Janesville School Board holds meeting on closing school
Today—The statewide enrollment count takes place. The results for Janesville could affect the school board's school-closing decision. Officials usually take a week to compile the results.
Thursday, Sept. 22—A second public hearing on the possibility of closing a Janesville elementary school is planned. No date or time has been announced.
Tuesday, Sept. 27—The Janesville School Board will likely make its decision at its regular meeting. The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. in the Educational Services Center, 527 S. Franklin St.
JANESVILLE Don't close a school.
Raise my taxes.
Those were the sentiments from the first public hearing about closing a Janesville school. They resurfaced at the second hearing, held Thursday night at Kennedy Elementary School.
No one spoke in favor of holding the line on taxes, although school board member DuWayne Severson said the business people and others he talks to are dead set against higher property taxes.
"We need to listen to all our constituents, not just the ones who are in this room," Severson said.
But if you close my school, my family will move to Illinois, taking our disposable income with us, and local business people won't like that, countered one woman at the two-hour hearing.
Five of the nine school board members attended the hearing and spent time explaining school finances and discussing issues with the 60 or so attendees in a sometimes emotional yet orderly and respectful meeting.
The school board in July decided that three of the district's 12 elementary schools—Kennedy, Harrison and Jefferson—should be studied for possible closing next year.
A study committee recommended in August not to close any school.
The board is considering a closing to save money in a time of difficult budgets and tough times for taxpayers. Officials also cite a 15 percent decline in elementary enrollment in the past 13 years.
Harrison parent Chris Morgan said he grew up in Rockford, a troubled district for various reasons that closed schools over the years. He worried what closing a school could do to Janesville.
"I worry about the marketability of the city, and I think one of the 24-karat things we have is the quality of the school system," Morgan said.
Harrison parent Pablo Gallo said if the board has to close a school, it should close one that doesn't perform as well as ones like Harrison. Harrison has some of the best test scores in the district.
Gallo cited a study that he said showed that keeping the best schools open minimizes the effects on children.
Board member DuWayne Severson defended schools such as Wilson elementary, where he said teachers do an amazing job in a low-income neighborhood.
But the reality is, the board will close a school—in effect—because the projected deficit in next year's budget will require laying off dozens of teachers and this "closing" will affect everyone, Severson said.
Officials have said closing a school would save $750,000 to $1 million, but some say hidden costs would chip away at those savings. The district faces a projected $9 million deficit in 2012-13 if taxes are not raised.
Diane Eyers, a Kennedy parent, said her neighbor has no children in school and it's hard to look him in the eye and say she wants to raise taxes.
Raise fees on families who have children in school, Eyers said.
Board members pointed out they raised fees this year, but they can't raise them to levels that would bring in millions of dollars without running afoul of state law.
Look for cuts in sports, secretaries, administrators or other areas of the budget, several speakers said, before closing a school.
Those areas and more took cuts for the current year's budget, board members pointed out.
Dale Thompson, a former school board member, said state lawmakers caused the problem by cutting school aid and trying to fill that gap with public employees' pay and benefits.
Thompson said he's retired and on a fixed income, but an additional $150 a year in school taxes would not be a problem. The rising cost of his health care and gasoline are much larger concerns.
"You're not the guy that's going to force me to sell my home," Thompson said. "It's other things in my budget."
Severson made a pitch for his referendum idea. He said the community is at a turning point, and the community should have a say in a decision with such long-range implications.
Severson has proposed a multi-question referendum in which people could choose how much taxes should be raised and how much to take from district reserves.
Board members Karl Dommershausen, Kevin Murray and Bill Sodemann all said after the meeting they oppose a referendum for varying reasons.
"That's why I'm an elected official—to make those decisions on the budget," Murray said.
Sodemann said the board didn't hold a referendum to approve the contracts for teachers and two other district unions.
Pay and benefits increases guaranteed by those contracts are one of the major reasons the district is in the fix it's in, Sodemann said.
Dommershausen said voters should be asked at election time, not now, and the board was elected to run the district.
Severson said teachers are already looking elsewhere because their jobs are under threat.
"We're going to lose them," he said. "Unless we make a decision. Unless we do it as a community."