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After Long Debate, Residents Settle on School Tax Levy

A group of about 20 residents came prepared to cut the levy by $700,000, but after 2 1/2 hours of debate, the majority votes to adopt a slightly-reduced levy.

After more than two hours of discussion and three separate motions, residents voted to decrease the tax levy by $1,000 – an amount that officials say will easily be covered by state aid.

The motion to reduce the $21.3 million tax levy by $1,000 came on the heels of a majority of voters approving Michael Braun’s motion to cut the tax levy by $200,000 with the aim of reducing the scope of the Whitefish Bay Recreation Department, which he claimed loses $369,000 per year.

The cut would have left the rec department with $175,000 per year, which Braun said would be enough to fund crossing guards while reducing funding for yoga, belly dancing and other programs.

“There are low hanging fruit and then there are watermelons… Let’s help the school board move along the right path…Let’s help them pick up some watermelons and save some cash,” he said.

Attorney and acting parliamentarian Mark Vetter advised Braun that voters could not decide the target of the cuts, only the amount of the levy.

All school board members voted against Braun’s motion, and other residents voiced concerns about the impact the cuts could have on the recreation department, quality of education and on the amount of state aid the district could see in the future. The tax levy and state aid are both considered in the revenue cap authority.

“If you reduce the base, you reduce it forever,” said Shawn Yde, the district’s Director of Business Services.

Resident Bruce Kestelman said the annual meeting is not the place to reduce funding for the recreation department.

“It’s very easy to come here tonight and look at bumper stickers and say we need to cut benefits and take money out of community services. That’s easy,” he said. “What’s more difficult is taking a look at a large budget and determining what makes sense. I think we should do this with a more systematic approach over time.”

Longtime school board member Pamela Woodard said the decision to fund the recreation department came out of a study conducted more than 15 years ago. At that time, the recreation department was placed under the purview of the school district as a way of providing services to the larger community.

"In return for supporting the schools, all residents of the village would see a benefit," she said.

Whitefish Bay Superintendent Mary Gavigan said the board and administration will revisit the cost structure of the recreation department in the future, but she encouraged voters not to make a hasty decision regarding the district’s finances.

“We would be extremely open to a public agenda item going forward addressing the level of funding and the level of support going to the recreation department,” she said. “That is a different discussion and decision than what we are talking about tonight.”

Braun made a second motion to cut the levy by an additional $500,000, which he said could be made up by modifying the employee benefit package. He said money could be taken from teacher , and he said employees' 8 percent health insurance contribution does not match the private sector, where employees pay as high as 26 percent for health insurance. He also took issue with an annual payment of $8,712 to each of the 79 employees who opt out of the district's health insurance plan because they are covered by their spouse's insurance plan.

Once the $200,000 levy cut was approved, Advocates for Education President Liz Sanders made a motion to lower the original levy by only $1,000. A motion to lower the tax levy must include a levy different from the amount proposed by the board.

“Two hundred thousand may seem like nothing, but it has a significant impact on the education of my children,” she said.

Sanders’ motion was approved with a 20-18 vote, reversing the 19-16 vote in favor of the levy cut. Residents called and texted friends and family members to come vote in support of Sanders’ motion, and other residents switched their vote after the discussion.

When Sanders' motion passed, another resident tried to seek a middle ground by voting for a roughly $119,000 cut in the proposed levy, but that vote failed in a 19-19 tie.

Now district administrators are tasked with coming up with an additional $1,000, which Yde said shouldn't be hard. Yde said he budgeted around a conservative state aid projection of $1.26 million, and the state could send as much as another $100,000 Whitefish Bay's way by the time the numbers are certified on Oct. 15.

Average homeowner pays $61 less in taxes

The district was already strapped for cash going into the budget cycle, facing a projected $1.26 million cut in state aid under a larger $800 million cut in school funding in Gov. Scott Walker's budget.

The School Board responded by in May that reduces the equivalent of 0.6 full-time employees. The state aid cuts were mainly offset by salary freezes, increased employee contributions to pension costs and health insurance plan design changes.

Under the levy and the budget adopted Wednesday night, the owner of a $400,000 home would see their annual school taxes drop $61 from last year. The tax levy dropped $273,000 this year from $21.5 million to $21,267,910.

The budget was also balanced due to increased revenue from higher enrollment. Yde said the district has seen steady growth in enrollment, increasing from 2,934 students in 2007 to 3,031 students this year.

“I’ve been here 19 years and that would be the highest enrollment in my time here,” Yde said.

Shorelander September 08, 2011 at 10:47 PM
I'm normally a proponent of school funding .. but I think they have seriously miscalculated here. $8,700 payments to employees who opt out of health insurance is an egregious item that was supposed to be fixed now that the union is no longer in charge. Same goes for 8% health insurance contribution, (if that's accurate from the story.) I usually defend the school board members, but I'm really disappointed here.

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