During a pandemic, government must be clear when explaining why it needs authority to collect more money from taxpayers, some of whom are out of work or getting paid less. We feel this has been accomplished in only one of two Janesville School District referendum questions.
Both of the district’s two questions on the November ballot ask for additional taxing authority, but we can support only one.
The first question asks voters for permission to borrow $22.5 million to make entrances at all its schools more secure, replace old boilers at six schools and make other safety and security upgrades. This would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $5 a year for 20 years.
We urge residents to vote in favor of this question. Safety, security and heat for schools are fundamental needs hard to argue against.
The second issue lacks clarity and is one we cannot endorse for approval. It seeks authority for the district to increasingly exceed its revenue cap every year for four years. The money would be used for “paying the costs of maintaining district class size, student program options and services.”
We feel the school district has not done a good job explaining how much this would cost taxpayers, how much money it would generate and what the consequences would be if the question is rejected.
To test support for this question, the school district surveyed residents, asking if they’d be willing to pay “a $40 increase in school-related taxes for every $100,000 of assessed value each year, over four years, for a total of $160 per $100,000 of assessed value at the end of the 2024-25 school year.”
Almost 60% of those who took the survey said they probably or definitely would vote in favor of that, but members of the school board questioned the accuracy of the survey, saying people likely misunderstood that they would be paying an increasing amount each year.
“In my opinion, this survey didn’t explain that,” board member Kevin Murray said at an Aug. 4 school board meeting.
How much money would it generate? It took school officials 15 minutes to explain that to The Gazette Editorial Board. They said it would increase the district’s ability to tax by $14.5 million by year four. That’s not wrong, but it doesn’t tell voters how much extra property taxes the district would collect over the four years. The answer: $37 million.
And what if the referendum fails? What would be the consequences?
Superintendent Steven Pophal told the editorial board that cutting $3.5 million in the 2021-22 school year would require reducing staff, “potentially” about 40 positions, meaning the number of kids in classes would go up.
“The board will be presented with a menu of possible places to start reducing costs,” Pophal said. “All those things will be unattractive.”
That undoubtedly is true, but many taxpayers are living through unattractive circumstances already.
We cannot support the second referendum with school district ramping up its taxing authority at this time by this much.