Janesville51.5°

Protests, tension at Janesville School Board

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
March 9, 2011
— Tension reigned at Janesville School Board once again Tuesday night.

The tension is over the schools' 2011-12 budget crisis and impending layoffs of teachers and other staff.


About 130 teachers and children marched on the sidewalk outside the Educational Services Center beforehand. They called for the board to tax more and dig into district reserves to stave off massive cuts and layoffs.


The board got into sometimes heated discussion late in the meeting over using district reserves. Current board policy would allow the use of only $1.1 million from the fund.


Still, the board is facing a shortfall of more than $13 million with nowhere else to go except budget cuts.


The teachers on Monday decided not to reopen their contract to help the situation. Attorneys advised the teachers that if they did so, they would put their contract and most of their union rights at risk.


That didn't sway school board member Lori Stottler, who called out union leaders for not sharing in the pain.


Stottler started choking up but vowed "I'm not going to cry." She then reprimanded union leaders, saying that their shouting with a megaphone outside didn't move her.


"I can't hear you because your actions speak too loudly," she said.


Stottler said everyone should share the burden.


Board member DuWayne Severson said the union's lack of action didn't surprise him: "They did the right thing for them. Am I surprised? No. I understand it."


Local attorney Jack Hoag again argued for the board to tax to the maximum. Latest estimates, however, show the governor's budget plan would virtually freeze the tax levy.


The only way to raise significant taxes now would be to override the state revenue cap with a referendum. Hoag said he'd agree to that.


Board President Bill Sodemann said public-sector workers should share the pain with the private sector, where workers have already taken cuts in hours, pay and benefits.


Severson later said he opposes a referendum


Outside on the picket line, teachers union President Dave Parr said the community needs to step up, as does the state.


"We understand a budget crisis, but this has gone too far," Parr said of the governor's proposal to cut school aid and freeze local taxes.


"This budget is going to create just the bare minimum of educational services," Parr said.


Inside, several people argued against suggested cuts to talented-and-gifted programs. A father from Milton said he has a son in the Challenge Program and another child he is considering sending to Janesville, but he won't do it if the cuts are made.


Julie Backenkeller, the mother of two students, pleaded with district staff: "Look to your coworkers, the ones who are going to be losing their jobs, and look at what you can do to help them."


The board had a chance to force one union to make concessions. The secretaries, clerks and aides, the lowest-paid group in the district, had come to a tentative agreement with district negotiators, who included Stottler and board member Kevin Murray.


The board voted 5-3 to approve the contract. Greg Ardrey abstained because his wife is an aide. Voting to approve were Karl Dommershausen, Kristin Hesselbacher, Murray, Peter D. Severson and Stottler.


Murray noted the union took a pay freeze for the current year, saving $120,000. But the contract also calls for 2 percent increases in each of the next two years.


One other unionórepresenting food-service, maintenance and custodial workersóhas already declined the board's invitation to re-open its contract.


The board also received a copy of the district staffing plan, which details only some of the teaching and aide positions that will be cut to balance the budget. Members asked few questions bout the thick document, delaying discussion to their March 31 meeting.


The planóbased only on a projected drop in enrollmentsócalls for cutting 20.5 teachers at the elementary schools, 7.1 at the middle schools and 15.9 at the high schools.


Even more teachers are likely to be cut to help balance the budget. Other employee groups will feel the ax as well.


Steve Eichman, manger of purchasing and transportation, told the board that up to 10 custodians could be cut, saving $410,408.


No cuts are yet proposed for computer technology or maintenance projects. Those two areas took a combined cut of about $1.7 million in the current year's budget.


The board took no action on cuts.


WCLO radio reporter Beth Wheelock contributed to this story.

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