feldt’s position. It’s all gobbledygook.”

New estimates show that the district will get even less state aid than previously estimated but could raise taxes to make up the difference.

The school board won’t set the tax levy until the end of October.

The new figures stirred debate, with DuWayne Severson proposing that the administration be asked to come up with $1 million in cuts out of this year’s budget, which already has been cut by $9 million.

Severson’s motion failed on an 8-1 vote.

Severson also suggested a referendum in November that would allow voters to decide how much they would like their taxes to be raised and how much money the district should take out of its reserves to balance the budget.

“I think we are living in unprecedented times,” Severson said. “I think we need to make some unprecedented decisions.”

Severson tied the referendum idea to the issue of closing an elementary school. He said he would agree not to close a school if the board would agree to the referendum.

The board could have decided the school-closing issue Tuesday, but board President Bill Sodemann said he would like the announced public hearings on the topic to be held before the board decides. Those hearings are this Thursday and the following Thursday, Sept. 22.

This Thursday’s hearing was tentatively set for 6 p.m. at Kennedy Elementary School, 3901 Randolph Road.

The board voted 9-0 to postpone action on a school closing and the referendum to its Sept. 27 meeting.

Lori Stottler said the school-closing issue should be revisited and should include all elementary schools, not just the three finalists the board had agreed to—Harrison, Jefferson and Kennedy.

“Something has to be done. I’m not sure what it is,” Stottler said. Karl Dommershausen agreed.

Sodemann also seemed interested. He pointed to the fact that the district’s elementary enrollment peaked at nearly 5,000 in 1998-99 and was down to 4,223 last year.

The difference is enough students to populate two of today’s elementary schools.

The new financial estimates increase the maximum allowable tax increase to $3.4 million, a potential 10 percent increase on upcoming tax bills.

This is the second time the estimate has changed. The district previously projected almost no change in the tax levy. A state aid estimate July 1 changed the picture, with state aid going down but the district’s maximum allowable tax levy rising by $2.5 million, a 7.5 percent increase from 2010-11.

The July estimate was based on the district’s projected budget for last year, district Chief Financial Officer Keith Pennington told the board. The new estimate is based on what the district actually spent last year, and that changes the state aid formula.

The district spent $975,000 less than it had budgeted last year, plus another $2.2 million that was designated from district reserves but didn’t have to be spent.

Stottler said that the new aid and tax estimates are related to the fact that the district spent less than projected.

So for being good stewards of the people’s money, the state penalizes the district, an obviously frustrated Stottler said.

The new estimate shows $869,000 less in state aid than previously thought, but the district would be able to make up that amount through property taxes, Pennington said.

The maximum tax levy of $3.4 million would mean an $89 tax increase on the average home valued at $112,500, Pennington said.

Pennington warned that the numbers are projections, and the final figures won’t be available until the state Department of Public Instruction releases certified amounts on Oct. 15.

One thing that could change the figures would be a fall enrollment that differs from projections. The fall count is on Friday, but numbers generally take a week to be validated.

The board has already allotted $4 million from its fund balance to help balance this year’s budget, although it could still change that amount. If the $4 million is used, a deficit of about $1.7 million remains.

Board member Kevin Murray said that taxes or more money from the fund balance are the two solutions the board should look at.

Unless the board cuts the budget, Feldt said.

Feldt’s comment spurred Severson’s call for more cuts. Feldt noted that Superintendent Karen Schulte has said that further cuts would harm the district.

Severson countered that the previous $9 million also harmed the district, and he wondered why the district couldn’t come up with cuts equal to about 1 percent of its $100 million budget.

Last updated: 6:21 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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