All four incumbent Johnsburg School District 12 board members are running for new terms in the April 6 election, but two new candidates, Kirk Donald and Fred Haller, think they could bring sharper eyes to the district’s budget and get it to a point where property tax levies could be kept flat or even lowered.
The four incumbents, school board President Tom Oeffling, and members Cathy Neiss, Steve Link and James Barrett, all want to remain on the board for another term and have banded their campaigns together to garner support for the entire group in hopes of doing so.
Specifically, the incumbents said they want to see through the payback of funds the district has borrowed using a short-term borrowing tool called tax anticipation warrants.
Oeffling said the district has been covering some costs with tax anticipation warrants every year since before he was elected to the board eight years ago, but the district has been working to close the gap between the district’s budget and revenues and made more progress than expected in paying back the loans.
When Oeffling was first elected, the district borrowed $7 million, he said, and experts the school system had consulted expected it wouldn’t be done borrowing for more than 20 years. Budget cuts since then, however, allowed the district to cut down on some borrowing sooner than expected.
In mid-March, the school board approved $2 million in tax anticipation warrants, and Barrett said it’s now projected the district may no longer need to borrow in that fashion in three more years.
“We’ve gone from roughly 30% of our spending is borrowed to where we’re now down to 8%. The budget has been flat for eight years. We’ve made a lot of really hard decisions. We had to cut positions, but we haven’t done it haphazardly, we’ve done it thoughtfully,” Oeffling said.
Donald, one of the challengers, said he would like to keep the district’s property tax levy flat, forgoing the annual increases allowed under tax law, and see the district require new hires live within the school system’s boundaries.
“That way our salary we pay them pays the property taxes when they buy a home in Johnsburg,” Donald said. “Nobody wants to give up the value of the education that D-12 is offering. However, I think it’s time not to focus on growth and focus on holding the levy flat for the residents of Johnsburg. The property taxes are just getting out of hand.”
Donald also took issue with Barrett running for both the school board and a trustee seat on the Johnsburg Village Board in the Tuesday election, saying he thinks it could lead to a conflict of interest for Barrett to hold both positions.
Barrett disagreed, saying he wants to serve the Johnsburg community in both capacities.
State law prohibits school board members from also serving as municipal board members, carving out an exception for towns with fewer than 2,500 residents. Johnsburg’s population is 6,337, according to the 2010 census.
Barrett dismissed suggestions by Haller that District 12 should offer more ways for students to explore careers in manufacturing and other hands-on trades and jobs young people can be qualified for right after high school.
The incumbents pointed to the program that allows students to gain commercial driver’s licenses and its partnerships with area businesses to give student business plans critiques, as well as programs that help teach manufacturing skills.
“I actually find that the opponents who are running against the four incumbents are a little out of touch with what’s currently in the school system,” Barrett said.
Haller pushed back by saying he thinks there could be not only classroom programs that emphasize skilled labor, but also a more robust set of extracurricular offerings that involved honing manufacturing and trade skills and performing, for example, repair work on small engines for local companies and residents.
Haller said he wants to make sure the district has enough revenue to pay off its expenses, but said his goal is to trim enough of the budget so that conversations about cutting the tax levy are feasible.
“It’s not a static number. The school has to pay its bills. Teachers have to get paid. The only way you’re going to be able to reduce the levy is through efficiency. ... I don’t see how it can’t make sense,” Haller said of cutting the levy.
Neiss, an incumbent school board member running for reelection and former principal of Ringwood Elementary School, said increasing tax levies by amounts allowed under the state law is a smart way to avoid being overexposed to potential state budgetary cuts to K-12 education.
“The common goal is, I do believe, the children. That’s why I think you can’t look at it just as a finance perspective, although it’s important. It really depends on the year. This is such an unusual year, we don’t know where the state is going to be financially,” Neiss said.
Link, also an incumbent, said his goal is also to move the district into a financial position where a cut to the tax levy is worth considering, but feels the current board has already removed all excess spending.
“There is not much else we can strip out,” Link said. “We’ve shown a consistent focus for being responsible with tax dollars and also providing education that is second to none. I think that type of track record deserves the opportunity to continue that momentum forward in the future.”