By Jennifer Eisenbart
Determined to be heard until the bitter end, at least one person who showed up at the Burlington Area School District School Board meeting Monday night was convinced none of the board members was listening.
“You people were put there to vote the people’s will,” said Dale Brusewitz. “Those kids aren’t going to suffer if teachers don’t get a 3.69 percent raise.”
Then, in a derisive tone, he added, “Are you people from this planet or what?”
His comments illustrate not only the frustration of certain residents who believe any tax increase in the current economy is wrong, but also the frustration of school district officials who’ve said they’re battling some opinions forged by misinformation.
In actuality, the 3.69 percent Brusewitz referred to is the amount of the property tax levy increase approved at the meeting – not teacher raises, which amounted to 1.7 percent in the 2011-12 district budget.
After allowing 30 minutes of public comments – almost all of which focused on the proposed tax levy increase – the board voted 6-0 to approve the 3.69 percent levy increase.
The seventh School Board member, President David Thompson, was not present at the meeting.
In total, the approved tax levy for 2011-12 is $20.4 million, up from $19.6 million last year. However, that number is not set in stone, as the district is still waiting for final student enrollment counts and a finalization of state aid.
“When we get our state aid number, our valuations and our student count for our final revenue cap, then we will have to certify a levy,” said BASD Business Administrator Peter Smet, who added that final number would likely be certified in mid-November.
In addition, the district will receive an added amount back onto the tax rolls when City of Burlington Tax Incremental Finance District No. 4 – the Burlington Manufacturing and Office Park – closes at the end of this year.
Officials estimate that windfall will reduce the levy increase to about 1.69 percent. That would cut the pending tax increase from about $35 per $100,000 of property value to just $16 per $100,000 of value.
The board also authorized its short-term borrowing in the amount of $6.3 million to cover expenses within the district until tax dollars come in.
Speakers decry increase
From the start of the public comments Monday night, it was clear that a large majority of those in attendance were the same that had joined the 153 votes against the proposed levy at the Aug. 29 annual meeting.
One speaker, John Fitzgerald, said that he felt a “cold fury” that the board had decided to disregard that vote.
He also expressed his frustration that the board wanted people to show up during the budget process, rather than protesting now.
“We have lives,” he said. “We’re busy.”
Another man accused the district of posting the wrong date for the meeting. He said the District’s website had it as Tuesday, Sept. 13, though a check of the website Monday night showed it posted as Monday.
He then lit into the board, saying, “the people who are paying the bills are tired of paying for it,” adding that it was ridiculous that taxes continued to be increased.
Jordan Debbink, a recent Burlington High School graduate, then wanted to know how it was the district had managed to save money this year when it hadn’t in years previous.
“I’ll answer it for you: the governor made you do it,” Debbink said.
Others expressed dissatisfaction that the board hadn’t required more of the teachers in terms of health insurance payments, and there was a general feeling that the board hadn’t done enough to prevent a tax increase.
The lone person to stand up in front of the board and criticize the large number of people claiming to be disenfranchised was Kim Peterson.
“The classes are larger, the hours are longer,” Peterson said. She then directly attacked Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, saying, “your governor cut this budget!
“I support this board. You can’t educate without spending.”
As she sat down, though, at least two people in the audience made derogatory comments toward her and her opinions.
The only other person who stood up in support of the board was district resident Susan Lane Cragg.
After working through a number of other items on the agenda (including approving donations from Music Matters and a number of private citizens to fund various school initiatives), the board came back to the issue of the tax levy.
Impact of cuts explained
One of the two no votes when the levy was recommended for general board approval on Sept. 1, Susan Kessler, wanted it clarified what the impact on the district would be if the board did not pass the levy increase.
Smet then explained again that the district would have to find a way to cut $724,000 in expenses this year, and the district would lose a $50 increase per student in state funding next year.
The district has also said it will face further funding cuts next year and will be facing a deficit that could be as much as $2.4 million.
Smet also explained what the tax levy increase would mean to taxpayers, including the numbers that would be lowered when TIF District No. 4 closes. He did stress, however, in light of numerous comments in previous meetings, that the increase is an average.
“Some people’s tax may go up, some people’s may go down,” Smet said. “We don’t know yet.”
After the board approved the tax levy increase, there was a chorus of boos from the opposition in the audience, as well as people shouting at the board.
When the meeting adjourned about 20 minutes later, many in the audience stayed to ask further questions – of board members, Smet and BASD Superintendent David Moyer.
Moyer commented Tuesday on the outcry that has now been voiced at three meetings.
“It’s part of the process,” Moyer said. “They feel they want to express their opinion. They want to know their opinion is out there.”
He did say it was frustrating to see the amount of incorrect information passing through the district. Among the false information being perpetuated in the community – such as the mistaken perception that teachers are receiving a 3.69 percent raise.
“What gets frustrating is when you hear people repeat or believe certain things to be true that are not,” Moyer said.