Sunday, October 6, 2013

Annual Meeting Hijacked...$429,000 added to the Tax Levy

It’s not about the decision; it’s about the process.

On Monday September 30th, 2013, the Sun Prairie Area School District held its annual electors meeting.  In a district with over 7500 students and 30,000 or more registered voters, decisions were made by less than 150 people.  More than 10 times as many people voted for 3 school board members last April that were running unopposed.  Now, that number is not atypical.  But that’s part of the problem.  The process doesn’t work.

At this meeting, a group of residents essentially “hijacked” the annual meeting to force a reduction in busing distances at the high school and middle school levels to 1.5 miles.  The vote for the middle school change passed by about 40 votes.  The vote for the high school passed by only 7 votes.  SEVEN!  The 2013 decision added an additional $429,000 to the tax levy.  That’s a 33% increase over the proposed levy increase.   It’s also more than a $9,000 increase in the tax levy for each of those deciding 47 votes.

Before going any further, let’s just nip the “tit-for-tat” argument firmly in the bud.  The special interest group behind the busing change cited an action back in 2009 wherein a larger turnout of residents (184 voting 124-60) voted to reduce the tax levy by about $2M.  That move, however, was vindicated when the school district ended the year with almost $1M in surplus!  So ended the long-term practice of over-budgeting as a means of funding reserves.  The people behind this year’s vote were all about their own children.  Don’t kid yourselves that they were doing this for all kids.  It just aint so, Joe.  And let those without sins not be the ones casting stones.

The special interest group spoke about safety and the value of our kids’ lives.  They raised the spectre of child predators lurking along Highway 19.  Newsflash, people.  These predators generally don’t operate in heavily trafficked areas.  The kids that are at risk for predators are those walking alone on empty side streets…not major thoroughfares.

Regarding safety, it’s funny that the state, after several reviews, has not deemed the path an unusually hazardous area.  As further proof of their self-serving agenda, one gentleman asked that elementary school busing distances also be reduced.  The spokesperson indicated that the idea had some support within their ranks, but they needed to focus on their needs first.  Funny how after the vote went their way, they forgot about that guy.

Who says it ends here?  Next year, will another 150 people come to change the busing from distances down to a mile?  A half-mile?  How about, since we’re so concerned about the safety of our children, that we bus each and every single child in the district?  What would it cost to bus all 7500 kids to and fro each day?  A whole lot more than a couple of large pizzas each month.  Who’d want to live in a district with property taxes that high?
Or what happens if 200 angry senior citizens turn out next year to change the distances back to 2.0 miles?  Remember, folks, there are more electors living in the district WITHOUT K-12 age children than those with children.   

What happens when Kobussen has to purchase a whole bunch of new buses to meet the needs of this year’s decision only to have that decision subsequently rescinded?  But we’re not thinking of consequences of our decisions, are we?  What does that teach our kids?
Yes, transportation is one of the “powers” (s. 120.10, Wis. Stats.) of the annual meeting, but let’s stop being smugly disingenuous.  More than 99% of the community doesn’t even attend the meeting (or even know about it), let alone understand that a vote of such significant property tax ramifications could be made by less than 150 people.

And what happens when the district wants the taxpayers to vote—likely within the next year— to build an 8th elementary school?  Is that when we’ll hear the rebuttal of folks that did not attend the annual meeting?   Will they resoundingly vote down a new school in light of the increased taxes from busing distance changes?  Can these same parents then live with larger class sizes?  Can you say “ramifications”, boys and girls?

The problem here is not the desires of this special interest group.  Rather it’s the process.  The statutes simply afford too much power (I know, right?  Who would ever believe we could wield too much power?).  The annual electors meeting needs to be modified to assure that votes of this importance not be made by such a small percentage of the electorate.

We need a mulligan, here.   We need a mechanism to ensure that issues of this significance are communicated clearly and unequivocally to the entire community.  We need people to have all the key information associated with their decisions, including costs involved and any ramifications.  Then we need to reach out and ensure that all voters take as much interest in casting their vote as they will for the next gubernatorial election.   

Changing the process itself is going to be a task of Sisyphusian proportions.  But there is an option.  State statute allows any member of the community who collects 100 signatures to demand a special elector’s meeting for any subject within the powers of the annual meeting—like busing.  Alternatively, the school board has the power to call such a meeting themselves.   As Captain Picard would say, “Number One…make it so”.