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Janesville School Board candidates talk students, teachers, taxes

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Frank Schultz
March 27, 2013

— Six candidates are running for three seats on the Janesville School Board in the April 2 elections.

They are incumbents Karl Dommershausen, Kristin Hesselbacher and Peter D. Severson and newcomers Diane Eyers, Fredrick Jackson and Cathy Myers.

The winners will begin three-year terms, joining the nine-member board later in April.

Candidates were posed three questions, asking their opinions of:

-- Superintendent Karen Schulte’s initiatives to bring in foreign students and teachers, notably from China, to expose students to global perspectives and to increase revenue.

-- The school board’s efforts to cut costs by shifting those costs to employees through changes in health insurance and retirement benefits.

-- Prospects for the property tax levy that the board will set in October.

Their responses:

Dommershausen

International initiative: “Properly done, I think it’s an outstanding idea. We are enriched by sharing our lives with people of other backgrounds, and if we enrich our lives, we enrich our education,” Dommershausen said.

However, the board should be cautious about possible future spending implications, Dommershausen said.

Cost shifting: The increased costs are going to hurt some families, especially for some workers who don’t earn a lot, Dommershausen said.

Dommershausen approves of the cost shifting, however, as long as it is done responsibly and in collaboration with employees. He said he has heard from union representatives who said “they can live with it.”

Dommershausen said he is interested in a suggestion by board member David DiStefano that the district look into “socially responsible” benefits plans in which those who make more money pay more money.

Taxes: “The taxpayer always needs a break, and some of it is real and some of it is perceived. Everyone wants to pay lower taxes, but we have a responsibility to our community and the children on top of that,” Dommershausen said.

The state’s school financing system is unfair to school districts because if the money is not spent, the following year’s state aid is reduced, Dommershausen said.

“The state system never allows us to budget responsibly, and that’s why we have these wars, so we need to figure a way to get both parties to work together (in Madison),” he said.

Eyers

International initiative: Eyers said she has heard concerns from teachers who wonder whether Spanish should be taught in elementary school, as the new Chinese program is.

Spanish and French education begins in seventh grade, while German is being phased out.

Eyers would consider offering other languages in the lower grades if the budget allows.

Eyers said she’d also like students to learn their own languages well, “But if that’s the direction she (Schulte) is going to take it, then I’m for it because I’d like see our kids get those languages, and that’s actually going to help them in the workforce.”

Cost shifting: Teachers might have to retire a little later than in the past, Eyers said, and “I don’t see an issue with that,” adding that she probably won’t be able to retire until age 70.

Eyers said she doesn’t want the district’s great teachers to retire and suggested a retirement plan that would include teachers working part time after retirement.

Eyers said the health insurance plans being considered are similar to the current one, although employees would pay higher premiums.

“I think it’s a legitimate way to go. Being in the workforce myself and seeing all these companies struggling with this on a day-to-day basis, I think it’s something that was inevitably going to happen. It stinks it has to go that way, and on their part, they’re not used to it, but it’s something that they should feel lucky that they could wait this long (for change to come).”

Taxes: “I don’t think we should rush into taxing people more money right now because we’re still struggling,” Eyers said.

Eyers, who works in insurance, said she helps businesses find creative ways to make their insurance payments so they can stay in business.

“And as a single mom, I only have so much money, too,” she said.

Hesselbacher

International initiative: “I think it’s a great way to combine everything the district has been doing in terms of international education,” Hesselbacher said.

Hesselbacher noted “opportunities in China” and the district’s longstanding connections to schools in Argentina and elsewhere.

“Our students need those connections with the world. That’s what employers want. That’s what universities and colleges want—some global-thinking sorts of skills.”

Cost shifting: “It doesn’t appear we’ll be getting significant increases in revenue from the state or local tax levy anytime soon, so we need to live more within our means.” Hesselbacher said, noting that costs, particularly in health care, keep going up.

If the district can structure things so those costs have less of a budget impact, that would go a long way to sustaining jobs and extracurricular programs, she said. “I don’t want to see any more cuts in programs or staffing.”

Taxes: Hesselbacher, on principle, does not oppose taxing to the maximum. The tax levy depends on budget, enrollment and revenue—factors that are largely out of the district’s control.

“It would drive any business owner crazy,” she said.

“The state says this is the maximum you should be spending to maintain programming; that is the limit imposed by the state,” she said. “I think we are expected to live within that or reduce programming and services.”

Education is the best use of tax dollars, Hesselbacher believes. She called it an investment in our youth that can break the cycle of poverty and have other societal benefits.

Jackson

International initiative: “I’m all for growth, but I think we need to stabilize what we have before we try to grow,” Jackson said.

Jackson said stabilization should include reducing class sizes.

Jackson said that with a new employee handbook and other new expectations for teachers, class sizes make their jobs even more difficult.

Cost shifting: “I understand the burden that benefits have on budgets from a business sense,” Jackson said, but he would like to see a gradual shift of costs to employees, not dumping the entire weight of it on them all at once.

A sudden, large shift would throw off anybody’s finances, he said.

At the same time, employees should be evaluated each year and receive pay increases for doing a good job, he said.

Taxes: “I think if you have to raise taxes, you should do that as the absolute last resort,” after it’s clearly defined what the spending items are and what value is expected from the spending, Jackson said.

Taxes should not be raised to cover new debt but could be raised to eliminate debt, he said.

Jackson said his professional background involves analyzing processes, procedures and data to find wasted time and money, and he believes the schools could better allocate their revenue. For example, instead of closing a school, a building could be re-purposed.

Myers

International initiative: “My initial impression is positive. It’s a global community now, and to prepare these kids for life beyond their schooling, they’re going to need to know some things about other cultures.”

As an English teacher in another district, Myers said, she appreciates how the study of a foreign language can improve a student’s understanding of English.

Cost shifting: Myers said cuts in benefits are not a big concern since employees largely accept them as inevitable, but she is concerned that the board, until last week, had not communicated or discussed the changes very well with employees.

“I believe in negotiations. I have sat at the bargaining table myself. You don’t get everything you want, but you try to figure out solutions that are best for all parties.”

Myers called this week’s non-negotiation talks between district unions and the school board “a step in the right direction.”

Taxes: “You have to see where you’re at and what’s available before setting a budget,” but keeping taxes lower than the maximum allowed “certainly should be considered,” Myers said.

Myers said she’s sensitive to the impact of taxes on people still struggling from the recent recession, and although she doesn’t have enough information to say whether cutting taxes will be appropriate this fall, “it certainly has to be one of tools in the toolbox.”

Severson

International initiative: “I think it’s good for the district. I think it’s going to develop our foreign language offerings. It’s going to expand our students’ knowledge and cultural understanding of places in the world they may never get to. I think it’s the right direction to go.”

Cost shifting: The insurance coverage will be much the same, “so just as a cost-saving tool, I think it is the right thing to do. We need to find money wherever we can. Unfortunately, at this point we’re looking at the employees giving something back.”

As for retirement benefits, “I’ve always been in favor of going to a fixed benefit so we can cost that out better so we can provide what we say we’re going to provide.”

Now, the benefit gives retirees health insurance to cover them until they are eligible for Medicare, which makes the program hard to manage in a time of out-of-control insurance costs. A fixed cost—even if it were indexed to inflation—would be more manageable, he said.

Taxes: Severson said he advocated two budgets for taxing to the maximum allowed under the state cap, a move he said would have eliminated the use of about $3 million from district reserves.

For the coming year, “I don’t believe the board is going to have much of a choice in how much they can raise the tax levy,” Severson said, adding that the proposed state budget would increase aid to districts but keep the revenue cap unchanged, so the result might be no tax increase.

If taxes can be increased from this year’s level, “I don’t think it’s going to be very much. I think it’s going to be somewhere in the 2 percent range,” he said.



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