Residents bicker over potnetial levy increase for New Berlin scjools; eventually the proposal is app

Aug. 29, 2014

New Berlin — The annual meeting of the New Berlin schools was a tug-of-war between those who objected to the proposed 3.78 percent levy increase and those who said good schools result in good home-sale prices.

Ultimately, residents at last week's meeting approved the nearly $49.3 million levy for the 2014-15 school year on a vote of 28 to 16.

More than 40 residents attended the annual meeting held in the New Berlin West Middle/High School auditorium.

Those opposing the levy said a 3.78 percent levy increase was too high as was the school's debt.

"This is the highest tax levy ever levied," said Keith Heun, a former New Berlin School Board president. "Three point seven-eight percent is outrageous."

But those speaking for the levy said a laser focus on tax dollars is short-sighted. Schools in good condition that are competitive with schools in other communities are needed to keep up property values, some attendees argued.

"Are we taking that gun-to-the-head approach and forcing administrators into making decisions they wouldn't otherwise make?" asked Scott Jentsch of Karrington Lane. Operating on a shoestring doesn't lead to intelligent decisions, sometimes, he said.

Property values are more important than taxes, said Bill Adams. "Property values count."

The board will certify the final levy when state aid and enrollment numbers are known later this fall.

Total spending will be $61.9 million, not counting capital projects. The total is up 2.2 percent from last year. The general fund, regarded as the operating budget, will rise 1.9 percent.

The district compares spending without capital projects for a more meaningful comparison. But with capital projects included, next year's total spending will be $69 million which is down nearly 3 percent from last year.

The district's debt stands at nearly $56.3 million and the district pays $4.9 million per year to pay it off. Because most of the money comes from the operating budget, the debt payments sop up dollars that could be used to meet educational needs, said Roger Dickson, district chief finance and operations officer.

Most of the debt comes from building Ronald Reagan Elementary School and remodeling and expanding New Berlin West Middle/High School and Poplar Creek Elementary School, he said.

The issue of whether school employees should have to pay toward their health insurance also became a battle ground at the annual meeting.

Unlike some other school districts, New Berlin elected not to make its employees pay toward their health insurance when the newly enacted state Act 10 enabled them to do so.

Dickson said, "We don't believe that we can do any more cost shifting to the employees."

New Berlin is already losing highly effective teachers to other school districts because of New Berlin's cost structure, he said. And that is toxic.

"The only important thing is putting highly effective teachers in front of every student," Dickson said.

That view had support at the meeting.

"We're losing good teachers," said parent Mary Jo Szydel-Laeuger of Foxwood Court. "My fear is that it's just a matter of time before that education starts to drop."

Instead of hitting employees with health insurance payments costs are being shifted to them through a redesigned health insurance program that also results in a drastic overall savings, Dickson said.

"We did the cost shifting to the employees through the program design and it was very strategic," he said.

The overall savings are coming because employees must pay toward services. So, there is an incentive to ask doctors if expensive procedures are needed, if there are alternatives and whether generic instead of name-brand drugs could be prescribed, Dickson said.

"So, we did it in a way that we think gave us savings for a much longer period of time than hitting everybody with 12 percent because that was the popular thing to do," he said.

But Heun countered that private sector workers not only have to pay for a portion of their health care service, but also 25 to 35 percent of health insurance premiums.

"So, it's very different what's going on in the school district than what's going on in the real world," Heun said.


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